It’s a Knitzvah

Our Hebrew high school offers core classes and elective classes in small units.  When we were approaching the new unit, the educator asked me if I would be willing to teach a knitting class.  I agreed to do it on two conditions: that we were able to somehow create a class that also involved serious Jewish learning, and that there was enough interest to make it worthwhile.  As it turned out, eleven students signed up for the course (including four boys!), and I was having no trouble coming up with good topics for learning that related to both knitting and Judaism.

We called the class, “Knitzvah.” The course has three primary goals: To learn the craft of knitting; to complete a blanket (made in squares) to donate to the charity of their choice; and to study Jewish texts that tangentially or directly relate to the craft.  All of this in a 30 minute time-slot!

For our first class, the students selected the color yarn they wanted to use and learned about knitting charities.  The chose, as a class, “Project Linus” to be the beneficiary of their knitting.

By the second class, we had our supplies in hand, and I spent the entire class going around the room teaching the basic stitches.  I handed out a text study about the 39 categories of labor that went into producing the Tabernacle.  I hoped that the students would discuss how much love, skill, and craftsmanship went into the building of a holy place.  The reality was however, that since this was their first day with yarn and needles and the class was only thirty minutes, the text study was largely ignored.  This class was pretty much a skill-building class alone.

I worried that that would be the norm, and that the class would fail as a “Jewish” course even if it succeeded as a knitting course.  In planning for the third class, I realized that I needn’t have worried.  The topic was keva and kavannah.

Prayer takes two forms – keva, the concrete, written text of the prayers, and kavannah, the personal intention that each individual brings to the text. When we learn the Hebrew text, the keva, and know it well, we have an opportunity to get lost in the kavannah.  Hebrew prayer can work as a mantra, and it actually helps if you aren’t fluent in Hebrew!  If I am praying the Yotzeir prayer, for example, I know that this is a prayer about creation, nature, and light.  As my mouth recites the Hebrew words, my mind and heart can meditate on their meaning.  If the prayer was in English, I would be far more wedded to the actual written words of the text.

After we discussed the concept in class, we talked about it how it applies to music.  I sang the chorus of Jeff Klepper’s “Shalom Rav” twice.  The first time I sang it, I tapped out the rhythm on my thigh and gave a clean rendition of the notes on the page with no inflection or prayerfulness.  Then I sang it again, praying for peace as a I sang the words.  We talked about the importance of prayerfulness.  We discussed the difference between the notes on the page and a musical interpretation – kavannah.

After all of that, I brought the subject to knitting.  I explained that we were beginning our knitting with a swatch just for learning, but that we would discard these swatches.  These are about learning the keva of knitting.  Once we have all mastered the stitch, we will begin work on our blanket squares.  In making these, we can add the kavannah.  These blankets are for sick children.  We will knit our love, caring, and our prayers for healing into the stitches.  Having mastered the keva, as they have with their prayers, they will have the attention left over for kavannah.

Charlie's BlanketMy sister had a baby recently.  Her first child had been born very sick and this new pregnancy was frightening for our family as we all worried for my sister’s health and that of this new baby.  I began a baby blanket almost as soon as she told me that she was pregnant.  As that tiny baby developed, I knit his blanket, adding love, hopes, and prayers to every stitch.  Her older daughter, now a beautiful five year old girl, still sleeps with the blanket that I knit for her.  I dreamed of seeing this new, hopefully healthy baby, wrapped in the thousands of stitches that I knit for him.

Charlie was born in October.  He is a beautiful, healthy, happy baby.  The favorite plaything of his big sister, and loves to nap on all of us.  His blanket came out perfectly.  I hope he can feel all the love within the stitches.

In Their Shoes

ShoesA lot of people are talking these days about how “over-programmed” our youth are. Kids come home with backpacks that threaten to tip them over filled with hours worth of homework. Before they can even begin, they are whisked off to dance lessons, baseball games, gymnastics, art classes, and more. And between all of those activities, they keep up with their social lives on the internet and through texting, and grab a minute or two to play with their computers, Xboxes, iPhones, and iPads. They aren’t playing stickball on the street during a pick-up game on a lazy Sunday afternoon; rather they are playing baseball on the field in a game organized months ago with parents screaming from the bleachers. And that homework isn’t going away.

