Our Feet, and Voices, Were Praying

Amy and Eula

I sang my heart out and made a new friend. For the past several months, I was fortunate to participate in an extraordinary hopeful, spiritual and educational community music project, Singing the Dream.

Even in our broken world, I found camaraderie joy and peace every Wednesday night, after answering the open call for singers. On January 26, singers from all walks of life performed in the packed 700-person capacity sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El of Providence.  It was an afternoon of song and fellowship in tribute to the life and legacy of civil rights leader and American hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Through this annual civic and cultural event in collaboration with Providence’s Central Congregational Church, “we want our neighborhood — Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics — whoever they are religiously or not and whatever color their skin is, to stop once a year and say, ‘Are we just talking the talk? Or, are we walking the walk?’ said Emanu-El’s Cantor and choral director Brian Mayer. “And, bring our attention back to what Dr. King’s message was, what his dream was.” This year’s concert featured New York City’s Sing Harlem Choir and its founder, Vy Higginsen.  Higginsen, a celebrated producer and writer, created the Mama Foundation for the Arts in Harlem two decades ago to train younger generations in gospel, jazz and R&B. Higginsen’s mission has been to teach her young singers that they have a voice, and that every voice must and will be heard. Anyone who has heard Sing Harlem, would agree that Vy Higgensen is achieving her mission.

The Singing the Dream Chorus, a community chorus of singers from amateur to professional, performed African-American spirituals and Jewish hymns.  A highlight was the East Coast premiere of “I Felt My Legs Were Praying,” composed by New York-based Cantor Gerald Cohen reflecting on the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery by Dr. King and 600 civil rights demonstrators, including the late Rabbi Eli Bohnen of Temple Emanu-El.  Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel (whom King called “a great prophet” and close friend) marched alongside King from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. 

Gerald Cohen writes, “We strive to use our words, our songs, our bodies—our whole being—to work for a better and more just world.  When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965, they exemplified religious leaders who hear the voice of the prophets and the Psalms as an explicit call to action.  In this composition, I combine the words of Rabbi Heschel after the march—most famously remembered in the phrase “I felt my legs were praying”—with a verse from Psalm 35, which also speaks of one’s very body exclaiming praise, and praise of a God who protects the poor from those who would oppress them.”

                    From Psalm 35 and the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Kol atzmotai tomarna Adonai mi chamocha!
matzil ani meychazak mimenu, v’ani v’evyon migozlo.

[All of my bones exclaim: Adonai, who is like You!
saving the weak from the powerful, the needy from those who would prey on them.]

And yet our legs uttered songs—
The march from Selma was a protest, a prayer.
Even without words, our march was worship,
I felt my legs were praying!

“I Felt My Legs Were Praying” was a complex, fascinating and challenging work for a small, amateur chorus to tackle. Because of Cantor Meyer’s enthusiasm and determination, as well as his expertise as a musician and educator, we were inspired to deconstruct, examine and conquer the music, embracing its remarkable sophistication and beauty.  At one rehearsal, we were honored with a rare treat- a master class, via Skype, with Gerald Cohen himself.  To receive feedback and insight from the composer further enriched our understanding and appreciation of his masterpiece.

Temple Emanu-El’s late senior Rabbi Eli Bohnen invited King to address the Rabbinical Assembly’s convention in New York in 1968. There, King was serenaded with “We Shall Overcome” performed in Hebrew and later declared: “Probably more than any other ethnic group, the Jewish community has been sympathetic and has stood as an ally to the Negro in his struggle for justice.” King was assassinated ten days later. Our chorus  joined voices with Sing Harlem and standing-room-only crowd, filling the sanctuary with our rendition, in Hebrew and English. Many wept. Actually, I am pretty sure everyone wept.

