leyning and crying

This is the d’var Torah that I gave this morning at Hebrew College on the occasion of celebrating a siyyum of sorts, the Torah that I have read the last six years in rabbinical school.

I’m so glad to see all of you here this morning, and I’m grateful for your presence. I am throwing myself this siyyum to celebrate the Torah reading that I’ve done since I started rabbinical school.

I didn’t know how to chant Torah when I started rabbinical school. Let’s be honest, I barely knew Hebrew at the beginning of rabbinical school. So my first bit of thanks should go to Rabbi Daniel Klein for taking a chance on me.

I enrolled in Cantillation my Mekorot year with Cantor Louise Treitman. I was terrified to have to do the singing aloud that the class required. I didn’t know how to learn music. I couldn’t keep the trope sounds or names in my head long enough to practice. But somehow I made it work. And so I first read Torah in this space on Rosh Hodesh Iyyar five years ago, the second aliyah, along with other members of my class. I think the feeling of standing here that morning has long since been eclipsed by the hundreds of times I’ve since stood here but that morning something grabbed me. And I grabbed back. I became one of the מַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ.

For the past five years, I’ve leyned almost every Shabbat. During the school year, I’ve tried to do the same here as often as I could on Monday and Thursday. I feel confident that I can chant any part of any parshah, and I feel confident that someday I will chant every part of every parshah. But I learned from experts, and I read alongside experts. I’m no expert. I still sometimes forget trope, misremember vowels, mispronounce consonants. I still find myself up at an amud with shaky knees.

But over these past five years, something has happened, and that something is that I’ve gotten better.

Part of getting better is knowing how to practice. I now know how to learn an aliyah: I know how much time I need, and how to split up that time. I know where and when to practice. And I know that practice, and more practice, and more still practice, is the only way to continue getting better.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claims that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” It’s not a sufficient condition for success, he emphasizes. His point is that that even natural ability takes an enormous amount of time to be made manifest. If I had to guess I’d say I’m probably at about 1/5 of that, maybe 2,000 hours over the past five years.

Where has that gotten me? I can start with statistically, because I’ve kept track, in a spreadsheet, of every verse of Torah I’ve read. To date, since April 2013, I’ve read 63.5% of Torah: 79% of Bereshit; 75% of Shemot; 52% of Vayikra; 38% of Bemidbar; and 69% of Devarim. I’ve read something from all but three parshiyot (Behar, Bechukotai, and Beha’alotcha), and I have a plan to remedy that before ordination.

Ironically, I haven’t leyned any of Genesis 14, the subject of my Capstone and a good 24 verses that I practically know by heart by now.

I’ve read all of Vayeira, Chayei Sarah, Mikeitz, Yitro, Ki Tisa, Vayakhel, Pekudei, Tazria, Acharei Mot, Vayeilech, Ha’azinu, V’Zot HaBracha and Ki Teitzei. Yes, I have leyned all of Ki Teitzei, the parshah I’ve been telling anyone who will listen how much I dislike.

A few years back Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a short piece in The Atlantic: “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things.” He talks about the experience of learning French as an adult: He doesn’t believe in fluency, he says, but he believes in getting better. He says, “There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.

But getting better, he notes, is really about getting better at stumbling. And for me, stumbling when reading Torah takes a lot of different forms.

10269515_10203449167287766_4003875064976983340_nOne of the most painful experiences I’ve had reading Torah was a few years ago, here, on Yom HaShoah. We were reading the weekday section of Emor. I got to the line

.וּבַת אִישׁ כֹּהֵן כִּי תֵחֵל לִזְנוֹת–אֶת-אָבִיהָ הִיא מְחַלֶּלֶת בָּאֵשׁ תִּשָּׂרֵף (Vayikra 21:9)

And I just started crying; it was just a ghastly line to be reading that day or any day, really. And I don’t think the coincidence even occurred to me as I practiced. It was only as I was up here, at this amud, in front of the scroll. In that moment I was overwhelmed with anger at Torah. I felt physically ill. I felt helpless, imprisoned by the unfeeling cycle of the weekly parshiyot that have been chanted for generations with the same regularity since Ezra instituted public Torah reading.

It’s Yom HaShoah, I thought, and I just made it possible for everyone to hear the Torah’s directive to burn a woman to death.

I wish that I had stopped and taken a few moments to compose myself, but after a brief pause I just kept reading, tears streaming and my voice catching. Some of you were in the beit midrash that day, and many of you realized what was happening. But at least one person in the room had no clue, and that person was one of the gabba’im. He just kept staring at me, blinking uncomprehendingly and incredulously as I warbled through the end of the aliyah. I think he thought I was crying because I was doing a poor job of leyning.

And to be fair, I have done exactly that. The worst was Shabbat Ki Tavo four years ago, when I was reading all 63 verses of the sixth aliyah: the tribes, divided between Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, shouting back and forth. It was my first paid gig at this synagogue. And my mind just went blank; I could hardly remember anything: not the words, not the trope. Total disaster. It was brutal. The balm for that morning, however, was one of the elderly congregants who came up to me afterwards and said, “I totally understand what happened. It was all of those curses! You are so sensitive that it was hard for you say them!” (The congregation was kind enough to give me another chance, and I continued leyning for them regularly on Shabbat for about a year.)

