Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rosh Hashanah, I Wish You Were.

Every year, no matter how hard I try, the holidays -- be it Pesach or Rosh Hashanah or something else -- sneak up on me. I start reading and preparing, analyzing the meanings behind fasts and actions and how we daven, far in advance of the holidays. But then, out of nowhere, it is upon us and I'm lost. Lost in the music, the prayers, the people, the noise, the chaos. And this Rosh Hashanah, it wasn't enough that the days were full of all of these things, no, what was added to it was an incident that will probably be one of those "Hey, remember that year where Chavi didn't come to shul and when she did she looked like she'd been knocked out in a boxing match?" kind of memories.

I was staying in a new environment, and despite my best efforts -- bringing my own pillow cases, my own allergen-free pillow, my own pillows and body wash -- somehow I managed to develop a violent allergic reaction to something still unknown to me. It started Saturday morning when I woke up, progressed throughout the day, and culminated around 2 a.m. Sunday morning with a swollen-shut right eye and a left eye on the way there. In the morning, I didn't make it to shul because I'd been up all night wiping my eye and making sure my face didn't swell too much and that -- most importantly -- my throat didn't swell shut. Two people, two amazing friends, even made their way to the apartment to wake me up and check on me (they didn't know the situation). When I finally made it to shul, moments before shofar, I was surrounded by friends dishing medical advice (real doctors!) and handing me antihistamines. The swelling in my eye was down drastically when the service ended a few hours later, and by the evening my eyes were looking better and my skin was bumpy like the peel of an orange and red as can be. Did I mention how itchy it was?

Even today, my face is bumpy, red and blotchy, and I just have to hope that the Prednisone prescribed to me on Monday will really kick it up and make this go away. For someone like me -- with an always-clear complexion -- it's frustrating, disheartening, and depressing. I hate to be vain, but it's more than that. I was embarrassed to be at shul, and later, in class. It's hard to focus when your eyeballs are itchy and your skin is peeling and flaking. It's disgusting and distracting.

I tried so hard to focus on Rosh Hashanah services this weekend. Our chazzan, flown in from Israel for the High Holidays has a voice of honesty, passion, depth. I found myself, despite the state of my face, focusing on his arms as they swung about in song, his shukeling, his devotion to the words, to their meaning. He managed to find a space in his own world to bring his soul toward G-d, and despite all of those people in the sanctuary chattering and reading novels and paying no attention, he was real, he was true. His words were something special. I found that, when my face was itchy and looking horrible, it was easier for me to focus on the chazzan and his words -- more easy, that is, then when I'm normal, healthy, and focusing on the babblers around me.

[As an aside, the dinner I went to Friday night was at the home of some Israeli friends of mine (note: more like family!), and the chazzan was there as well. The chazzan, whose English isn't too stellar, allowed for our hosts and myself to speak a bit of Hebrew, and for Tuvia to nod along joyfully. It was so interesting to be in a household where we bounced back and forth between Hebrew and English, and it was absolutely something special for me because it gave me practice listening, comprehending, and even speaking a bit.]

I did, however, have an interesting conversation with friends about the state of affairs at shul over the High Holidays, and I have to agree with them -- to a point. They were talking about how for some of these people, these twice-a-year Jews, it's a huge step for them to make it to the shul for Rosh Hashanah to hear the shofar (which, in truth, is the major mitzvah of RH anyway). Although they drive me nuts, grate my cheese, and make it all-around more difficult to listen to the chazzan than a swollen melonhead, they're there, and that's something. That they chose to come to an Orthodox shul, where the only sound you'll hear is the purest voice of the chazzan, is also something. There was no production, no lights and choirs and extravagant displays of High Holiday excess. No, it was simple. It was chaos. It was organized, beautiful, chaos. They didn't extend the walls to pack in hundreds of people -- it was men and women smashed into the sanctuary listening to a chazzan with pipes of gold, pipes with a direct connection to the divine. And overall? It was beautiful. It was how I've always pictured the service. Simple, chaotic, perfect.

Interestingly, a friend suggested the following advice: If there are days of the year to skip shul, it's the High Holidays. It gave me a chuckle, but I understand. The pure volume of people there elevated the chattering behind the chazzan's davening. But I keep telling myself -- they were THERE.

I feel as though I was cheated a bit, however. Because of the state of my face. People kept checking up on me, asking if I was okay, making sure I could handle to be in the sanctuary during davening. So? I focused my energies on the shofar, and I was reminded of probably the one thing I miss most about my old Reform shul: the girl who blew the shofar -- she, she had pipes. That long note? She could blast it for minutes. Her skills were incomparable. Unimaginable.

But it's the sound of the shofar that brought everyone to quietude. The rabbi wouldn't let the shofar be blown until the entire crowd was silent. Children came running in from every direction. Women silenced their chattering. Men turned toward the bimah. The rabbi read the sound, the man blew the shofar. And it was beautiful. The sound that I hear in my dreams, that powerful sound above all quietness that connects us all on these days of Awe. Silence and beauty. Silence and loudness. It's that sound of creation, bringing order through noise to the quiet.

So here I am, in the days of Awe, contemplating whether my face will clear up and stop itching in time for me to enjoy Shabbat and Yom Kippur. To really focus on the reason for the season (if I can say that, that is). We have friends, the illustrious @SusQHB and @RavTex coming up for the weekend, and I'm so stoked. I love sharing my community with others, because it's the most amazing community out there. I think this weekend was the most perfect example of the gift I've been given -- people cared enough to check on me, people ran to their respective houses to bring me medicine, people offered up their homes to me to rest in the afternoon, their beds to rest my swollen head, food to comfort me, and jokes and calm things to make me less worried. These people, this community of mine, is a family unlike any other that I've known. Eizeh mishpacha!?

Thus, 5770 came in with an interesting bang. They say that how you spend the days of Rosh Hashanah will define your year -- if you nap on RH, you'll have a sleepy year and the like. I have to hope, with all my heart, that this won't be a year of pain and suffering. I have to hope that rather, it will be a year of friendship, community, family, and connections. A realizing of my dream to be an Orthodox Jew in all halakic senses of the word. So may I be sealed, for all my efforts and passion, in the book of life. And may you all -- my extended family through blogging, Twittering, and many other avenues -- be sealed in the book of life for a healthy, happy, productive, and peaceful 5770!