The morning of the concert, my friend Eula and I were sitting the the sanctuary pews.  Complete strangers at the onset, we had sung together for months, connected by the shared sense of divine presence conjured through song.  That, and and mutual appreciation for great fashion. Eula pulled something from her bag, and said, “I brought this to give to you.”  My beautiful new treasure is a silky scarf emblazoned with the words ‘Great Heroines’  and the strong smiling faces of Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. I am rarely speechless. Even without words, I felt my tears were praying.

great heroines

 

Elul: A Time to Search and Destroy

“It does not do to leave a dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” -J.R.R. Tolkien

Throughout the Hebrew month of Elul, the shofar is sounded every day except the Sabbath, in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  In Aramaic, the language spoken by Jews at the time months were first named, Elul means “search.”

The entire month, blasts of the shofar serve as a ‘wake-up call’ to begin our internal search- the deep, spiritual work of the season. However, the day before Rosh Hashanah the shofar is silent. It is said one reason for this change in pattern is to confuse Satan, who may have viewed the daily repetition as mindless routine and is rattled by  the sudden stop. Befuddling Satan, throws him off his evil game.

The pregnant pause in the pattern also provides us with the opportunity to reset, to collect our intentions for the resumption of the shofar, which, before it is sounded in the Torah service Rosh Hashonah mornings, is introduced by the recitation of a series of six Hebrew verses. The acronym formed by the first letter of each of these verses spells out the phrase Kra Satan, “rip up [destroy] Satan.” This declaration expresses the desire to  rid ourselves of our own debilitating negativity and the evil influences in our midst.

According to gematria, the numerical representation of Hebrew letters and words, the Hebrew word for “Satan” equals 359. The word “nachash” (the snake in the Garden of Eden) equals 358. Kabbalah teaches that in tabulating the numerical value of a word, the number one may be added to represent the word as a whole. Therefore “Satan” and “nachash,” both equalling 359, may be viewed as synonyms for negative energy or evil.   The spiritual counterbalance to the primordial snake and Satan is the Messiah, whose name, fittingly, also equals 359.

The upcoming Jewish new year, 5780, contains the number 80, the numerical value for the Hebrew letter pey,  meaning “mouth,” and by extension, “word,” “expression,” “breath.”  The number 80 is the same numerical value of the words yesod and gevurah, “foundation” and “strength.” There seems to be more and more evil in our world, whether in the form of dragons, snakes or human incarnations of Satan. It won’t do, to leave this tragic reality out of our calculations. It will take a foundation of creativity, courage, strength and leadership for us to banish Satan and begin the holy work of repair.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Talk to Strangers, One Smile at a Time

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In spite of my optimism two years ago, when I first published “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” the news has not been so good. Violence, against humanity and our planet, is on the rise. Evil seems to be seeping from our leaders, corporations, and predators, staining  what is left of our collective moral fiber.  I reflect often upon my favorite Akira Kurosawa quote, “It is better to be mad in a sane world, than sane in a mad world,” though it offers only minor solace.

However,  I continue to wear my smiley face handbag, with the same results I described in that early post.  And, I see the direct, positive impact it has on others.  I’ve decided it’s time to recognize the treasured, yet fleeting, interactions I have with others, and chronicle them through my new instagram project  @onesmileyfaceatatime. Now, when a someone spots my handbag, and greets me with a hearty, “I love your bag, ” or simply starts laughing, my new practice is to stop, chat for a moment, and give them a smiley button as a souvenir of our encounter.  With permission, I photograph my new pals and post the pictures. It’s my Johnny Appleseed approach to making the world a better place, planting one smile at a time.

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                                     You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile

first published  August 19, 2017


emoticon

I happened upon an article in The Times of Israel chronicling the recent discovery of “history’s oldest smiley face,” After 7 grueling years of excavations near the Turkish border of war-torn Syria, the site of a famous biblical battle, archeologists uncovered a 4,000 year-old pot featuring the classic, stylized representation of a smiling face, comprised of the black dots and arc reminiscent of Harvey Ball’s 1963 design. Commissioned by an insurance company as part of a campaign to bolster the morale of its employees, the smiley face quickly became part of popular culture.  It is central to today’s text-based cyber-communication, conveying tone and emotion through facial gestures in the short-hand language of emoticons.