And as Rabbi Victor Reinstein and a few of the Nehar Shalom-niks that are here know, each year I cry leyning on Simchat Torah, my favorite holiday (obviously). I always read the end of Devarim, and I have to pause and let the tears flow for just a moment when I get to the line:

.’וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד-ה’, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב–עַל-פִּי ה (Devarim 34:5)

As conflicted as I am about Moshe as a leader, by the fall each year he’s become a good friend, and I mourn his death and the fact that he won’t get to see his life’s work completed.

In thinking about what I wanted to share today, I didn’t expect that so many of my stories would center around the gut-wrenching emotional side of leyning. And there are many other stories. But I think what I shared today makes sense for where we are in Torah right now, parshat Shemini.

It’s traditionally understood that this parshah contains, by words, the center of the Torah, the space between the two words דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ (Vayikra 10:16). “He diligently inquired . . .” In other words, דָּרֹשׁ ends the first half of Torah, and דָּרַשׁ starts the second half. In many scrolls, דָּרֹשׁ also ends a line, while דָּרַשׁ begins the next one. The Chida says:

This means – when you have expounded (darosh) the Torah to the point that you think you have exhausted all its meaning, and you think that you are at the very end of the line – not the line of layout, but the line of enquiry and scholarship – you should realize that you are really only expounding the beginning of the line.

The work continues; there is always more to say.

But I learned Vayikra from Rabbi Nehemia Polen, so I want to talk about a slightly different center of Torah. The chapter in which the words דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ appear begins with the death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu in a devouring fire. דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ is what Moshe does when he checks the offerings and discovers that Aharon and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, didn’t eat the sin offering that was meant to expiate the people. Moshe flunks his pastoral counseling class as he angrily confronts Aharon for not doing what he was meant to.

A grieving parent, Aharon responds. What, today, did God want me to eat the sin offering?

Nehemia says, what Aharon means is, My heart is broken, and I didn’t agree to stop being a human being when I became high priest.

And Moshe has no response. How can he? Aharon is right.

Nehemia points out that it’s the way of priests to put the most important things in the middle. It’s true of the mishkan, it’s true of the temple, and it’s true of the P source. What happens here in this exchange is the heart of Torah. And it’s about the human heart. There are times when it breaks wide open, and we have to attend to it even amidst our most sacred rituals.

Vayikra is about the intimacy we create and maintain with God, and about what the presence of God on earth requires of us. And right in the middle of that, in parshat Shemini, we’re told that relationship with the divine means that we should never stop acting with our hearts.

For me, this has meant that I have learned as much from the technical reading of Torah as I have from what has emerged in that process.

To end, I want to thank a few people specifically. Cantor Louise Treitman, first and foremost, as I mentioned before, my principal teacher of trope. To whatever extent I am good at this, it is because of her. (All failings are my own.) I’d also like include many other cantors and cantorial students and faculty. Cantors are the holy transmitters of sacred Jewish music, and it has been cantors who have been generous with their time and patience to help me learn to read many of our most precious texts: I’m thinking specifically of Cantors Risa Wallach, Lynn Torgove, Vera Broekhuysen, Hinda Labovitz, Sarah Bolts, and Aliza Berger.

I also want to especially thank Rabbi Shayna Rhodes, who was a never-ending source of encouragement. In true Shayna fashion, one of the ways that she was helpful was to criticize. As Ebn had done for her, she would correct all mistakes in my reading not just the ones that were technically correctable mistakes. I am a better reader of Torah because of her.

Thank you to Sigalit Davis and to Harvey Bock, for making me learn Hebrew grammar and pronunciation so well.

Thank you to Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Nehar Shalom, my spiritual home for the past five years. He created and nurtured a community of practicers in so many senses of that word. For years, I got up and read Torah nearly every Shabbat, and no one there made me feel anything but appreciated for my efforts.

Thank you to my classmates, the best people I know, and the ones who have supported me through everything, including this maniacal quest, these past six years.

And thank you to all of you, the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Many of you have sat patiently through some pretty questionable leyning over the years.

I am sorry that Rabbi Ebn Leader can’t be here today, but I want to share what part of what he wrote to me from Israel. “The Torah is eternal, but heaven forbid, she could also be eternally dead . . . It is the breath of those who read her words that give her life with which she can then continue through eternity. It is in the communal ritual of reading Torah, listening to it through each other’s voices, that we express our commitment to this ongoing process of giving life to Torah. Perhaps this is the meaning of חיי עולם נטע בתוכנו. God has planted within us the capacity to give life to that which is eternal. And through this of course, both sides, we and Torah, develop in wonderful and unexpected ways . . .”

May it ever be so, and may we strive to make true the words that we sing at the end of our ritual reading of Torah, the anthem of spiritual practice. הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה.

