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A Cantor's Rant: The back story

I went on a rant yesterday during Hebrew School music. We were beginning to learn a Chanukah version of "Let it Go" (written by my colleague Deborah Jacobsen and adapted by me), and - there are a couple of higher note points - one child started to do the "opera voice" in reaction to the way some of the kids were trying to sing. I lost it. 

Here's what I posted on my Facebook page:  

Nothing - I mean NOTHING - makes me more upset than kids making fun of the way other kids sing. Too many grownups won't sing because their voices were mocked when they were children by teachers and/or peers (Believe it or not, I am a prime example). Cantor Kessler's #1 Music Rule is: no one makes fun of anyone's voice. Cross that rule at your peril. OK, rant over.

Here's part 1 of the back story.

Years ago an adult told me that when he was a bar mitzvah student, his cantor told him that he shouldn't chant the haftarah because it wouldn't sound good. That adult ne…

Yom Kippur 5755: Sweating the small stuff.

(Yes, I know - that's a picture of a fortune cookie. Let it go.)

There's an expression "Don't sweat the small stuff; and it's all small stuff." What concerns me this Yom Kippur? The small stuff because so much of the next 30'ish hours is "small" stuff.

One of my cantor colleagues wrote about his focus not on the Kol Nidrei prayer but rather on the prayer that precedes it (bishivah shel malah) - the intense awe it inspires in him with the idea of praying with an entire congregation of sinners.

My concern this year is this: I am fully prepared spiritually and vocally for the BIG pieces of music the next 30 hours will present.  Kol Nidrei, Ya'aleh, Tavo l'fanecha, the Kaddish Shaleim that almost concludes Ne'ilah - these are vocally demanding, vocally and textually dramatic hefty pieces of music (and, in the case of the Kaddish Shaleim, a bit of fun and release).

I am very concerned about the "smaller" prayers, the davvened (…

Am I Wise? Hmmmm ...

Come on, dude ... lighten up.

Today's going to be a long day (don't snark, I know they're all 24 hours). I have a lot of to-do's on my list. It's the kind of day where it would be really easy for me to lose perspective, lose my sense of humor, and take life way too seriously and personally.

Before I even had a chance to learn about the focus of today's #10daysoftea Positivitea Challenge, I started my day watching Thursday night's (August 28) episode of the Colbert Report where, in the middle of a laugh-out-loud segment on vaporizing alcohol (you have to watch it to get the joke), Colbert loses his composure and breaks out laughing at his own nonsense. I laughed out loud right along.

Then I read the #10daysoftea meditation, and I started to laugh. If Colbert he can make fun of himself and his ridiculously over-the-top character, I can chuckle at myself today, too.

My #intention for today: Lighten up, sweet pea. Take time to #laugh, especially at the things that I tend to take way to ser…

A Worry Wart No Longer

At the tender age of 5, I was accused of being a worry wart by my kindergarten teacher. While mocking me wasn't the wisest course of action, she was right: I was an anxious kid, terrified that my parents - when they were late picking me up - were either dead in a car crash or had abandoned me, and terrified that a kindergarten classmate would be left behind because she was dawdling.

I was 5 years old, and I was a wreck.

I spent the better part of my lifetime living in an uncertain future, worrying about the weather's not cooperating, about friends being in car accidents (that was a constant thread), about people I loved dying, about being poor and tossed into the street. The convoluted and circular reasoning went like this: since none of those terrible things happened, obviously the positive results were the result of my worrying. No one else I knew worried about such things; obviously they didn't understand how bad things could get.

Decades later, a search for a power gre…

The Blessing of Balance and Humility - A Spiritual Trifecta

Four days ago my cousin, an herbalist, created the "10 Days of Positivitea" challenge. No dumping ice water on my head (which I did), her gentle invitation was to spend a few minutes a day with myself, a meditation, an intention, and a cup of tea. Truth be told, I'm not a tea drinker, so I enjoy my husband's yummy daily coffee, but the rest is as directed.



Simultaneously I am participating in my colleague Rabbi Phyllis Sommer's #BlogElul, a daily opportunity to prepare for Rosh Hashanah using prompts provided by Rabbi Sommer. 


And one more thing, I and several dozen rabbis and cantors are engaged in a program of learning mussar, a Jewish text-based method of self-explorative learning of how to apply middot (Jewish values) such as humility, kindness, righteousness, patience, and equanimity to our lives and – by extension – within our communities. As do all mussar students, we began a month ago with anavah, humility. 

Today the three opportunities gently brush up agai…

The Tragedy of the Palestinians - Rabbi Micky Boyden

Sometimes you wish you wrote things that others did so eloquently. This is one of those times. B'shem omro ha-Rav Micky Boyden.
The Tragedy of the PalestiniansPosted onJuly 14, 2014by The United Nations reports that 177 Palestinians have been killed since Operation Protective Edge began a week ago. A quarter of the victims have been children. Palestinian medical sources say that some 1,280 people have been wounded. All of this is a tragedy. It did not have to happen. Two sisters aged 13 and 11 were seriously injured by shrapnel in a village close to Beersheba earlier today. Of course the numbers hurt on our side are considerably lower than those on the Palestinian side. We build bomb shelters and reinforced rooms in which our families can hide when Hamas fires rockets at an innocent population. By contrast, Hamas uses civilians as human shields and prefers to use the concrete at its disposal to build massive tunnels into Israeli territory in an attempt t…

The SCOTUS Decision: Why I wish every town were Bethel, Connecticut, and what to do if yours isn't

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong - and everything right - with starting a civic town meeting with a request for spiritual strength and nourishment, affirming that there is a guiding force in the universe that provides wisdom and guidance as we mortals grapple with the stuff of everyday life.