Reading of the  survival and re-emergence of this smile from 1700 BCE has filled me with a sense of hope.  It also resonates with my choice of handbag.

SMILEY FACE POT.png

When I rediscovered a treasured smiley face purse from childhood last year, I knew it was just the right accessory for me to sport once again.  The election year had quickly escalated from strange to disturbing,  and I felt the need for just such a bright spot.  I have worn this bag in the subsequent 6 surreal months. My sartorial decision has had more impact than I could have imagined.

On a regular basis, people stop me on the street, honk and wave at me from their cars, approach me in stores, symphony halls and on public transportation, grinning, laughing and warmly letting me know how much they love my handbag. The day after the violence in Charlottesville,  a somewhat dour woman eyeing me on the subway suddenly, earnestly, thanked me for wearing the bag, “especially during these times.” I found myself responding, “It helps, doesn’t it?”

What I’d thought was my private, playful fashion statement seems to be providing a much-needed public service.  In troubled times, there is solace in discovering that each of us can be ambassadors of goodwill, even with a simple smile.

File Aug 18, 7 27 45 PM

L’Shana Tova 5779: Come As You Are

East Side Bus Tunnel, Providence, Rhode Island, 2018

The series of sounds of the shofar, helps us prepare for the work of the year ahead.

Tekiah: we are whole

Shevarim: we are broken

T’ruah: we are shattered

   Tekiah g’dolah: we are whole; transformed through the holy work of repair, reinvention and renewed commitment to making our lives a blessing.

Home Team?

You can take the girl out of Philadelphia, but you can’t take Philadelphia out of the girl. My visit this weekend reminded me of the devout pride Philly has in its teams. Yesterday, in a horribly long line for the register at the Center City Trader Joe’s, an announcement came over the loudspeaker instructing customers to chime in and sing the Eagles’ fight song, on the count of 3. That happened, in a big way, with boisterous Philly enthusiasm. Today, the at 30th Street Station, in “Eagles Nation,” the arrival of my train home was energetically announced by an Amtrak employee, wearing an oversized green Eagles jersey, beaming, shaking hands and high-fiving passengers as we filed onto the escalator. While I love the home I have made in Providence, RI, for tonight’s Super Bowl, I’d rather be an Eagles fan.

You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile

emoticon

I happened upon an article in The Times of Israel chronicling the recent discovery of “history’s oldest smiley face,” After 7 grueling years of excavations near the Turkish border of war-torn Syria, the site of a famous biblical battle, archeologists uncovered a 4,000 year-old pot featuring the classic, stylized representation of a smiling face, comprised of the black dots and arc reminiscent of Harvey Ball’s 1963 design. Commissioned by an insurance company as part of a campaign to bolster the morale of its employees, the smiley face quickly became part of popular culture.  It is central to today’s text-based cyber-communication, conveying tone and emotion through facial gestures in the short-hand language of emoticons.

Reading of the  survival and re-emergence of this smile from 1700 BCE has filled me with a sense of hope.  It also resonates with my choice of handbag.

SMILEY FACE POT.png

When I rediscovered a treasured smiley face purse from childhood last year, I knew it was just the right accessory for me to sport once again.  The election year had quickly escalated from strange to disturbing,  and I felt the need for just such a bright spot.  I have worn this bag in the subsequent 6 surreal months. My sartorial decision has had more impact than I could have imagined.

On a regular basis, people stop me on the street, honk and wave at me from their cars, approach me in stores, symphony halls and on public transportation, grinning, laughing and warmly letting me know how much they love my handbag. The day after the violence in Charlottesville,  a somewhat dour woman eyeing me on the subway suddenly, earnestly, thanked me for wearing the bag, “especially during these times.” I found myself responding, “It helps, doesn’t it?”

What I’d thought was my private, playful fashion statement seems to be providing a much-needed public service.  In troubled times, there is solace in discovering that each of us can be ambassadors of goodwill, even with a simple smile.

File Aug 18, 7 27 45 PM