Thank you shavua tov, and chag sameach!

columns of consonants

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Practice reading Torah. Read Torah. Practice reading Torah. Read Torah. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat again.

This is how I’ve been spending a good deal of my time this summer, as I mentioned in a previous post. We’ve held a once-a-week summer minyan at Hebrew College on Thursday mornings, one of the weekdays on which Torah is read. And I’ve leyned (read Torah) every week there since the end of May. I’ve also read four times on Shabbat at Nehar Shalom, the community synagogue in our new neighborhood.

I’ve loved reading Torah ever since I first did so at my bat mitzvah a little more than a year ago. I was part of an adult b’nai mitzvah class, and we each read three or four verses. One of my classmates dropped out towards the end, so I read her part as well — a whopping seven verses! And I worked on those seven verses for about four months.

A few weeks ago I read for the fourth time this summer at Nehar, and I was the only reader — for a total of 30 verses. (Nehar follows a triennial cycle of Torah reading, meaning that, like many other congregations, only a third of the weekly parshah is read each week.) I learned those in under a week. Same thing yesterday: The weekday portion for parshah Eikev is unusually long — 25 verses — and I learned those in about a week, too.

I’m proud of this progress — most of which has been achieved in the past two months by just forcing myself to volunteer. Both the minyans I’ve been reading at this summer use a Google doc for sign-ups, and it’s amazing how indelible it feels to type your name in a shared, editable web document, in a field marked “aliyah 1.”

Indeed, it has been one of my goals this summer to improve my Torah reading skills. This past year I took an entire class on Cantillation, the art of the ritual chanting of Torah, and it’s a bit of a complicated process. The class focused mainly on learning the melodies associated with each trope mark, as well as the technical skills needed to be able to learn a section of Torah for ritual reading.

A printed book of the Torah in the original Hebrew — one used for studying — has vowels, as well as other symbols (called trope marks) above and below the letters that aid in pronunciation and indicate the proscribed melody. But a Torah scroll, what is used in services for the ritual reading, has none of those; it’s column after column of Hebrew consonants, sometimes without spaces between words. Oftentimes a single letter will be elongated in order to make the columns both left- and right-justified. And some of the letters also have adornments, tiny crowns that seem to sprout from their tops. It’s fair to say that all of this presents something of a challenge for the novice Torah reader.

When learning a part of Torah for ritual reading, I use Trope Trainer, which I can’t recommend enough. Depending on how the program is used, it can practically do the work for you, or be just a helpful tool. It gives the dates of each parshah, and you can open just the reading for a particular day, customized by whether you’re in Israel or the Diaspora and whether you follow the triennial or the yearly cycle. Then you can choose melody, voice, and accent. An electronic voice will sing the whole thing for you — or just a word, a phrase, or a verse. (I now only use this feature to double-check the melody of an unusual trope combination.) It identifies each trope mark, transliterates each word, and indicates the syllabic accent. It provides translation and sheet music. It indicates all k’rey, or words that are read differently than how they are spelled in the scroll. What I like most is the export feature, which creates a PDF of the reading, with or without vowels and trope marks.

statges of learning torah reading; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

stages of learning torah reading; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

So: I start by printing the reading with vowels and trope marks; then I highlight the text with various colors that correspond to the different trope mark families (so that the same melodies are the same color). I read the text to fluency and make sure I understand what it means. Then I practice singing, using the highlighted text. I usually practice about 20-30 minutes at a time, until I start making a bunch of mistakes, and then I stop and take a break. A little while later, I practice again.

More than any other skill I’ve worked to master, chanting Torah is a marathon. You just can’t cram. The words and the melody have to have a chance to make “tracks” in your brain, as one teacher explained to me. So I practice, take a break, practice, take a break.

Finally, at least a day before I am scheduled to leyn, I begin practicing from the plain, Torah-scroll-like text. I see what I remember, and I check the highlighted version if I’m not sure. I create mnemonic devices to help me remember the vowels of unusual words and the order of melodies. I practice, take a break, practice, take a break.

On the days I’ve read at school, I’ve been able to come in early and take out the Torah scroll and practice a time or two again from the scroll itself. After a few times stumbling through a reading that I thought I knew cold, I realized that the lettering of the scroll was tripping me up (a phenomenon that I hope will lessen over time, with more practice). Looking at the actual text — being able to see which letters and words in the scroll look different from the typeset — has helped enormously.

I’m particularly proud of my skill at finding my place in the scroll: I used to think that I’d never be able to find the beginning of the parshah in the sea of Hebrew letters, but I’ve actually gotten pretty good at it. This rabbi thing just might work out.

born jewish . . . to baptist parents

Although most people who know me know that I’m a convert, it’s not an assumption that people I meet make. At least as far as I know. And based on the experience of other converts, those who aren’t able to pass, I probably would know.