Note that I said "spiritual," not "religious." That's why I have a few issues with the recent Supreme Court public-prayer decision. In my last two posts (here and here), I suggested unhelpful responses.

Here's a helpful response for people who are distressed about it: talk about it, write about it, be open about, and get involved - actively involved - in your towns and villages and cities. Insist that your clergy people be visible and available.

Do not buy into the false and spurious charge that not wanting religion-specific prayer before town/civic meetings means you are opposed to a call for spiritual strength at such times. Support your religious communities. Do…

Lions! Tigers! Bears! SCOTUS! A 2nd UNHELPFUL response to a bad decision.

In my last post, I argued that the nuclear-option "What are you so afraid of?" response to the recent SCOTUS decision was not only unhelpful, but it was an intellectual boomerang that in fact spoke to some of the greatest paranoias such a response was intended to dismiss.

Here's the second unhelpful response to the SCOTUS decision regarding public prayer preceding municipal meetings (basically ok since there was no proselytizing): It's known as the Chicken Little Reaction. OH MY GOD, POGROMS!!!!

I've heard this one a bunch of times so far. All I will say is that such over-the-top reactions unhelpfully disguise a very disturbing circle-the-wagons trend away from acknowledging minority rights, sensibilities and sensitivities.

Next time: Some saner responses.

"What are you so afraid of?" A nuclear-option response to questioning a SCOTUS decision.

"What are you so afraid of?"

That's one reaction American Jews hear from some Jewish leaders when they get antsy about perceived over-intrusion of the US majority religion into the public sphere. It got airtime when American Jews expressed disgust with Mel Gibson's sado-masochistic atrocity, "Passion of the Christ" and his maniacal anti-Jewish ramblings when he was picked up for drunk driving. Then when American Jews reacted with disgust to Pat Robertson's off-handed "joke" - with a rabbi who seemed to agree with him no less - that Jews hire people to wash their cars on Sundays so they can better spend their time serving the people by polishing their diamonds. Then when a state chief justice insisted that the only deity worth constitutional protection is his specific deity. And then when a hot mic picked up anti-Semitic ramblings from a retired upper echelon military official.

The "what are you so afraid of" Jewish-leadership respons…

The Only Stupid Question: #blogExodus - Day 9 - #ask

No, it's not Einstein's quote. No one knows who coined the phrase, "The only stupid question is the one that didn't get asked." And pretty much everyone had at least one teacher who pronounced this statement.

But really, it's not true. That's because there are a lot of people who swear they want to hear what you have to ask but them dismiss you and your questions as trivial or interruptive or off point or annoying. They give you the look, and everyone knows what that look feels like. So we go off feeling like we're idiots or incompetents or the like. And then we don't ask any more questions and invariably wind up using the wrong recipe or IKEA directions and we all know where that gets us.

Here's a radical idea for this Passover: ask questions. Don't worry about what someone else is going to think; just ask. Ask for help, ask for a hug, ask to take a nap, ask for someone else to clean the dishwasher or clear the table. If you don't kno…

The Wrong "5th" Question: #blogExodus - Day 8 - #Learn

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said, "Behold: I am like a seventy-year-old man, yet I never understood why we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt at night until Ben Zoma explained it, saying ... ("The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah," CCAR, p. 35)

When do we eat? (supposed 5th Passover question)

I used to get into hideous trouble when my Uncle Fred, z"l, who led my childhood seders, asked if anyone had any questions along the path of the seder. I did. And I got dirty looks and muttered curses from family members who wanted to move this thing along so we could get back to Brooklyn from Long Island before dawn the next day.

That may be why I eagerly anticipate the paragraph about Eleazar ben Azaria more than any other in the Haggadah. A brilliant young scholar, 16 or 18 depending on the version, the only thing he lacked to be considered a great sage was age and experience. Miraculously - or so the story goes - overnight he developed gray hair and a long gray beard, fina…

#blogexodus - 2 Nisan - Tell

It's not quite what Vonda Shepard and Bert Russell Berns had in mind, but it's the basic theme of Passover and the essence of our Jewish survival. 

"Tell him, tell him, tell him, tell him right now."

Repeatedly we are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus: to our children, to each other, to ourselves, to the world. Too many of us are afraid that we don't know the story, that we'll get it wrong, or that we'll bring too much negative attention to ourselves. We are embarrassed that we don't know. 

But here's the great thing and the wonderful reality: we don't have to know the story by heart in order to tell it; we have the Haggadah to guide us at our seder(s), and we have books of every variety and Jewish theology to help us out. We don't have to make it up and we don't have to be experts. We have rabbis and cantors and teachers and friends and - heaven help us - the internet. Help is out there. 

We tell our story because it's a wond…

#blogexodus - 1 Nisan - Believe

Since Passover is all about physical and spiritual preparation, I am grateful that my colleague Ima on (and off) the Bimah has encouraged us to blog, tweet, FB post, etc. about our Exodus journey. I hope you'll join me.



I believe that there is a power greater than myself. I believe that nothing gets done without risk and sometimes having to say "no." I believe that prayer has power beyond anything I understand.