Saturday, April 21, 2012

Parashat Shemini: Hush, and Love Your Children

For Congregation Ner Shalom, April 20, 2012

It was a quiet week at Ner Shalom, my home shul. The kids shuffled in and out of Hebrew School. Yael and a half dozen others took branches and yarn and worked on their Omer-counting sticks. Another clean dozen came and read Yiddish poems on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. Mitch and Robin climbed up into the attic above the back classrooms and fluffed around in the cotton candy insulation to see what we might make of that space. Our administrator Vicki's husband Robert has been on the mend, and in fact the whole family was able to attend a Civil War reenactment this weekend where they habitually play southerners and Robert's stroke alas did nothing to change that but, as my mother would say to just such a puzzling fact, "to each his own."

I flew to Pittsburgh and back in the last 55 hours. As always, I did the Mensa quiz on the plane and then as always, when I couldn't figure out the answer to question 6, dismissed the whole Mensa business as the basest sort of snobbism.

Earlier in the week I worked on my office a little - having staked out some real estate right up there in the mezzanine, where I hope you'll come visit me. A considerable portion of my library is now installed on the shelves: Aramaic and Yiddish, music and mysticism, and all of my I-never-went-to-rabbinical-school cheat texts within easy reach.

I also spent some quiet time working on a grant proposal this week. Seems the Jewish Community Federation wants to fund our Celebrations Program for another year. So I got a chance to spend some quality time with Mary Ann Malinak, who is the mother of this program for kids with special needs and their families. We're in, I think, our fifth year of operations now. I write this proposal every year, and there are things I always talk about in it. How the families who come have been shushed out of every other Jewish environment they've ever been in. How the Celebrations kids enjoy the food and the music and the gifts our Hebrew school kids make for them and just seeing each other.

But this year I also wrote about some changes that are happening in Celebrations that I think you might want to know about as well. Although many of the kids don't look their age, they are getting older, and a lot of them aren't quite kids anymore. Alex is now 17 and Sarah is 17 and Zac is 19. They're much older and bigger than the other kids in the Hebrew school, and while we used to really enjoy how the Celebrations community was part of the fabric of our school, it's more awkward now; the Celebrations kids stick out in a new way. They are undoubtedly aware that they're surrounded by children. Meanwhile their parents are struggling with mounting challenges as their kids continue to face new health issues or new behavior changes, each one more difficult than the last; and as they start running out of schools to send their kids to; and as they delve more deeply into the question of what their children's adult lives will be like, both in the immediate future and when they are no longer around to care for them or advocate for them.

This is what's going on for our Celebrations families these days. It's more of the same and it's all new. And the anxiety of it can be overwhelming.

Of course all parents live in some degree of anxiety about the children they're unleashing on the world. I know this, I feel it. Even though in my family I am not officially a parent but something else for which there is no decent kinship term so we make do mostly with "uncle," still, I live with this anxiety. Okay, this terror. Because you can't predict. You don't know who they are going to be. I think about a certain eleven-year-old overnight birthday party happening right now as we speak which began with laser tag - kids running around with rifles! - and concludes tomorrow morning with a breakfast which, by the birthday boy's request, will include if not centerpiece bacon and sausage. Who is this person? Who is this oddly familiar half-sized stranger? How did this happen? I know that the Celebrations parents would give an awful lot to have a day where their child-rearing burdens were this trivial. But anxiety. Well, anxiety has a way of expanding to fill the available space, and parental anxiety especially. You just look at your kids and you wonder: how did this happen?

I imagine Aharon the high priest might have asked himself the same thing in this week's Torah portion. It's Parashat Shemini, one of my favorites from among my least favorite Torah portions. Somewhere, sandwiched between priestly instructions and lists of animals we can't eat in a sandwich or at an eleven-year-old's birthday party*1* comes the story of Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, who go unbidden and unprepared into the Holy of Holies. We don't know exactly what they did - firepans, incense. But it was, apparently, not how Dad would have done it.

Isn't that always the way? You can't make your children be who you want them to be. And for this question, it doesn't even matter if you don't have children. You have brain children. Your ideas and intentions and  plans. These are your children.

As Wordsworth said, "The child is the father of the man." Meaning that we give birth to the lives we have. Our lives are our children. And like children, they don't always go the way we intend. They sometimes refuse to do what we ask them to do or what we think they should do. Sometimes all we can do is sit back and look at these children of ours: our plans, our dreams, our paintings and poems and ingenious schemes. Did those come out of me? How did I end up here? What is this strangely familiar life?

Sometimes all you can do is sit back and look and marvel.

Now I confess the Aharon story has a terrible outcome. Nadav and Avihu offer their "strange fire" unbidden, and the fire consumes them and they die. Moshe says something cryptic and outrageously uncomforting about God being sanctified by those who draw near and in response what does Aharon say? Nothing.

וידם אהרן
Vayidom Aharon.
And Aharon hushed. 