A friend who is a rabbinical student of Irish descent has written about her frustration with the questioning of her identity because of her appearance (as well as other challenges of being a convert). Another friend — a black rabbinical student — can’t escape the questions; she posts on Facebook almost daily about the explanations she is constantly asked to give.

in the balcony of sixth & i, shortly after i converted; photo by mark gail

in the balcony of sixth & i, shortly after i converted; photo by mark gail

Though I am always honest about my background, I don’t always volunteer the information. Sometimes I just simply answer negatively when asked if I went to Jewish day school or grew up in an observant Jewish home (usually questions asked about my journey to rabbinical school). And sometimes, I am downright relieved when I pass. As a fellow convert classmate and I have talked about, it can be exhausting having to tell “the story of my conversion” to everyone I meet, as well-meaning as they almost always are. Especially at Shabbat meals, the conversation often becomes all about me — and then I don’t really get to learn about other people, or just to talk about what we have in common. I enjoy the privilege I have in being able to pass.

I make my own assumptions about converts as well; that is, I always assume I’m the only convert around. I am generally pretty surprised when I find out that someone else is, too. Besides my classmate, there are two other converts (who I know of) at my school, neither one of which I would have thought were converts. In fact, the first time I met one of them, I irrationally worried — based on his appearance (peyottzitzitkippah) — that he was an Orthodox Jew who might not consider me Jewish.

The denominations don’t agree on much, but respect for converts is near universal (as long as the conversion as recognized by that denomination — which is another conversation). Once a person converts, it is as if that person has always been Jewish. So technically, I am simply a Jew — not a convert. I love this response, which I modified from an article about how to deal with negative reactions to converts: “Yes, I was born Jewish, but to Baptist parents.”

I do struggle how much of my identity is that of a convert. I’m as Jewish as anyone else — but I am who I am because of my upbringing, and I don’t want to discount that. So I go back to the mikveh each year on the anniversary of my conversion; this year I also asked for an aliyah (the honor to say blessings before and after part of a Torah reading) to celebrate the third anniversary of my conversion, shortly before the high holidays in 2009.

In the past week, two people have made insensitive comments about converts in my presence. Both are good people, and I know neither meant any harm. The comments stung nevertheless. It was strange that both happened within a few days of each other — especially since it’s been a really long time since I have heard any such comments.

In fact, Hebrew College has been one of the safest places I’ve ever been in terms of feeling authentically Jewish. I imagine that most students and faculty know that I’m a convert, but not a single person has ever made so much as an insensitive comment about my status. I suspect my school may be a bubble in this respect though. I have wondered whether, for instance, my status might affect my job prospects.

conversion certificate; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

conversion certificate with my Hebrew name (רחל בת אברהם ושרה — Rachel daughter of Abraham and Sarah); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

One of my fellow converts didn’t even realize I was a convert until he saw me come up to the Torah for an aliyah; the gabbai (person conducting the Torah service) calls up people so honored with their Hebrew name — and those of their parents. Since converts’ parents don’t have Hebrew names, they are ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah (“son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah”). It’s really the only place in Jewish ritual life where converts are marked as such (though it is possible that a born-Jew could have parents whose Hebrew names are Avraham and Sarah). I’m not sure how I feel about this singularity.

He and I have talked about our experience developing our tefila skills in the school community. We both agreed that we feel very comfortable practicing and learning; we know that we can make mistakes without judgment. But this perception is not shared by everyone at school: There are some who do fear the judgment of those around them. I am not sure on what experiences that fear is based. But we’ve wondered whether our experiences as converts — not growing up in the organized Jewish community — has given us some immunity from that fear.

For another time: the story of my conversion process, which I don’t think I’ve told here in any detail. For now: I don’t have a strong opinion on the nomenclature “convert” versus “Jew-by-choice.” You?

summer!

Well, I’ve been gone so long that in my absence WordPress updated its blogger interface! The change is nice, by the way.

Since I last posted at the beginning of May, I have done the following:

finished my first year of rabbinical school (passing all of my courses!);

end-of-year "mekorot" class cake (First years got "R"; second years, "Ra", etc. Those graduating got "Rabbi".); photo by salem pearce via instagram

end-of-year “mekorot” class cake (first years got “R”; second years, “Ra”, etc. those graduating got “Rabbi”.); photo by salem pearce via instagram

moved from Brookline to Jamaica Plain (the balcony alone in our new place made the pain of moving worth it);

new home; photo by salem pearce via instagram

new home; photo by salem pearce via instagram

read two books (and half of two others);

went to D.C. for 24 hours for Elissa Froman‘s memorial service (you can see the video here);

popsicle stick craft project at froman's memorial: write a word, phrase, or design that reminds you of Elissa; photo by salem pearce via instagram

popsicle stick craft project at froman’s memorial: write a word, phrase, or design that reminds you of elissa; photo by salem pearce via instagram

began studying Torah three days a week with one classmate and Psalms two days a week with another;

had visits from both my husband’s parents and my parents, as well as two friends from D.C.;

mike's canolli: the best reason for out-of-town visitors; photo by salem pearce via instagram

mike’s cannoli: the best reason for out-of-town visitors; photo by salem pearce via instagram

started a volunteer position with the National Havurah Institute as its fundraising coordinator;

practiced leyning Torah (I’ve read on Shabbat twice and on Thursday morning five times);

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

and gotten lost running in Franklin Park, the green space near our new home, three times.

dear diary

Yesterday one of the Hebrew teachers at school sent a notice to the community email list about a missing item, “a clear plastic bag containing a small brown leather-covered diary.” Fortunately, he was able to email the list a few hours later to let us know that he had found it.

