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A Writing Workshop for Tashlich

Last year, I ran two writing workshops at my synagogue, to help empower people to write their own blessings, and to validate more of their real emotions and experiences on a daily basis. I only had a small group of writers with me each time, but the work they did was revelatory and worth the effort. So, with the very unusual world we are living in today, and with High Holiday services scheduled to take place entirely on line, my rabbi asked me to come up with another workshop, on Zoom this time, to prepare for the ceremony of Tashlich, which usually takes place on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, outdoors. This will be our only chance to connect in person at a safe distance as a community during the holidays, and the rabbi wanted to give people a chance to prepare for it more fully, and also a way to include the people who, for reasons of health or age, would still not be able to participate in person.

The word Tashlich means “casting off,” and it is a ceremony where we gather together at a body of water to cast off our sins from the past year. This is when my congregation usually goes to a nearby pond, to hop over goose poop, meet everyone’s dogs, sing with the cantor, and toss our sins out to the ducks, in the form of birdseed or anything else that won’t kill them.

“Are we going to shul with you?”

It is one more avenue for doing Teshuvah (Repentance, or Return), which is the goal for the whole month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on through Yom Kippur. It’s sort of like a six-week version of the twelve steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, including making amends for past bad actions. There is a heavy emphasis on sin and guilt, and the implication is that we’ve all got big garbage bags full of sins from the past year that we need to empty out.

I’m not a huge fan of the emphasis on Sin and Repentance, but I do see the value in looking back on the year to see how we’ve inevitably veered off track, or gotten preoccupied by too much external noise. And I like the idea of making the process of casting things off more concrete, creating a safe container for our more difficult realizations about ourselves, and the emotions connected to them, and then physically throwing them away.

Despite all of my experiences of Tashlich occurring at duck ponds, it turns out that the preference of the rabbis was that the body of water would have fish in it, because fish can’t close their eyes and therefore they remind us of God’s constant protective watch over the Jewish people. But, if you can’t get to a body of water, you can also toss your sins into a bucket of standing water, or into running water from the kitchen sink, or you can even flush them down the toilet. You can write your sins on paper towels, or tissues, or rice paper, or you can even write them in sidewalk chalk and wash them away with a hose, or water balloons!

“Don’t be silly.”

But the words Repentance and Sin were still holding me back, until Jon Batiste, the bandleader of The Late Show with Steven Colbert, said something I found really helpful. Colbert had asked him his thoughts about the late Congressman John Lewis’ influence on the world, and Jon Batiste said that he saw John Lewis’ legacy as an invitation to growth and change, as opposed to Steven Colbert’s feelings of guilt and shame as motivation for change.For me, an invitation implies that there’s a party to go to, and a pool of energy to tap into that doesn’t have to rely solely on what I can bring with me. That’s what I love about community (and about this blog community especially), that whatever I bring with me takes me to a place where there is so much more of what I need. I’m invited, with all of my questions and doubts and confusion, to join a party that will energize me for the next step in the journey.

At its best, that’s what a writing workshop can do (though if your experiences of writing workshops took place in graduate school, with strict deadlines and competitive classmates, you are probably scoffing right now). My goal with each writing workshop is to respond with a “yes, and” to everyone; to let their ideas lead all of us to more of our own thoughts and feelings, so that we walk away with more gifts than we could have created on our own.

This period of Teshuvah, which starts in mid-August this year, is also coming along at a good time, given the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence, and the time for reflection offered by the Covid 19 shut down, with its inevitable emphasis on mortality. In preparing for the writing workshop, I had to think about what I might want to cast out of my life this year, and the first thing on my list would be the time spent beating myself up for the passage of time, and for my turtle slow pace. If I can stop looking at the clock, and the calendar, and the competition, and just focus on my own next step, next year will be a lot more productive, and a lot more fun than this one.

“We need more fun.”

            May we all live kinder, happier, and more fulfilling lives in the year to come. And let us be there for one another on the journey, if only to answer: Amen.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

A Summer of Singing

 

At the first official choir rehearsal for the Jewish High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, starting Sunday night, September 29th), I received a loose-leaf full of music from the choir director. Most of the other choir members have been there for years (some for over thirty years), so while they mostly had to show up at rehearsals and sing, I had to take my loose-leaf home and study. Even the songs I thought I knew had to be relearned, because I was used to singing the melody with the congregation, and now I was singing the harmony with the other altos.

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“Do you really have to sing that again?”

The music kept repeating in my head all summer long. I knew my brain was doing this to be helpful, so that I could learn what I needed to learn in a hurry, but it meant that I was drowning in melancholy music for months. I couldn’t even escape it while I was sleeping.

The dogs are probably sick of hearing about repentance and atonement, but they seemed to like finally being able to participate in synagogue services, in their own way, in their own home. When the summer rehearsals started, I spent a lot of time being mute and grumpy, because I couldn’t sing along. But after months of studying I’ve learned most of the songs, and even figured out how not to be completely distracted by the other voices around me.

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Except for Cricket’s voice. That still distracts me.

Starting in September we had choir rehearsals once a week, and by then I knew most of the music, though some things were still beyond me, especially the songs where the altos just sing the oohs and ahhs in the background (it’s so hard to learn the music without words to hang the notes on!). There are a few pieces of music that still confound me, especially one that requires us to sing ten notes on one word, over and over again. I get three notes in and then shut my mouth and wait.

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“I’ll sing for you, Mommy!”

