Sunday, November 27, 2011

One of those nights

1. One of those nights Tonight was one of those nights where I walked right past my train stop without noticing. Then again, I am not too familiar with Houston Street, so I might have missed the stop even if I had not been wrapped up in conversation with two fellow choristers.The girl who became my friend was the one to notice, a girl of eighteen with curly black hair and a lot to say. We continued on to another convenient stop, bearing to our left while the third of us crossed the street to reach her apartment.One of the first in my newly adopted singing group (well, I guess they adopted me) to reach out, my friend had proposed that we walk together and then delved into bits of my life story - which, of course, inspired her to share bits of hers.
By the time we parted ways with our acquaintance, I had talked about Seeds of Peace, and my friend had explained aspects of her background and upbringing....
This is how she had started talking about the community - because what I said about Seeds of Peace bringing people together who might be unaware of each other (at least in some senses) resonated, and she felt that the community could use something like that, that there was such a large amount of ignorance, that it was just not representative of the larger world, that they weren't really living in the world.We talked a little bit about religion - we passed a food cart, I asked if she kept Halal, she said she's not really anything at the moment. She went some into being baptized Catholic and being raised in the Church but then snapping a couple weeks before Communion - or confirmation? Whichever it was, she was around thirteen, which she used as part of the explanation of why snapping made sense.
  I mentioned going to a Quaker school at some point.