He teaches Biblical and rabbinic Hebrew (I’ll have him next year for Hebrew 7 and 8), and he is, simply, an expert. As my Mishnah teacher says, “If we don’t know about a Hebrew word, we ask –, and if he doesn’t know, then no one knows.” What makes this all the more amazing is that teaching Hebrew is his second career: He spent more than 20 years as a lawyer specializing in banking regulation.

In response to this email, one of my classmates, who is at home for now with his new baby, responded to the list: “Maybe it’s the sleep-deprivation, but –‘s email about his lost diary sent my mind wandering: What gems might be found in the diary of –?” His imaginings follow.

I’m not sure if they will translate well to a non-rabbinical school audience. But I share them because they were funny to my class, which is having a rather hard time coalescing as a cohort. Our class dynamic is strained, to say the least, and there are several differing strong personalities. We’ve spent the last month at our weekly class meetings talking about who we are as learners, just to try to clarify expectations for how we each want our classes to go. We haven’t even been able to arrive at a general agreement about how to structure our class meeting time. In short, we are deeply in the “storming” stage of group development. It’s been difficult and quite frankly, for me one of the most stressful aspects of my experience in rabbinical school so far.

But today after class meeting, right when the email arrived, we just sat around the table and laughed. It gave me hope for our future as a class.

(Oh, and the diary in question actually belonged to the teacher’s grandfather, during his U.S. Army service in World War I.)

_______________________________________
Dear Diary,

Another day, another student mistaking the cohortative for the jussive. (Shoot me!) These youngsters wouldn’t know a verbal noun if it was giving them a neck message during community time. But, Diary, they do try.

“–, is this aphel?”
“No, it’s pe’al.”

“Oh, –, is this itpa’el in the first person plural?”
“No, that’s just nitpa’el.”

“–, is that the number 3?”
“No, that’s a bet in Rashi script.”

I need a drink.

Yours,

_______________________________________
Dear Diary,

I’ve had it! Yet again a student has alluded to me curling up at night with Jastrow. True, I do have a love of all things grammatical, but that doesn’t mean that’s all that I love. I also love linguistics and Near-Eastern-religious-history and Sasanian pop-culture. I won’t be pigeon-holed. It just so happens that last night I curled up with an article on the relationship between the rabbinic idiom “af al pi” and the Akkadian god of indigestion “Afalpian.” When I finished the article, I watched “Dancing With the Stars.” So there!

_______________________________________
Dear Diary,

What a glorious day! I have reached new highs in my pronunciation of the gutteral ayin sound. The throatiness, the hollowness, the sound of a choking animal — it’s all there. Perhaps my career trajectory will hold true: high-powered-attorney-turned-rabbinical-school grammar-guru-turned-Israeli radio-announcer. It’s all falling into place!

Lovingly,

through the looking-glass

I made it.

!ברך אתה יי אלחינו מלך העולם שהחינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה

Summer classes ended yesterday, and I passed Hebrew 4, as my teacher told me this morning. She asked me to meet with her the day after the final because I panicked during it and couldn’t quite finish. We talked through the text together, and then she gave me opportunity to answer the questions I hadn’t gotten to. This is just one of the ways in which she is a great teacher.

It was disappointing to leave the last class feeling completely frustrated by my performance (although there was also an odd symmetry to having the last class end in the same way the first class did). But yesterday was not at all indicative of my experience in the second four-week class. I got an A- on my midterm, and almost everyday the teacher told me that my homework was “superb.” I felt relaxed in class, and I even made Hebrew jokes (dorkiness acknowledged). Perhaps most importantly, I feel prepared for Hebrew 5, which begins in just a few short weeks, since I will continue with the same teacher. In fact, I pity my future classmates, the ones who did not share with me in the experience of this summer, because they have no idea what they’re in for. She is fair but tough, and I am so glad that I now know what to expect from her class.

Recalling the anxiety, fear, and complete incompetence that I felt during the first course (Hebrew 3), I can still feel the knot in the pit of my stomach that I had almost every day. In this case, ignorance served me well, as I don’t know that I could have knowingly put myself in this situation. (Well, one type of ignorance served me well: I certainly wouldn’t have minded actually knowing more Hebrew before the start of the class.) But as the cliché goes, I am stronger for this experience.