I always feel a little bad to add to their load with their Hebrew school and Bar/Bat Mitzvah studies. Yet, I believe that it is vital that they learn how to prioritize and organize their time. They will need to figure out how to determine which of their activities they will need to skip or skimp on in order to be prepared for the things that really matter in any given moment in time. What makes it most difficult is the sudden disruption of their routine. They have a lot going on, but they know how to fit it all in. Suddenly you add in Bar Mitzvah lessons, and the whole thing just falls apart. How will they manage this new and very time-consuming commitment? How will they find the time to practice – even for just twenty minutes a day? There are NO twenty minute time slots as things stand right now.

Over the past couple of months, I have really had the opportunity to experience what this is like. Cantors have tremendously busy schedules. Without going into detail, I can just tell you that I work all weekend, have one day off a week, and that during weekdays, I am only home for dinner two nights. It’s okay. I’m used to it and I thrive on hard work. I am overscheduled just like those kids. But I have a routine and I know how to make it work in my life. Until you add one more thing.

musicI was invited to perform a recital of classical music for the Soirée Society at Nyack library. The concert was May 8th. I sing concerts all the time, but I haven’t sung a complete classical concert since my days at Oberlin Conservatory and I was little rusty. Not only that, since my appendix surgery, I had been finding that my vocal technique was suffering. I made an appointment with my voice teacher and headed to Hartford for a lesson.

It turns out that I needed to do some physical therapy to help me reconnect to my lower abdominal muscles after surgery. My teacher gave me some exercises and told me to practice them every day. I also needed to relearn the music because although I selected from my favorite music, it had been years since I had sung a lot of it. So I would also need to practice that every day, too. My teacher told me that I should take only one day off per week from practicing. I needed to schedule additional lessons with my teacher and rehearsals with my pianist. All of this in one of the busiest seasons that clergy have (Purim through Shavuot. Crazy. Just crazy). What was I thinking??

Fitting in that practice time proved to be a monumental task. What was I going to give up? My work wasn’t going away. I felt like I was preparing for my Bat Mitzvah – even though the music was entirely secular. (Actually, for me, music is never entirely secular because I find singing to be such a deeply spiritual experience, but that’s another blog post…) In the end, the concert went really well, but as with most things in life, there were many things that I could have done better – things that additional practice time would have really helped with.

One of the many lessons that I gained from this experience was a deeper understanding of what it is like for those twelve year old kids, walking into my office, preparing to add another huge commitment to their lives: a dedication to study, to tikkun olam (repairing our world through performing mitzvot), to perfection of keva (the words of prayer) and as much as possible kavannah (the emotional attention behind prayer). I tell them that part of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is learning how to be a responsible adult – how to make decisions about how they spend their time in order to get things done. But I saw that despite my many years of experience at being a “responsible adult,” it’s not so easy.

SunsetAdults struggle all the time with time-management and that is just in keeping up with the aspects of our lives that are already a part of our routine. How do we expect children and their parents to manage the profound disruption that is the Bar/Bat Mitzvah process? More importantly, how do we help them make it MORE than a profound distraction and disruption from the normal – to make it a new and improved normal? To stop long enough to notice the miracle – the bush burns, but is not consumed. We fit more and more into our lives, and by choosing things of value, we somehow are not consumed by them, but rather find ourselves lit up from within – inspired, growing, alight, reaching up, upwards, beyond.

Sing Unto G-d a Very Old Song

This week is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath during which we read the Song of the Sea from the Torah.  This is the moment in the text when the Israelites have finally escaped slavery, and they come upon the Sea of Reeds.  Moses holds his staff up and the waters, miraculously, part.  The children of Israel pass to freedom and sing this song, a text that includes the Mi Chamocha prayer, a text that is central to every worship service.  This is probably the oldest song ever written down and it is beautiful not only for its poetry and its melody (we use special chants to sing this section of Torah), but also for the art of its notation.


Scribes write this poem in the Torah in three columns.  There are at least three explanations that I have seen as to why it is written this way.  Some say that it is to remind us of the bricks of slavery, others say that it represents the way the water would look in the parting sea, the third is that the columns to the left and right represent the parted sea and the center column represents the Israelites walking through to freedom.  I like the third explanation the best.