Our third had brought up the Episcopal church that she attends.She said there, they're Christian, but sort of anything goes.
  Are there drums sometimes? I inquired.
  Yes, drums.
  It was around then that she parted ways with us.
  And then my friend really started talking.
  She had been talking all along, but this was a little more rapid-fire.I forget a little bit of the ordering.
  There was one question I asked that set her off talking, but there were also things she just said on her own.
  She said there was no use playing the field if she found the person she lovedand I said "If you know, you know." And she seemed to agree with that....
She asked me at one point
  if I was very religious.
  I said, "Pretty religious."
  She shared some of her views. Not views as in, "I believe in God," etc.
Although at one point she said something about spirituality but that that word sounds "kumbaya." I totally understood her there.
  The views that she shared were about what she loved about various religions.
  Muslims, she said -
in Islam, there is a new love of God every day.
  My first thought was that this meant there was a different way to love God you were supposed to take on each day.
  Then she said
  In Judaism, you have an old love of God every day.
  Then I started thinking about the new and the ancient.
That our love of God is an old love, in an old way.
  She said
  that Jews are keeping an ancient promise, are still keeping that promise.
"If that's what you do."
  I thought that was beautiful and it totally changed the way I see my role. I might have thought of it before. But it came out of her mouth then, and it was a breath of clarity.
  She talked about Christianity
said that she had issues with modern Christianity
  has seen a lot of hypocrisy
  but what she believes Christianity should be
  is love over morality
  She is frustrated by seeing people hate others for their sins.
After what I would call the commandment of "v'ahavta l'reacha camocha"(love your neighbor as yourself).
  She apologized several times for speaking so much.
  I said I enjoyed it and was looking forward to many more opportunities.
 I said she was a pretty wise person.
And she started remarking about how she wasn't, or she doubted that, something to that effect
  and then we got into a conversation about
  how if you acknowledge that you're wise, that's how you're supposed to know you're not
  that the wise people are ones who don't know it really
  and the kind people too, the good people.
I mentioned this, and she started talking about a story about a guru
  who would do something called tapas
  and get to some sort of state
  but then upon realizing it or thinking of himself a certain way
  he went back to the beginningagain
that that's how people get drawn back into the cycles of reincarnation - you think you do a good deed, and once you think about it in that way karma draws you back.
So it was right as we were talking about such matters that we arrived at the second train stop.
  We bid each other good night, take care, see you next week, I'll add you on Facebook.
   2. Train Man, or the moment I might regret as long as I remember it
I got on the train. It's a longer trip than I usually take, at least not involving a transfer - meaning more time I can do something instead of walking.
  There was a man next to me in awesome pants. He had hair in a bun on the top of his head. He was Asian of some sort. He was part of a group of people. One of them commented on his pants. I said I loved them too.
A woman a bit down the train car had sold them to him on her online store. They were part of the same group.
  I pulled out my chazzanut pages to study and sing quietly on the way back north. Review time.
At some point, the large group left. They were really cool. I contemplated what it would be like to say, Hey, you guys seem real neat, or something like that at least, My name's Molly, can I hang with you?
  I don't know what that would have even looked like. They might have been looking for a bar at the moment. I have work tomorrow.
  So they left.
  I sat down.
  A couple people sat down next to me, presently.
A man on each side. I gave each a brief glance and continued studying.
  But a woman was looking to sit down. She chose on the other side of one of the men, but I wasn't sure there was enough space, so I stood up. As I am wont to do.
But then it turned out there was enough space, and the man scooted a bit and beckoned me to sit back down. Which I did, feeling slightly foolish but only very, very slightly. I would have stood and been happy, but perhaps it would have made it seem like I didn't want to sit there. In any case, he made sure there was room.
  So I studied.
  At some point, the man said, Are you studying to become a cantor?
I paused - the answer has taken different forms over the days and years - and answered that I was not currently studying to become a cantor, but I was taking a class on chazzanut.
  I forget whether we used the word cantor or chazzan. Perhaps cantor.
He said, so you are learning for fun?
  I said, well, not really, I want to lead services, I like leading services.
  It was obvious at some point that he was a Hebrew-speaker from the way he pronounced a few of the following words.
  He said all he had learned was singing his parashah, for his bar mitzvah.
  I asked which parashah? (Parashah was the word that gave him away as non-American.)
  He said Bereishit.
I said, a good place to start.
  He had dark curly hair, somewhere between wavy and curly. Within ten years of my age. Within five, probably.
  He said I was probably planning on leading Reform services?
I said no, actually. Conservative. Then I hesitated and almost corrected that, almost explained more, almost said something about not Reform being about liking Hebrew, but then all I said was, whomever would let me, but not Reform.
He said, there are troubles in Israel about women singing, have you heard?
  I said, yes, I've heard, and added a couple more words that related to how I had been following such matters to some extent.
  I said, are you from Israel?
  He said yes, where are you from? I said I'm from Baltimore.
Or maybe we asked each other in the opposite order.
  Either here or slightly earlier in the conversation he said,
  I'm sorry, I am distracting you from studying.
  Or you were studying.
  Or something like that.
  But I said, not at all. Or that's okay. Or something like that.
  And closed my book on my lap.
  We were in silence for some moments.
I forget whether we talked about something else, or whether this happened slightly earlier in the conversation and then the rest of the conversation happened right then.
  But we were saying something, but not mid-sentence.
  Then it got to my stop.
  I said, this is my stop. and got up.
  Have a good night, I said.
  Good night, he said.
And I left the train, not knowing his name, not knowing where he was going, no way to contact him ever ever.
  I contemplated looking at Craigslist to see if he had put anything there.
  Not for romantic reasons.
  But just a conversation, he was interested in me, I was curious about him to some extent, at least enjoying talking with him.
I could have stayed on one more stop. Very easily. I often do get off at the next stop, if I take the express train.
  But instead, I just left the train with a good night.
  And that's something that I might always regret if I remember it.
  At least that's what I was thinking as I left the station.
  Although now I realize
  that this story wouldn't have a part three in the same way if I hadn't gotten off the train there.