Unfortunately, no one seems to have noticed all of the progress I’ve made, even though I make a point of singing out when I know what I’m doing. Maybe they think it was as easy for me to learn all of the music, or they forgot that I’m new to the choir altogether. I was kind of hoping for some praise; you now, gold star stickers to put on my loose-leaf, something like that. Maybe someday.

One very lucky break is that our temporary conductor is one of the altos, so she has been able to help us out with finding notes and some much needed attention. She also has her own interpretive dance style of conducting that’s really easy to follow, so that even when I’m looking down at the music and can only see out of the corner of my eye, I can understand what she’s telling us.

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“I bet I could lead a choir!”

For the High Holidays, the choir will be sitting on a raised platform, in our newly redone sanctuary, and I am not looking forward to that. I’m used to being mostly invisible in the crowd at the high holidays, able to be grumpy or tired or whatever I am in relative obscurity. But this year I will be on public view, so I may have to put on a happy – or at least normal – face. This is also when I start to wish I’d lost more weight already, and bought a whole new wardrobe, and maybe had plastic surgery, because otherwise I just look like me. We don’t even get to wear robes to hide behind.

The biggest downside of being in the choir is that I can’t sit with Mom during the services. Hopefully she’ll be able to sit near the choir area, so that I can roll my eyes at her discreetly during the services. I think it might be frowned upon if I actually took out my cellphone to text my ongoing commentary during the services, but it might come to that. I mean, these are long services, and I have a lot to say!

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“Do you? We never noticed.”

I’ve made some friends among the altos, though, so I should be able to nudge someone and whisper when something especially ridiculous happens. Which, of course, it will. With a new sound system, and echoing acoustics, and everyone stuffed together in one big room trying to express all of the repentance and atonement and misplaced guilt of a whole year, laughing fits are inevitable.

I wish you all a Shana Tovah U’Metukah (a good and sweet new year) with as much laughter as possible!

Happy New Year!

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If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

A Cardinal’s Song

We have a lot of birds in our backyard. There are the Baltimore Orioles and the Blue Jays and the Cowbirds and the Phoebes and the Starlings and these tiny little birds that seem like extra-large flies that crowd together in groups, and the Robins, and the Cardinals.

There was a Cardinal, back in the spring, whose song was like a Rosh Hashanah shofar blast – three long notes and nine short blasts, shvarim truah.

A Cardinal, but maybe not the singer.

A Cardinal, but maybe not the singer.

This is someone else's picture of a shofar.

This is someone else’s picture of a shofar.

This is someone's picture of a puppy blowing a shofar.

This is someone’s picture of a puppy blowing a shofar.

The cardinal came before the heat and humidity, when I didn’t mind spending extra time outdoors, just to catch the end of a song or hear it repeated. We might as well call the backyard of the co-op a wild life preserve, given the feral cats, birds, raccoons, squirrels, and random humans who hang out back there. The retaining wall is a massive overgrown hill, full of various plantings and weeds and trees and flowers, and the birds have found plenty of places to live in there. Mom tossed out some quilting scraps to help them build their nests, and the fabric disappeared, so someone made use of it. It’s possible that the squirrels are fantastically well dressed this summer.

A local squirrel.

A local squirrel, not noticing me, yet.

Feral cat.

Feral cat, yawning.

When I went inside and reenacted a whistled version, Butterfly went nuts barking in response. It’s possible she was objecting to my rusty whistling technique, but maybe she understands bird, and I was singing a very offensive song.

Butterfly, offended.

Butterfly, offended.

My mom can pick out a few birds accurately by their songs, and what she’s not sure of, she can check with Google. (Google sounds like something a bird might say, after all, or it’s what Cricket says when she sees a bird and tries to run after it and her leash stops her.) But Mom had never heard a bird sound like a shofar before, and neither had Google.

Cricket, mid-google.

Cricket, mid-google.

The shofar blowing is supposed to be a wakeup call, or a call to arms, but at our synagogue it ends up being a competition between the shofar blowing guys for who can hold the long note (the tekiyah gedolah) the longest. By that point in the service, I’m starving and feeling faint and I wish they had just a bit less lung capacity so I could go home and go to sleep.

I’m not a fan of the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), which start the Jewish calendar each year with a heavy dose of guilt and atonement. They probably throw in the apples and honey because otherwise we’d all shoot ourselves halfway through. The services are longer than usual, the clothes are more formal, the rabbis actually give speeches, and the synagogue is full to bursting with people I’ve never seen before.

When I was a kid I resented that we couldn’t sit in our regular seats for the high holidays, because someone else was already there, someone I’d never seen before who should really not be allowed to sit in my seat. Instead, I ended up in the folding chairs in the way back, because we were always late.

I would much rather have a bird service and sit outside on the lawn, and listen to the birds talking to each other. I wouldn’t have to dress up for that, or even comb my hair, if I didn’t want to. I wonder what the bird calls would wake me up to, the way the shofar wakes us up to do penance or atone or forgive or ask for forgiveness. Maybe the bird calls would simply be there to remind me to sing to someone, or to speak my piece to someone who will listen? Wouldn’t that be a great idea for a holiday? Cricket would love that! But she would probably spend all day singing and forget to listen to anyone else.

The birds are in there, somewhere.

The birds are in there, somewhere.

Cricket loves to sing for an audience.

Cricket loves to sing for an audience.

Lately we’ve had the cricket and katydid chorus blasting at us each night in the backyard when we take the girls out for their final pee, and Cricket thinks that’s as it should be.