Let’s take a look at the Mi Chamocha text which is taken out of this Torah poem.  The first line, “מִי־כָמֹֽכָה בָּאֵלִים ה”  – Who is like You, G-d, among the gods that are worshipped,” appears in the center column – the column belonging to the Israelites.  The rest of the prayer text, “מִי כָּמֹֽכָה נֶאְדָּר בַּקֹּֽדֶשׁ, נוֹרָא תְהִילֹּת, עֹֽשֵׂה פֶֽלֶא” “Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders,” appears, as it were, in the sea.  Why do you suppose that is?

The first line is so characteristic of the way that people often look at religion.  What is everybody else doing, they ask?  The people are recognizing in this question that their G-d appears to be a step above the rest, but isn’t it interesting that as they are noticing this about their faith, they are still looking around to comment on the other gods that people worship.

The rest of the prayer, dealing in the holiness and splendor of G-d is written into the side sections, the parts that are designated as the sea.  The holiness and splendor are written into the miracle for the people to see as they pass through.

G-d among the gods is a theme that appears frequently in Torah text.  The Israelites were one nation among many and those other nations worshiped many gods.  How did our G-d compare?  What miracles could our G-d do that theirs could not.  It kind of reminds me of kids, each claiming that their father could beat the other’s in a fight.  And indeed this moment does represent the childhood of the Jewish faith.  We would have a long way to go after this moment to become the people that we would become.  We left Egypt a mixed multitude, needing desperately to see and experience G-d directly.  A desire that lead our people to commit the sin of the golden calf.  We would have to learn how to believe in a G-d that we could neither see nor touch.

We may have been an immature people, but we had the most basic element of faith down:  Song.  Once we had that, the rest would follow in its time.  For what is wonder, joy, spirit, meaning, growth, or renewal without song?

A Sad Day

Photo by Limmud/Flickr

As I am sure you have all heard by now, Debbie Friedman passed away on January 9th.  I am writing this having just finished watching the live stream of her funeral.  I watched it along with the congregation that was there in person and 7,150 other people on the web.  I cried through a lot of it.  Her influence on the Jewish world is almost immeasurable.

At Temple Beth Torah, we will be singing a lot of her music during this period of Shiva and Shloshim and on January 28th, we will mark our Shabbat with a service of her music and a sermon in song about her contribution to the Jewish world.

I will try to record that and make it available through the blog.

Most of all at this time, my heart goes out to her family.  Debbie’s passing has touched so many people, that we think that she belongs to us.  Her poor family, although I am sure touched by the outpouring of love, must deal with this loss in such a public way.  As Debbie herself said, “Heroes are just people that we call another name.”  I pray that G-d will be with Debbie’s family and give them strength enough to bare their own sorrow along with the sorrow of all of her fans.

Debbie, thank you for all that you have given to the world.  Thank you for your music, your spirit, your patience, your joy.  We will never forget you.

Songs of the Spirit

Friedman, Debbie

Upon hearing the news of the severe illness of singer-songwriter, Debbie Friedman, I tried to remember the first Debbie song I had ever heard.  I couldn’t.  Debbie’s music has always been a part of my Jewish life and her style changed the face of Jewish music, especially in the Reform movement.  There are those that love it, and those that could do without out it, but nobody would deny its impact.  Debbie is widely credited with bringing the folk musical style and the guitar into reform worship.  Her music is simple, yet lovely, and unlike a lot of other “folk” or “rock” style Jewish music, hers lends itself to piano accompaniment just as well as to guitar.

I will be singing a lot of Debbie Friedman music in services tonight.  I will be putting the power of her song into the universe and hoping for the best for her recovery.  The words and melody of Debbie’s Mi Sheberach have guided countless thousands through the throws of illness and pain into recovery.  May we do the same for her as we join throughout the country.

Mi sheberach avoteinu
M’kor habracha l’imoteinu
May the Source of strength who blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing,
And let us say, Amen.

Mi sheberach imoteinu
M’kor habrachah l’avoteinu
Bless those in need of healing with R’fuah Sh’leimah
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit
And let us say, Amen.

Raise It Up! Raise It Up!

This weekend is Song leader Boot Camp East.  It is, according to their website, “an intensive leadership training program for Rabbis, Cantors, professional songleaders, and new songleaders offering a profound exploration of the physiology, psychology, strategy, and execution behind explosive Jewish teaching and songleading.”

