Saturday, January 31, 2009

song of songs

i noticed a very interesting phenomenon at a shabbaton i attended recently, and i'd like to present it to you - without judgment or analysis, if i can.

it was a shtotsy shabbos. to reach the proper shtotsiness threshhold, they brought in an a cappella group. these were guys, students, like nearly everyone at the shabbaton. it was a pleasure, not only to hear them, but to observe them: i kept myself entertained trying to interpret the hand signals they would occasionally flash each other as they sang. they performed at davening and a few times during the meal. they beatboxed; they did scat; at the end of songs they would break into astonishing and surprisingly intricate riffs or arrangements. between them they had a pretty wide range of vocal tones and blended them with smooth efficiency.

in short, they were very good. but it was clear that they were students first, yeshiva guys. i didn't know them, but in their white shirts and black pants, they looked the part.

time for a small tangent.

so. kol isha.

it's an inyan with many nuances, many shades, many interpretations. with my poor grasp of the subject, it would be unfair for me to attempt to define it. for that i refer you to links like this and suggest further research.

i do not pose what follows as my personal view, but a description of what i perceive to be common practice, if you can even talk about such a thing, in yu.

in yu circles, it seems that women are encouraged to sing with men during bentching or davening, but in no other context. certainly i've never seen a band or a choir of women perform for a male audience in a university setting. perhaps in other arenas. but i know that most of my friends would consider these performances 'sketchy' at best. at any rate, i think we can agree that standard orthodox policy discourages it.

And by its nature, halachakically sound as it may be, that policy limits.

i am always fascinated by the talent that i encounter in my peers. at this point, it may be a little embarrassing that i am still surprised when a friend opens her mouth and unearthly music rings out, or i pick up her sketchbook and witness a vision. G-d implants all kinds of miracles in people, and i have had the pleasure to know some truly miraculous people, even in passing.

yet in orthodox judaism, the talent of women is no simple thing. with some talents - visual arts, even writing - gender is no bar. but i have always wondered about those of my friends whose throats house treasures. you know women like this too (although if you're male, perhaps you've never heard them): they're the ones who perform at women's benefits; in the back of your shul, quietly, beside you during kedusha; in their dining rooms as they're clearing the shabbos table. and instantly you think of a different world or maybe a different life where they would be on a stage somewhere drawing tears from the coldest eyes. my grandmother has an expression for voices like these. 'to make angels cry,' she says.

i feel privileged to listen as they sing. But in the back of my head i think of the cost. what must it be like to contain this music, to flex a muscle so strong, to cradle so much beauty - and keep the lid closed? don't tell me about women's concerts or women's tours or things like that. yes, i know. but it's not the same. it's not the same as landing your first role in a broadway musical, and it's not the same as singing to thousands at an outdoor festival or a national opera house or whatever else you can think of.

It’s not singing a duet with a baritone, either.

they tell you to do what you love. what if you love to sing - if singing is your life - but you're almost categorically prohibited from pursuing that as a career?

I dreamed once of being famous. wanted to be a nationally-acclaimed songwriter (doesn’t everyone at some point?). I had no particular skill for it, so i mourned that dream hardly at all. But the experience gave me a taste of what some – not all - vocally gifted orthodox women might feel. Denied, a little bit. Constricted.

Of course, restraint, for lack of a better word, is integral to Orthodox Judaism. There’s a lot of things we don’t do. We don’t eat cheeseburgers. We don’t work on shabbos.

But those, for most people who are born frum, anyway, are easy.

We don’t wear certain things, even if they look good. We don’t hang out certain places.

We don’t hold hands.

There are a lot of things we, as orthodox jews, do not do. And some are hard.

In that frame of reference, here is what I stumbled across this shabbos:

I was walking down a stairwell in the building where the shabbaton had eaten. There were some speeches, interesting but longish, and it was somewhere in the grayish midpart of the afternoon. I was tired and focused only on the unfair number of stairs remaining between me and the ground floor.

After just a few steps, an unmistakable swelling of sound filled the stairwell, and I paused, smiling to myself. Apparently the a cappella group had decided to practice in the stairwell, which, running a considerable distance as it did, boasted rich, atmospheric acoustics. I hardly noticed the flights as I walked, the lush layerings of voice floating up to me like magic. I listened closely for each harmony and each part, singling them out as i identified them with my pitiful knowledge of music: this one is holding down the bass end, that one is doing a round, the other one –

The other one was a trilling, gorgeous soprano.

I stopped on the steps, frowned, and listened closely. But there was no mistaking it: the soaring, almost angelic tone was distinctly feminine. And now I heard others. It dawned on me that the unearthly tapestry of sound rising all around me, swelling and subsiding like waves in the sea, was full-bodied. Every range was represented. Baritones, altos, sopranos. They were all singing the same zemer, but the harmonies had shifted, rearranging themselves to accommodate the new flexibility and reach of their voices. These were no ordinary voices: each was rich, elegant, powerful. Together there were maybe twelve.

It sounded like every part of the world, from the earth to the sky, was singing. It was glorious.

But it was also stupefying.