If we read this story literally, we'd have to question what his silence means, what enormity of pain choked his words. But if we think of our own ideas that didn't work, that gave way to the next idea; the turns of event that didn't pan out but maybe paved a path, then maybe we can understand. The truth is that we lose, we let go of, some piece of our old dreams every day. Because the reality of our lives is always different than the dream. Maybe today is not that different from what you'd intended yesterday, but it is very different from what you imagined for yourself 20 years ago. Maybe unrecognizable, like the difference between an adult portrait and a baby picture.

Our lives are full of constant attempts at strange fire, new fire, and sometimes they produces a reyach nichoah, a pleasing aroma, and they stick. And sometimes those attempts go up in smoke. And sometimes all we can do, as the parent of our lives, is pause for a moment and hush. But what is this hush?

In Psalm 131 we find the same hushing word:

אם–לא שויתי ודוממתי נפשי כגמל עלי אמו כגמל עלי נפשי
Im lo shiviti v'domamti nafshi k'gamul aley imo kagamul alay nafshi.
Haven't I made my spirit equanimous and quiet 
like a toddler in its mother's embrace?
So is my spirit within mine.

Aharon's hush is like the way one quiets a tiny child, the hush after the big, loud wail. Aharon carries and quiets his spirit like one would a child.

Perhaps this is a takeaway from this otherwise dreadful story. That there is a quiet that is available to us even as we see our plans go awry or our previous intentions consumed. We have given birth to these lives of ours. And sometimes they get away from us. But they are our children and it is our lifelong job to love them. No matter how demanding or willful or noisy they've become. In the face of the twists and turns and tuml of our lives, these lives that some days run circles around us like over-sugared children, we can - we must - take a moment to breathe - hush - to quiet our souls and hold them like we would an infant.

Your life is not what you expected. It's never what you expected.*2* But love it as you would a child. Keep teaching it, keep guiding it, and keep learning from it.

Give it a try right now. Just hush. Hush. Look at your life as it is now. Drop your judgments about it and just look at it. See it as your child. What kind of kid is it? Sweet? Challenging? Playful? Pained? Wayward? Willful? In trouble? Whatever kind of child it is, it is your child. Feel your love for it. It's a good kid. And you? You are a fine, fine parent.

And that's the news from Ner Shalom, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children - including these lives we've made - are, well, pretty fabulous.

I'm grateful to Mary Ann Malinak, Reb Shifrah Tobacman and Mitch Genser for their helpful insights this week. 

*1*For those who are deeply concerned, turkey bacon and turkey sausage were ultimately served, since the actual request was non-specific on that front, and the birthday boy hasn't had enough of the other stuff to really know the difference.
*2*Mitch Genser said to me this week, "Where you are supposed to be is exactly where you are right now." I'm still thinking that over, to figure out if I think it's so. But in any event where you are right now is certainly worthy of your love.

Friday, April 13, 2012

When Max Janowski Sang Me to Sleep

Based on a drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, March 2012.

At a recent Jewish Music Shabbat at my synagogue, I sang the famous Bialik poem, Shabbat Hamalkah. You know: hachamah merosh ha'ilanot etc. But instead of the well-worn familiar melody, I used a setting by Max Janowski.

You surely know the name. Composer. One of the greats. Truly prolific, although now known almost exclusively for his Avinu Malkenu, which was eventually yanked out of the synagogue and recorded by no less than Barbra Streisand herself, with a big, soupy orchestral arrangement and simplified chording by Marvin Hamlisch. I chose that setting of Shabbat Hamalkah for the same reason I watch developments like the Streisanding of Avinu Malkenu with interest. It is because I feel a proprietariness about Max Janowski's music. Because, you see, when I was little, Max Janowski used to sing me to sleep.

Well, not personally. And not every night. Just Tuesdays.

It started when I was four or five. My parents had joined a brand new congregation, called Beth Elohim, in Chicago's north suburbs. Although it wasn't a New Age, Unitarianish, Renewalish collection of hippy-dippy fringe people like the Sonoma County synagogue I now attend, it did in fact have a genuine freshness. Its families were all starting out, with Baby Boom optimism, building tiny ranch houses on what had been Illinois prairie, amid budding schools and parks and shopping centers. The earth had been upturned and sheathed in asphalt and cement. Saplings, held erect with tent ropes, bobbled on the brand new lawns. The land seemed a blank slate, any memory of Native American settlement now mere myth. For these young urban expats, everything was possible. Including how to be Jewish.

In 1965, the families of Beth Elohim were offered the opportunity to merge with a much older synagogue, the seventy-plus year old B'nai Jehoshua, which resided in a magnificent but rapidly emptying building on Chicago's west side. B'nai Jehoshua's membership had been moving out to the suburbs, and the synagogue risked death by dispersal if it didn't establish a new anchor further north. The merger happened, the beloved building was sold, and thus began the nomadic life of B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim that I grew up with.

Kabbalat Shabbat was at Niles Community Church, blocks from my house. Oh, how I loved that church: the pews, the organ, the strangely non-Jewish orderliness. I loved sneaking away with my mother after the rabbi's sermon to set up the oneg. I used to make the punch - a block of ice, Hawaiian Punch, ginger ale and rainbow sherbet, served up in soon-soggy Dixie Cups. Religious school took place at local public schools and the temple office was above a bowling alley. It sounds awkward or inconvenient, but it wasn't. It was thriving and exciting and new.