One of the highlights of the summer was the minyan on Wednesday mornings. Two upperclassmen started it, and we had a consistent if small showing each week, a mix of faculty and students who were still in Boston this summer. I loved starting those days with prayer, quiet, reflection, and meditation. It’s not a surprise that I enjoy davening, but it has been a bit of surprise to me how much I’ve loved it. While I enjoy praying on Shabbat, I haven’t had a more regular prayer practice until now. Even when I was facing the possibility of more sleep, I went to minyan anyway, and I was always glad that I did. I felt calmer and more centered — and so ultimately more ready for class on Wednesdays. Various people led the morning service, and the different selections, melodies, and readings made what can become rote into a new experience each time. This is an intentional prayer community, and I am excited to do this regularly in the school year.

Peeps supervises midterm studying; photo by joe grossberg

I have learned more Hebrew in the past two months than I have in the previous two years, when I started studying seriously to be able to enter the rabbinate. I unearthed all of the skills that I developed in college (most of which were based on already having a good grasp on the material) — and learned new ones (based on generally not knowing what the hell is going on). I also got a glimpse of some of what I might be able to expect of myself as an older student, especially in contrast to the other students in my class, all of whom are 7-10 years younger than I am. First and last days notwithstanding, I felt like I generally panicked less and apologized less, trusting that the instructor would both see my effort and know where I was developmentally, as a good teacher does. And she is an excellent educator.

I also realized the difference between a class taken simply to fulfill a requirement, or even to learn something interesting, and one that is the basis of vocational calling. My success in this class is vital to my future as a rabbi, and I had to be mindful not to let my frustration and anxiety about my limitations become dislike of Hebrew, while still giving myself permission to count down the days and be glad that this intensive Hebrew experience is over. A two-hour Hebrew class three times a week is going to feel like a breeze after this summer!

Orientation starts a week from Sunday. Bring it on.

life unrecognizable

Last night I dreamed that I blogged here, so I’m taking the fact that I didn’t conjugate Hebrew verbs in my sleep as a sign that it is time to write again.

Since I last posted (excluding my d’var torah, which wasn’t written for this site), I left my job, celebrated my bat mitzvah, said goodbye to my D.C. life of seven years, moved to Boston (or Brookline, or Chestnut Hill, or West Roxbury, depending on whom you ask), attended my brother-in-law’s wedding in Mexico, and started the first of two intensive Hebrew courses this summer.

Please excuse the completely unoriginal observation that moving, particularly to a new city, is one of the hardest events in the life cycle. My life has indeed become almost unrecognizable to me: I feel so little connection to who and where I was just a month ago, were it not for the anchor of my husband and my cats, I might be convinced that I had landed in an alternate universe. I don’t remember feeling this way (at least not as intensely) when I last uprooted myself and moved from Raleigh to D.C. And I can’t even think about my past life. As I hung my print of Washington, D.C., neighborhoods the other night, I almost started crying as I read the names of the places I know and love — places that seem so familiar and so far away.

The main issue here is, I think, the class. I am taking Hebrew 3 (and next, Hebrew 4) to be ready to take Hebrew 5 in the fall as part of the Mekorot curriculum (the preparatory year at Hebrew College). Four days a week, it’s four-and-a-half hours a day, with perhaps two 5 or 10 minute breaks, and with eight hours of homework each night. I’ve studied many languages, and more than one intensively, but I’ve never had an experience like this.

I’ve done almost nothing but go to class and study for the past three weeks. In the afternoons and evenings, I look at the clock and decide when my next break will be, and I actually look forward to taking 15 minutes to unpack a box or call the pharmacy (that’s what I do for fun these days). I work until midnight or beyond and then get up at 6:00 a.m. to run, shower, and then head to class. I’m not eating much. Joe works from home for now, and even though we’re in the same space more than we’ve ever been, we barely spend time together. My rabbi called last week before she left for Israel for the summer, and my first thought was, “It’s good that she’s leaving the country tomorrow; the phone call can’t last too long.” When today’s holiday was announced, I wondered, “Do we celebrate the Fourth of July here, in this land of never-ending Hebrew?”

Part of the academic struggle is my inadequate preparation: My two years of classical Hebrew and then working my own way through the Hebrew 1 and 2 book did not ready me for this particular class. It is some consolation that none of my classmates seem adequately prepared for the class. Two others have a classical background and are similarly struggling with vocabulary and speaking, while the two who completed traditional modern Hebrew courses are struggling with grammar. I’ve been playing catch-up since day one, and that’s an unpleasant and unfamiliar feeling.

I’m used to being a “good student” in the most conventional way: In previous language classes I’ve understood grammar, learned vocabulary, read texts, absorbed nuances of pronunciation — and all easily. Learning languages, I would have said, is a joy and a strength. I don’t think I realized what an amazing gift that was: The rug has now been not pulled, but jerked, out from under me.

What I am expected to digest and to produce isn’t manageable. I can only figure out some of what I should be working on to improve my skills, and even if I could determine my weaknesses, I would haven’t time to work on them. I make innumerable, embarrassing mistakes because my brain has become Hebrew mush, and right now I can’t even do correctly what I already know. Each morning as I walk into class I wonder if I’ll be able to do what’s asked of me, and sometimes I’m not. The water is at my nose, and I’m struggling to keep my head above it.