Could I really be hearing what I was hearing? In this place? With these people? The guys had been doing some Yehuda songs earlier. Not envelope pushers as I would imagine them.

I descended the staircase slowly. As I said, the songs came in waves. I detected a trend: the male voices would start, and then, after a time, the higher end would join in. I was utterly intrigued. I kept walking, enveloped in the music.

As I neared the ground level, I finally discovered the a capella group, knitted together in a tight half circle on a landing. I watched their faces, mystified. Where were the other voices coming from? Had I completely lost it? They parted to let me and my friend pass, still singing.

It was at the bottom of the next flight that I found the girls.

I stopped to consider their arrangement.

I don’t remember how many girls there were. Maybe five. Some I knew, some I did not, but all sounded indisputably beautiful. They were separated from the guys by one and a half flights of stairs: they couldn’t see each other at all. Yet the acoustics were intimate, and they could hear each other with perfect precision.

I stood by the door to the flight, watching, noting, wondering how this had evolved.

Had the girls heard the choir practicing in the stairwell and decided to hum along, softly at first, then with escalating volume as they lost themselves in the music? Had the boys asked for their accompaniment? It seemed impossible for either group to be unaware of the crucial and substantial role each voice was playing in the sound.

How did the a cappella group feel about it?

Were the women’s voices an unwelcome addition? Was the group concerned that they were violating an issur, but too afraid to offend the girls by moving to another practice space?

Was it, perhaps, not something which would have occurred to them, but which they didn’t mind? Were they enjoying the majesty of this sound?

What about the women?

What was their justification—or did they even see a need for one? Was this, at last, an opportunity to participate in a full choir? Was I mistaking them entirely—was this just the impetus anyone feels, when they hear a beautiful song, to sing along? Did they feel immodest? Did they care?

Standing there, I doubted anyone in the stairwell could remain unaffected, untouched by the delicate grace of the interlocking voices, building and dying away.

Was it right or wrong? I’ll leave that for you to think about. I'm still thinking myself.

But I will tell you this: the image and the music will stay with me a long while. In a way I cannot fully explain, that stairwell feels emblematic to me of what orthodox Judaism today can sometimes be. You would have found it nowhere else.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

are you still my friend?

so. january, huh? is it pathetic that the last time i wrote anything of substance we all thought hillary would be president? i'd say i haven't had time, but that's not strictly true. i feel pinched: there's so much i would like to write about, and if i ever wrote any of it, i'd have to develop an alias for real life. curse you, google! 

these past few months have spun me around a few times, but for the first time in a long time, i feel like i have a direction. that this is partially due to a teen novel sensation is a little embarrassing, but hey. you take your knocks. 

my ambivalence about the future has been starting to peek through the cracks in my life. through sheer providence, i started an internship at a major publishing company last week*. i've done the revolving-door-boy thing. i organized the clothes in my dresser by function. (do you ever feel like that? everything you can't control is incomprehensible, but at least your socks should know who's boss?)  

nevertheless, i'm beginning to see the trajectory more clearly. post-college is not the vast blank i thought it would be. you move in steps, seeing only exactly what's in front of you: you can get an apartment in these three places, you can apply for a job here, here and here, these people you like will be living this far away, you need to make x amount of's funny how things fill themselves in at the last minute. i'm a student, we're trained to study, but i think you really can't study for life. things either happen or they don't, and no amount of prep-work can ensure either outcome. 

this sort of disappoints me, because i can prep like the dickens, so by the old point-system, i could've been home free. but two millenia of philosophers plus my mother can't be wrong. 

and i think i'm finally okay with that. i have never been the queen of spontaneity, but taking things as they come has its appeal. a year ago i would never have expected to be where i am now. and while i love stern, love my friends, love what a home this place has - despite all my freshman qualms - come to be to me, i also acknowledge that some of the dreams i had before i came here have gotten buried beneath it. 

forgive me, people, but you knew this was coming. let's talk twilight. 

so i think my excuse for reading those books is almost respectable. i got stuck in an airport (flight delayed three hours) and knew from experience that david baliducci did nothing for me. some of my friends (you know who you are) had also gone to see the movie recently. 'hmm,' i thought. 'that's a hefty-looking tome there in hudson news. i have three hours to kill. it can't be worse than the one about the mona lisa cult.' 

150 pages later i had drawn two conclusions: 

1. everyone i know is a better writer than this woman 
   a. this woman is writing about vampiric high school crushes 
   b. the plot is a thinly-disguised device to stretch the book out and, in the sequels, resembles z-grade horror movies 
2. this woman is a world-famous successful author 

then, sitting there in the airport, staring at the long gray stretch of concrete where my plane should have been for a good four hours, i reached another conclusion: 

3. if i really, really wanted to, and if i worked hard, i could write something better. so why haven't i?

it's all i ever really wanted to do. that's what it says in my middle-school yearbook. right next to my name. sandwiched in between "i want to be a mommy" and "i want to be a rebbetzin" there was my 20-year-projective: "i want to be an author." 