My father, Jerry Keller, was a popular bandleader in Chicago - a singer and sax man. The newly merged congregation might not have had much cash, but they knew their assets and they sent emissaries to the house to recruit him to be BJBE's first choir director. Dad had never directed a choir. What's more, he had grown up in a classical Reform synagogue where confirmation was offered instead of bar mitzvah, where Shabbat conveniently fell on Sunday, and where the officiant was called minister. His Jewish literacy was truly limited, despite being the great grandson of a rabbi who had served at Berlin's monumental Oranienstrasse synagogue in the 1870s, during the residency of the great composer Louis Lewandowski as the musical director - Lewandowski, whose Lecha Dodi and Tzadik Katamar are still on the musical menu at a wide range of synagogues and whose Kiddush remains a staple 130 years later. But my father could read Hebrew in transliteration as well as anyone and he was good with people and he was a fine musician and he said yes.

And that's when the choir moved into our house. A mismatched gaggle of 16 or so voices. They would ring the doorbell every Tuesday night and spill into the house like a reversal of the stateroom scene from "A Night at the Opera." My mother would sing alto and set up the percolator. The men in the choir were largely amateurs, well-meaning non-musicians. But the women, somehow, all had what seemed to be gorgeous voices. Big, vibrato-filled, operatic voices. I've never stopped to question how that happened, how this particular confluence of gifted women ended up in the north suburbs at the same moment in the same synagogue. But the biggest voice of all belonged to our cantor, Harold Freeman. His Hebrew was jumbled and his music reading inexact. But there was something compelling, something of the Old World chazzan in him, a certain cry in his voice that carried within it all the suffering and longing of exile.

Every Tuesday night there they'd be. On the sofa and the folding chairs. Gossiping more than singing, much to my father's frustration. And yet they loved him and eventually would sing beautifully, perhaps just to please him.

And the repertoire? Well, the repertoire was almost entirely the work of Max Janowski.

Max was a Berliner as well, who emigrated to Japan and eventually Chicago on the eve of the War. He was a formidable musician (eventually writing over 500 pieces of music) and a larger-than-life personality. I can't quite explain his widespread popularity in American Reform synagogues; I'll let the musicologists figure out his place in the canon. His pieces were often difficult - hard to sing, sometimes overwhelming to listen to, and I understand he took a certain pride in that. But, especially when simpler, his music was stunningly beautiful. As an heir to the German Jewish composers, he had no allergy to choirs and pipe organs. But while he came from the same tradition as Lewandowski and of Austrian composer and Schubert buddy Salomon Sulzer, whose choir and pipe-organ setting of the Shema is now so universal that people imagine it to be ancient and Orthodox, Max's compositions had a - dare I say it? - less churchy ring. They weren't about the glorious space of the cathedral or even the great synagogue; they came from someplace internal, the product of the deep and abiding sorrow and bitterness and yearning of the Jews. Even his sweetest and simplest and most intimate pieces, like Shabbat Hamalkah, feel like a stolen moment of sweetness in a hostile world.

This year is Max's centennial and some concerts to memorialize him are now popping up. When I was a teenager, I sang in a choir under his baton; later I taught Hebrew school at the South Side synagogue where he was the musical director. I realize now he was barely in his 60s. But to me, with his thinning hair, buttoned-up manner and German accent, he already seemed 100.

Our next cantor was a whippersnapper. Just 10 years older than me, with a tremendous voice and incredible musical precision, Cory Winter was himself a Max Janowski protege. He had sung for Max since he was a boy soprano, and Max treated him much as his musical heir. Later, Cory would become - and still is - my own friend and mentor. Which, I sometimes like to think to myself, makes Max Janowski my grandmentor.

But I've gotten afield. Tuesday nights, as a child, the choir would sit in our living room with their sheet music and their coffee and they would sing. And I would get sent to bed, where I would fall asleep to the lullaby of their chatter and their dirty jokes and Max Janowski's triumphant and tearjerking chord progressions. These would seep into my slumber and my cells, these chords, both modern and ancient, deep and soaring, heartening and heartrending. They would enter my body like a transfusion. So that by the time High Holy Days rolled around, I would sit with the adults and not with the other kids, expectant, waiting for the choir to stand and sing not Max Janowski's music, but mine.

On the bimah, like in my Tuesday night dreams, they would petition God to be heard. Shema Koleynu, they would sing. "Hear our voice!"

Shema Koleynu

They would call out for peace.

Sim Shalom

And although capable of such grandeur, they would humble themselves. "Avinu Malkenu, we have sinned. But hear us anyway."

Avinu Malkenu

Max's melodies, Max's modalities, would enfold me like a blanket on the Tuesday nights of my childhood, and they would make my house Jewish, and the world Jewish. They would seep out of the double-paned windows and dance under the suburban stars, treading lightly on the new sod, where the crickets had only just begun to sing.