3. Because I was feeling slightly hungry  Because I was feeling slightly hungry
  and walked into a Starbucks
  because the door was open.
  I almost never go into Starbucks. Nothing against it, just almost never a reason to.
  But I walked in
  and was waiting to get a piece of multiple berry coffee cake.
  There were two doctors there
  stethoscopes around their necks.
  I asked the woman if she was on call
she said no, she was working, just taking a coffee break.
  I was going to pay the guy for my slice of coffee cake.
  He said not to pay, they were about to throw it all out anyway.
Oh, that's what he had said earlier, that they were about to throw everything out, did I want anything?
  The female doctor (the one closer to the man behind the counter) and I were shocked.
  They were just going to throw it out? They always threw it out?
  There was a lot of food left - and fresh, too.
  I was thinking of finding a homeless shelter in the area to take it.
That'll actually be a project of mine this week, trying to figure out whether that Starbucks location can partner with a shelter to donate what's left at the end of the day.
  But my phone wasn't really able to search for a shelter at that moment.
  or at least not that quickly.
  The woman suggested to him that if they were going to throw it out but were asking us to take what we wanted, she could take some back to the hospital.
Maybe the ER is where she was. I don't remember. But she was going to put the food in the conference room.
  The doctors would be very happy for that late at night.
 I volunteered to help her carry it back. It was that much food.
  But it ended up fitting on one or both of her arms,
  in paper bags with handles, five or six strung on her right arm.
Smallish paper bags, but still.
  And that wasn't even all of the muffins and cakes and candies.
But that happened, and I walked out of the store with her (after asking for a piece of lemon pound cake for breakfast - he gave me two, I found out when I got home)
  and we swapped first names and parted with a Good night.
I acknowledged earlier on how it was probably strange of me to just walk in with her, so it's good that it turned out that way, I think.
but yes, we parted
  I came back here
  she had asked for the guy's name
  Noel, or Noelle, however it's spelled, but pronounced No-el.
  I looked up a homeless shelter and called and got an answering machine.
And I looked forward to putting this into writing...about my extraordinary evening. And I thought, I had a distinct sense of God tonight.  4. Seaweed  And then I bought two packs of seaweed.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Girl (2008)


Ее волосы похожи на речку,
текущую за домом моего детства,
спокойную, но постоянно двигающуюся,
сияющую в присутствии солнца,
которое свободно, весело, ласкательно
касается ее постоянно меняющуюся рябь
светлыми пальцами. И я хочу
быть ей солнцем, но боюсь, боюсь.

10 июля 2008


Her hair is like the brook
flowing behind my childhood home,
peaceful, but constantly moving,
shining in the presence of the sun,
which freely, joyfully, caressingly
brushes her constantly changing current
with light fingers. And I want
to be the sun to her, but I am afraid, afraid.

10 July 2008 (translated over 2009-2011)

Yom Kippur 5767 (2006)

I rediscovered this while writing my thesis in the spring of 2011, and all of a sudden I saw the full circle that my academic studies had become. Originally written for a poetry class during high school.

Yom Kippur

I faltered. Did we skip a paragraph? My eyes frantically searched the page as my finger skimmed line after line of Hebrew, and I wanted to take out a remote control and pause the service, but everyone continued chanting. It was useless—I gave up, closed the book and looked around. Farther down the wooden bench, an old woman with a hooked nose and hunched shoulders had her eyes closed. She mumbled the words, rocking onto her toes and back in time to the song. The everlasting light flickered above. Behind it, the ark was open. The Torahs stared back at me and I glanced away quickly, opening my book again. I read the poem on the English side—is it a translation? I have no idea—

—and the first line is so selfish that I am shocked out of thinking and I just read. The line comes up again in the next stanza: For my sake was the world created. And again, a stanza later: For my sake was the world created. I am humming along to the Hebrew chant. Once someone told me to say watermelon cantaloupe watermelon cantaloupe over and over again if I forgot the words to a song, but instead when I open my mouth the Soviet National Anthem comes pouring out. No one notices—the Russian follows the same chords as the prayer, so I am just providing a harmony. Singing about the triumph of communism, I look at the old woman. For my sake was the world created, and her mumbling takes the form of a bird, a soft white bird holding a sprig of ivy. It soars around the room, past the stained glass windows, and I realize that the air is full of individual voices, voice-birds, phoenixes and hummingbirds and pigeons and eagles. I smile—for my sake was the world created—and with a wave of my hand the birds are gone, and I just see voices bouncing off the ceiling and the walls. The voices disintegrate into separate notes. They softly bump into each other, spinning and faintly changing direction in the air. For my sake was the world created….

I blinked, and there were only dust motes floating in the colored light, and people around me chanting words in a foreign language.

                        -January 11, 2006

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I love dancing blues with someone with a belly.

A belly acts as another point of contact. (Thank you to my Boston friends who first pointed this out to me.) Plus, it keeps the lead and follow from having to worry about more questionable areas of contact.