i was one of those kids who was never good at anything. think back to your kindergarten years. fairly early on, you get the breakdown: there's the "artists", the kids who can color neatly inside the lines and whose flowers always look like flowers; there's the fast runners, the kids who are good at two-square and dodgeball and machanayim; there's the kids who are bossy and good at organizing the other kids; there's the kids who win the middos contests. i was none of those. i almost got held back for handwriting. i couldn't cut in a straight line and always put on too much glue. my flowers looked like monkeys and every project i made came out the same unappetizing brownish-black color, because i always tried to marker things over. i was an instant out in machanayim and talked too much for anyone to want to sit next to me. by second grade, i was thoroughly convinced that i would never find my calling. 

in third grade, we had to publish our own books. 

i still remember the first things i wrote. they weren't as out there as the pt's; nothing special. a girl getting hurt on the slide and having to go to the hospital, where her other friends helicoptered in to visit her (hmm. on second thought...). i wrote a whole series about a teddybear named 'honest' on the run from the toy factory along with his sidekick, who was some kind of penguin or pig, and which got needlessly violent at some point. 

but what i remember most is the awe i felt, sitting down in front of a blank page or screen and knowing i could make anything i wanted happen on it. i didn't have to be good at machanayim in real life. i could write about someone who was. i didn't have to stay in milwaukee in real life. i didn't have to be seven. i didn't have to be jewish. i didn't have to be anything. i could disappear into a million protagonists in a million alien worlds and live lives entirely separate from my own. it was like reading but better - because i got to decide the ending. 

i kept them from people unless they were for school. i couldn't imagine why anyone would share things like that. every adventure i wrote was a fantasy, someplace or someone else i wished i could be, and i was a little ashamed of it. nobody else in my class ever seemed to want to be anyone but themselves. they found 'what ifs' a little pointless. what if you were a prisoner during the french revolution? what if you were on atlantis? what if you were an actress? but you aren't. so...what does it matter? 

for awhile that question stumped me. 

i still get it from time to time, in different forms. why do you waste so much time writing made-up things? isn't writing stories kind of like being a professional liar? it makes sense to ask, i think. why do people give hours of their lives to somebody else's make-believe, anyway? we all do it at some point. people sit and watch television for hours. they pay twelve dollars to go to a movie about someone whose biography bears no resemblance to their own. what do we get out of that? 

everyone answers that a little differently. i'm curious to know what you think. i was in middle-school, which i think is when you read the books that will be your favorites for the rest of your life, when i started solidifying my answer. 

from books, from music, and from any kind of story, i gained two kinds of knowledge. 

i'll call the first trivial. facts. you know what i mean. i learned where countries were located, how feudalism developed, what scotland yard was (hat tip, ms. marple). i learned words which were too big for me and which i mispronounced because i only encountered them in writing. i went around calling zimbabwe 'rhodesia' like an idiot because i hadn't gotten up to the twentieth century yet. 

but i also learned experiential things. i learned about people. 

i think everyone has moments like this, when you're reading a paragraph and suddenly the author has expressed precisely and clearly a feeling you've never been able to understand or define, and suddenly it makes sense. authors have a phenomenal power to explain the experience of being human. in life, you don't get the narrator telling you out of the corner of their mouth why your friend isn't happy that you did well on the test or why your mother seems preoccupied today. but stories peel back the layers. they let you see dimensions of people you'd never have access to otherwise. they point out the significance in details. suddenly you notice what a person's kitchen says about them, you scrutinize the way they wear their backpack, how they stand on the subway. everything becomes educational. everything becomes interesting. 

when you're looking at the world with that lens, it's almost impossible to be bored and hard to be lonely. you learn to see people's vulnerabilities and strengths. i guess on the one hand it removes you a little bit: you become more of a watcher than a doer, more of an observer than a participant in the world around you. maybe that's the price you pay. but i don't think anyone can escape involvement in their own lives entirely anyway, do you?

regardless, that's what i think books are capable of. and that's why i think good books, good stories are essential. they have the ability to mean so many things. they can be friends, understanding things about you that you don't understand yourself; they can be mentors, imparting insights into the way people think and respond; they can be tour guides, leading you through exotic locales and times. good books change the people who read them. 

that's what i've always wanted to create. a story with that kind of power, characters with that kind of complexity. people who feel real, that you can love, that you want to spend time with, that you can learn from. that's what i want to be when i grow up. if i can create something that will mean the world to even one person, it's enough. i can work a day job forever if i know that somewhere, someone is reading a story that i wrote, living in it, and happy because of it. 

it might take five years, it might take ten. but i will do it someday. i think it's worth doing. 

and that's why i'm done apologizing to boys for being me. yes, i watch movies. yes, i listen to secular music. i love secular music. i love secular books. i love everything. i think everything is interesting, and i plan to learn more about whatever i can. i am tired of trying to find unconditional corruption and vice in every facet of culture. not every book is a good book, not every song is a good song, but i refuse to write off entire genres of knowledge because of that. one day i will find a guy who understands this; until then, i've got a tall order to fill, and all the time in the world to figure out how.   

so that's where i'm holding. will it make all the work, all the waiting, and all the knocks i'm about to get at this out-of-my-league internship worth it? 

it's time to find out.

*more about this as soon as i figure out how to write about it covertly