So I’m learning how to be a “good student” in a different way. I complete all of the assignments; I make myself say something even though I know my mangled Hebrew must cause my Israeli teacher’s ears to bleed; I ask my classmates for help; I remind myself that there are no grades and that I only have to pass. When the thought “I hate this language!” begins to flicker at the edge of my brain, I reach for my new mindfulness practice of reminding myself that I’m only going to get through the next six years if I love Hebrew. I meditate before class. I do my best and let go of the rest.

hydrangeas at apartment complex; photo by salem pearce via instagram

I had some inkling of this challenge: I postulated in my application that I would likely not have in rabbinical school the same experience as in undergrad, where everything came so easily to me. But I couldn’t have anticipated feeling like this.

And it’s not all bad or challenging. I’ve learned more Hebrew in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. Along with all of my classmates, I passed my midterm. New England is unbelievably beautiful in the summer. I run almost every day. My husband cooks amazing dinners. I appreciate Shabbat more than ever.

There are things to look forward to as well: Joe and I have tickets to a Red Sox game, and my mom visits in two weeks. This weekend I get to see my friend Emily, up from D.C. We’re planning a day trip for Joe’s mid-month birthday, and I’ll make my first visit to Cape Cod in mid-August. And I just got an email from a fifth-year rabbinical student who is organizing a once-a-week summer minyan: An hour of morning prayer will go a long way in easing my anxiety. Plus, I got my fall semester schedule! I can’t wait for some variety in my studies. I’m taking Genres and Themes of Biblical Literature; Introduction to Mishnah; Cantillation; and Jewish Life and Practice.

And yes, Hebrew 5. The beat goes on.

the women behind the missionaries

caleb's crossingI recently tore through both Caleb’s Crossing and The Poisonwood Bible. The first is Geraldine Brooks’ latest, published last year. I’ve read all of her fiction; her Pulitzer-prize-winning March is one of my favorite books.

The second is perhaps Barbara Kingsolver’s most well known work, which I’ve never picked up before. Last year I inherited my grandmother’s copy, which made the reading all the sweeter, knowing that she once enjoyed it. It’s a hardcover, so I assume she bought it shortly after it was published 15 years ago. One of her familiar address labels is affixed on the inside flap of the dust jacket.

I just happened to read them in succession (I’m trying to read more fiction), and they dovetail nicely. They’re both set against backgrounds of historical events, and the narrators of both are daughters of American clergymen bent on converting native cultures to Christianity (the Wampanoag on the island that would later become Martha’s Vineyard in Brooks’ novel, and the Congolese in Kingsolver’s). Sadly, though the settings are separated by 400 years, the Price sisters in the 1960s are offered just about as little opportunity as Bethia Mayfield in the 17th century: All of the girls hear a constant refrain about the uselessness of educating women. But in both tales, these women are much smarter, shrewder, braver, and more interesting than their naive missionary fathers.

Caleb’s Crossing is an ill-fitting name for Brooks’ work. Though it’s inspired by the life of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, the story belongs wholly to Bethia Mayfield, who achieves the book’s more lasting crossing: from the narrow realm of women’s chores to the limitless world of men’s education, from Puritanism to Wampanoag culture and back again, from her sister’s caretaker to scullery maid to wife and mother. She befriends the eponymous Caleb, the heir apparent to the Wampanoag who believes that being fully a part of the Mayfields’ white, Christian world represents the best chance for him to ensure the survival of his people. Caleb studies English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew indefatigably (yes, I was jealous), gains admission to Harvard, and graduates with honors, doing better than many of his white counterparts. But the price he pays is extremely high, and the reader knows that all of his efforts ultimately will not save the Wampanoag. Through the plot’s twists, Bethia is able to accompany him to the mainland, and it is she who is more successfully changed for the experience.

One of the hardest things as a modern reader is to fathom the attitudes of those who believe themselves to be “civilizing” cultures, remaking others in their own image. I felt unspeakably sad reading about the changes Bethia describes that Caleb undergoes as he moves from robust hunter to sallow scholar. The same process in historical fiction such as this and other books of the genre (like Things Fall Apart) makes me, to be blunt, hate white people. The story of the Congolese in The Poisonwood Bible is made only slightly less painful by the fact that the village of Kilanga is largely immune to Reverend Price’s proselytizing.

It helps that Price is something of a ridiculous character (in contrast to Mayfield’s earnest and ethical attempts to engage the Wampanoag): His daughters note his mispronunciation of the Lingala word bangala, which, depending on how it’s said, can mean “dearly beloved” or “poisonwood tree,” leaving Price to preach week after week that Jesus is the local tree that can cause intense pain and even death. But Price is lucky to have this gaffe to humanize him, because he is otherwise a vile character. His cultural arrogance and condescension are insufferable, and his complete inflexibility, even in the face of danger because of the country’s unrest (the political turmoil of the post-colonial era), rips apart his family. I spent most of the book hoping for him a violent death. It’s his daughters, who take turns talking about their experience in Congo and afterwards, who charm and delight, even in the midst of their tragedies.

interview the first

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Earlier this week, I took a trip for my interview and testing at the first rabbinical school to which I applied. (As I’ve said before, it’s easy to figure out which school it is, but it’s not that important for this post.)