Weekly ode to blues! Hope you enjoyed.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Burning Bush

Are You My Rabbi?
~One Bird's Quest~
Back                                                                                                                                 Next
(two more panels to come)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Vayera, and musings on stardust

    I am, you might say, a staunch non-supporter of poetic license in liturgical translation. Yet this week, I came across an aesthetically influenced translation choice that resonated, that taught me something new.

    Please open your Sim Shalom prayer-books* to the middle of Kabbalat Shabbat, the service marking the reception of the Sabbath:

 תהלים צ’’ו

 .... שירו לײ שיר חדש, שירו ליי כל–הארץ

.יעלז שדי וכל–אשר בו, אז ירננו כל–עצי יער...
,לפני יי כי בא, כי בא לשפט הארץ
.ישפט תבל בצדק, ועמים באמונתו

Psalm 96

Sing a new song to Adonai!
Acclaim Adonai, all people on earth....

...Let field and forest sing for joy;
Adonai comes to rule the earth:
To rule the world justly,
the nations with faithfulness.

Then flip a couple of pages:

תהלים צ’’ח

....שירו ליי שיר חדש, כי נפלאות עשה

.נהרות ימחאו כף, יחד הרים ירננו...
,לפני יי כי בא לשפט הארץ
 .ישפט תבל בצדק ועמים באמונתו

Psalm 98

Sing to Adonai a new song, for God has worked wonders....

...Let the rivers applaud in exultation,
let the mountains all echo earth's joyous song.

Adonai is coming to rule the earth:
To sustain the world with kindness,
to judge its people with fairness.

    "To rule," "To sustain," "to judge" - all of these are used to translate the verb לשפט. I would generally say that this was a choice made in order to diversify the Hebrew, to make it seem that the two psalms end more differently than they do. But Friday night, I realized that the translator, consciously or not, had a point. In an ideal world, to rule is to judge, to judge is to sustain.

    When the people of Sodom desire to be intimate with Lot's guest angels, Lot entreats them not to act wickedly and offers his two virgin daughters in the angels' stead (Genesis 19:8). The gathered citizens do not accept Lot's proposition; indeed, they are further infuriated by the suggestion, and Lot instead of the angels becomes the focus of the citizens' anger and violence: "Now we will deal worse with you than with them," the citizens say as they move to attack Lot and his household (ibid).
    A modern-day reader of this scene might question Lot's decision to offer his daughters to the mob in place of his guests or extol Lot's strong awareness of and dedication to being a host ("they have come under the shelter of my roof") and draw conclusions about his merit in accordance with such musings. The people of Sodom, however, seem not to care much about the rationale of Lot's decision and response. Instead, infuriated and insulted by what they see as Lot's audacity, they attack his right to challenge and condemn their practices in the first place. While Lot "came to dwell" as a stranger in their midst, they say, he is now "passing judgment," seeming to lord over them (וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֶחָד בָּא-לָגוּר וַיִּשְׁפֹּט שָׁפוֹט; Genesis 19:9).
    Sodom consists primarily of sinful people, according to God God's-self in Genesis 18:20, and Lot attests with, it seems, the Torah's backing that these people are wrong in desiring to force themselves upon the visiting men. But can all of the mob's beliefs and actions be so quickly condemned? The citizens' criticism of Lot has nothing to do with the definition of sinful behavior, and everything to do with the dialectic between community insiders and outsiders.** In citing Lot's outsider status, the natives of Sodom say that he has no power to interfere in the their practices. Strangers, they would argue, cannot impose their sentiments on those who have so graciously welcomed them.
    Lot, however, does not see himself as a stranger, a גר, in their midst. "אַל-נָא אַחַי, תָּרֵעוּ" he says; "Please, my brothers/neighbors, do not do evil" (Genesis 19:8). My brothers. My neighbors. By positioning himself at least linguistically within the people of Sodom, he appeals to what he puts forward as a common, not a particular, code of morality. It is the citizens who explicitly reject the in-group status that he claims, attesting that he has not yet merited the ability to act as one of them, to hold influence regarding matters of justice. The mob's retaliation against Lot's words seems callous and selective; even when Lot considers himself one of them, and they might feel the same under other circumstances, they do not return the acceptance in this moment due to the critical nature of Lot's remarks.
    Perhaps it was their verbal expulsion of Lot from Sodom that saved Lot and his family from not only living but also dying as members of the community, for it is only after this exchange of dialogue that the angels tell Lot and his household to flee. Perhaps, after this argument, Lot and his household were not even to be counted among the ten righteous necessary for the preservation of the city against God's wrath. Perhaps it was precisely Lot's judgment that, had it been accepted, had it been allowed to rule, would have sustained Sodom.