My Saturday began with a double B’nei Mitzvah.  Two wonderful, dynamic boys were called to the Torah in a lovely service.  Immediately afterwards, I got in my car and sped (and luckily didn’t get a ticket) to Scotch Plains, NJ, to arrive late at the JCC for boot camp.  The day was intense, to say the very least.  Very early on, Rich Recht and Sheldon Low had 40 strangers jumping dancing, and clapping their hands in the air.  Chests were lifted, breathing and heart rates increased, we were pumped and we hadn’t done anything yet.  And that was just the point.  We didn’t even get out our guitars until after dinner.  Almost the entire day was spent on the psychology and physiology of performance.  Much like voice lessons, I discovered that there is a great deal of technique to this and that it is exceedingly difficult to keep all of these things in your head.  It’s like walking, chewing gum, rubbing your belly, and singing in Hebrew all at once!  But, like voice training, I am certain that a lot of it becomes second nature with practice.  At least I hope so.

This morning at Sunday school, I tried to put SOME of what I had learned into action.  We begin our Sunday school with a brief service.  I tried to use praise phrases, encouraging the kids to sing more and louder and then praising them when they did.  The energy in the first session (grades K-3) was fantastic!  The kids were singing.  They were energized.  It was great.  There was only one problem.  If you are singing the Mi Chamocha prayer, and right in the middle of the text you say, “Raise it up!  Awesome!” You have stopped talking to G-d and are now talking to the kids.  In that case, have you, as songleader, removed yourself from the process of prayer and become only a songleader, concerned with the volume and enthusiasm of those being lead, but not so much with the prayer itself?  How can you be both the songleader, inspiring and leading others to sing, and the cantor – really praying and inspiring others to prayer through your example?  I want people to sing with me, but I didn’t like interrupting the prayer to comment on it.

Maybe the answer is that in speaking to the kids, you are calling to the Divine Spark within those kids to be raised up?  Maybe that’s part of the prayer.  It seems to me, though, that that is its own prayer, not the Mi Chamocha.  That is the prayer of a song session, but not the prayer of a regular worship service.  It will be interesting to explore these questions further during  Song Leader Boot Camp Day 2 later today.  I’ll also be curious to see how these techniques play out with our second session of Hebrew school students (4th-6th grade).

I’ll let you know how it goes…

Until then, Raise it up!!

It’s Getting Exciting

Hey folks!  I am really starting to get psyched about this trip to Rome!  I’ve finished fund raising (thanks to ALL who contributed).  I’ve purchased my tickets.  I’ve received the music in the mail (time to get to work on that).  I started discussions with my local Catholic church about doing some joint programming.  I purchased a doodad that will allow me to easily transfer pics from my camera to my mobile devices so that I can blog my trip with pictures every day!

Today I caught sight of the preview video for the documentary that they will be making of our trip.  I saw it on the ACC page on facebook.  If you aren’t a friend of the ACC, come check it out!  Just search for American Conference of Cantors on facebook and become a fan!

Here’s the preview:

Now, true to form with this blog, I need to come up with an idea for a knitting project to take with me to Rome.  The project should be small and portable, and should somehow relate to the theme of faith and building bridges between communities.  Please make some suggestions in the comments!!

Truly Honored

From the ACC website (

It is our pleasure to announce those Cantors who will proudly represent the ACC in Rome this November in a concert promoting Catholic-Jewish dialogue. The concert will be held at the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. This group of Cantors was chosen from among the many submissions from our talented colleagues. The Cantors on this list represent the great diversity of our organization. In addition to those who are performing, Cantor Erik Contzius has graciously volunteered to compose a piece for this occasion.

Sopranos: Roslyn Barak, Susan Caro, Lori Corrsin, Gail Hirschenfang, Sally Neff, and Kerith Spencer-Shapiro

Altos: Lauren Bandman, Rosalie Boxt, Claire Franco, Tracey Scher, and Nancy Kassel

Tenors: David Berger, Mark Goldman, Peter Halpern, and David Margules

Baritones/Bass: Richard Cohn, David Frommer, Jonathan Grant, Todd Kipnis, and Leigh Korn

Accompanists: Alan Mason and Vladimir Polezhayev

The video of my audition can be seen on the sidebar.

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