Joe came with me so that he could get a feel for the school and the surrounding area. We stayed with a new friend that I met on my visit to the school; he and his fiancée were nice enough to offer us their queen-sized guest bed. The home hospitality offered during all of these rabbinical school visits certainly has made the trips more affordable — not to mention has afforded the opportunity to get to know potential schoolmates and further perspectives on the schools.

The testing was a mixed bag. I can say with some confidence that the best thing about it was at the end, when I got up to turn in the last test and I fell out of my chair (in front of two other prospective students, I might add). In my concentration and/or fear, I hadn’t noticed that one of my legs had fallen asleep. It was very Liz Lemon.

The three hours of Hebrew wasn’t as bad as I expected; it was the one-hour “Jewish Traditions” exam that was heartbreaking. This reality was made worse by the fact that I really thought it was going to be the opposite. I was wholly unprepared for how badly I would feel at the end.

I think I did well enough on the basic modern and Biblical Hebrew sections and middling on the Rabbinic. I didn’t even attempt the advanced modern — or the composition. (I am sorely lacking in Hebrew writing skills. As I am in Hebrew conversational skills, a part of the test that I also bombed.) I did well reading aloud from the siddur and Torah — although I was chagrined at the feedback that I confused my sins and shins.

The “Jewish Traditions” exam made my heart sink into my stomach: two pages of Hebrew terms to define and explain the significance of, and I only knew about three at first glance. And with this kind of exam, further reflection doesn’t yield more answers. I either knew them or I didn’t — and I didn’t. So I spent the rest of the time writing the terms down, so that I could look them up and learn them later. (Joe said he thought this was as much evidence of my readiness for rabbinical school as actually knowing the terms. I hope he’s right. Either way, I won’t soon be forgetting what hatafat dam brit is.)

The next day, the interview went considerably better than the testing. Though I faced seven people, I’m generally good at interviews, so I wasn’t fazed. And they all asked thoughtful questions, which I really appreciate. That experience did much to buoy my spirits after the previous day.

Unsurprisingly, I was asked how I would decide which school to attend if I were accepted at all the ones I’ve applied to. I answered honestly: I’ve gathered all the information that I can, so I’m thinking that it’s going to come down to a feeling. Joe liked the school and the area, as do I, but I’m honestly not sure what my feeling about the school is.

I’ve been exhausted and starving since I returned. I think the combination of anticipation, stress, frustration, disappointment, enjoyment, and being around new people just ran me down. And I’ve got to do this at least twice more . . .

crying to the walls

Note: I updated this post on 12/21/11 with a photo that better illustrates it.

On Thursday night I went with my friend Noah to see singer-songwriter David Broza at Sixth & I Synagogue. It was an awesome night, not least because, since the concert was sponsored by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and the Israeli Embassy, it was free! Noah first introduced me to Broza years ago, with the song “Crying to the Walls.”

As with most concerts at Sixth & I, Broza played in the sanctuary, on the bimah. Noah and I were in the balcony, looking down on the “stage.” I followed the lights that were coloring the wall behind Broza to the ark. Two nights ago, I had stood in front of the ark with the members of my adult b’nai mitzvah class while the rabbi explained the significance of its architecture.

david broza at sixth & i; photo courtesy of embassy of israel

And then I had a moment that made sound fade away and time slow down: I realized I was looking at a scene that perfectly expressed the confluence of the past, present, and future of Judaism. Thinking back, it seems so simple; I feel like this should have occurred to me before, at previous events. But of course, I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic recently.

The ark at Sixth & I holds four sefer Torahs, each of which had been hand-lettered by a scribe’s quill on pieces of animal skin that were stitched together into scrolls — as they have been created for generations. The features of the ark itself — the parokhet (curtain), ner tamid (eternal flame), menorot (candelabras), and ten commandments’ tablet — all have their roots in the first temple.

An Israeli, Broza himself presumably led to the search of attendees before the concert — byzantine security measures that have come to characterize any event in the United States having to do with the modern state of Israel. And he sang that night to a crowd of diaspora American Jews in Hebrew before the Israeli ambassador addressed the crowd.

Sixth & I is an unique space: a synagogue, turned church, almost turned nightclub, turned non-membership, non-traditional, non-denominational synagogue. It’s where young Jews connect to their Judaism in often non-religious ways. (I saw Ani diFranco in the same place six weeks earlier.) Attendance at its events continues to increase even while synagogue membership is down.

The ancient, the contemporary, and the world to come, all swirled together in a mix of rainbow lights and guitar strums and stained glass. I looked at the salmon-colored walls of the building and thought, “Remember this.”

Crying to the Walls