    Think about the communities in which you position yourself as a neighbor, as a brother, as a sister. Think about the communities in which you decide to remain a stranger, a guest, to distance yourself from communal identification, from communal fate.

    Think about your place in this world. Are you a guest? Are you a stranger? Or are you bound up in the web of existence, as inextricable from the fate of the universe as an ocean, as a horseshoe crab? (To paraphrase both Joni Mitchell in "Woodstock" and Abraham's address to God in Genesis 18:27: I am stardust and ashes.)

    Is your soul any more or less of a guest, a stranger, a neighbor, a partner, to this planet, to God, than your body? (Is your soul a guest to your body?)

    There are many ways in which we are guests in this life, in which we treat ourselves and our surroundings with the utmost care, as precious gifts.

But today, I encourage you to connect the parts of yourself, to connect yourself with the world, to live, to feel hurt, to feel joy, to have a stake in this community of yours that includes the stars from which you came. To be in partnership with God.

You have the right to judge. You have the obligation to sustain.

* As I write this post, I only have access to the Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, which has slightly different translations from the more general Siddur Sim Shalom, in which I first made these observations. The salient words in translation are mixed around a little bit yet still present.

** One could say that the relationship between insiders and outsiders, as well as the delineation of those boundaries, is a theme of this week's Torah portion - from when the angels visit Abraham and Sarah  to when Abraham pretends Sarah is his sister to avoid being killed in a foreign city to when Abraham, due to Sarah's insistence, makes Hagar and Ishmael leave his household.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A poem from the summer

A poem from this summer

The couch
Strands of water and a white hair
Noisily falling into my lap as I draw
My fingernails will soon be rid of their polish
And my neck has taken on its rosy hue of summertime.
New friends, old friends, lost friends
Choice in my hands, the familiar unfamiliar
And the unfamiliar familiar.
Busqueing for a few bucks
as the twilight sets in
and talent, he says. Harmony, she says.
Wake up, teal shirt. Trivia game and a ticking watch.
Blue plastic, marking the sections of my life
and I play around with them,
make them go slightly faster, slightly slower,
with not much success.
In this for me? For the white hair?
                      The teal shirt?
                                 The watch?
                                                The blue pen?
                                                            I watch it.

June 26-27, 2011

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Sometimes, when I squint my eyes, lights separate into drops of brightness, a honeycomb hexagon pattern forming in an array that dazzles and dances against the dark sky as we zoom under the streetlamps on the highway.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Prayer, God, and Aphasia

This post will grow in the coming days. For now, two quotations from the ninth chapter of Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat:

"...speech--natural speech--does not consist of words alone, nor (as Hughlings Jackson thought) 'propositions alone. It consists of utterance - an uttering-forth of one's whole meaning with one's whole being - the understanding of which involves infinitely more than mere word-recognition. And this was the clue to aphasiacs' understanding, even when they might be wholly uncomprehending of words as such. For though the words, the verbal constructions, per se, might convey nothing, spoken language is normally suffused with 'tone', embedded in an expressiveness which transcends the verbal - and it is precisely this expressiveness, so deep, so various, so complex, so subtle, which is perfectly preserved in aphasia, though understanding of words be destroyed....Something has gone, has been devastated, it is true - but something has come, in its stead, has been immensely enhanced, so that - at least with emotionally-laden utterance - the meaning may be fully grasped even when every word is missed." (81)

"Thus the feeling I sometimes have - which all of us who work closely with aphasiacs have - that one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily...." (82)

What would it be like to converse with God, to pray to God, if you believed that God was an aphasiac? Would you construct your sentences differently? Would you worry about your sincerity? Would you cease to care about sounding a certain way, focusing a certain way? Would you switch languages?

What if God had agnosia, was unable to assess tone color? Would you add in emphases and inflections and cries for your own sake? Would you make sure you meant the words? Would you stop caring?