Thursday, December 04, 2014

Don't Cry for Me, Mandy Patinkin

On the final Friday afternoon in November, Concord's Monument Square was congenially crowded with ruddy-cheeked, good-natured pedestrians arrayed in colorful outerwear, toting oversized holiday shopping bags, gracefully skirting the coconutty mounds of unsullied snow banking the sidewalks of the street leading up to the Colonial Inn, our destination, established in 1713.

We had arrived in the heart of this historic Massachusetts town with only a couple of hours until Shabbat, eager to track down food and local cultural offerings...not necessarily in that order. Stumbling into the hotels's reception area with my too-numerous bags and Manhattan black-on-black attire, I set about the task of finding out what was showing, playing or otherwise open that we would need to purchase tickets for before the 4:12 sundown.

One of the hallmarks of people like me who straddle the worlds of traditional Jewish observance and the cultural cornucopia of secular society is an insistence upon celebrating Shabbat while also availing ourselves of shows, concerts and other local offerings. In other words, we want to be part of the wonderful world at large even as we honor the restrictions that are part of a religious life.

What this typically means is a mad dash to purchase tickets before the advent of the Day of Rest and being able to walk to the venue and back to one's hotel from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. It means figuring out what to do for Friday night dinner; it means museum admissions secured ahead of time so that a Saturday visit can take place. It also often means a tote bag or knapsack filled with snacks so the day of adventure can unfold without compromising any of the Sabbath day restrictions on making purchases.

Depending on one's denomination, all kinds of creative solutions may be found and the season greatly impacts this experience as the long days of summer provide the opportunity for Friday evening travel before it gets dark and the short days of winter mean that secular Saturday night endeavors can begin as early as 5 p.m.

Whether one carries a credit card that is used only until sunset on Friday or just after sunset on Saturday has to do with the willingness to interpret the law in a flexible way. Still, the pursuit of this ideal binds all Jews who seek that precarious balance between the spiritual and the secular.

Grabbing a local fall going-out guide from the rack of tourist brochures in the lobby of the Colonial Inn this past Friday, I impatiently perused a plethora of uninteresting holiday offerings until the very item I had been seeking came sharply into focus.

"There's an 8 p.m. performance of Evita at The Umbrella tonight," I happily informed HOBB, breathing a sigh of relief. The Umbrella is a new arts collective and performance space that occupied a local elementary school, just a five minute walk from the Colonial Inn. After settling into our room, we could buy our tickets online, light Shabbat candles in the bathroom, read, go down for dinner in one of the hotel's restaurants and leisurely make our way to The Umbrella...a most perfect way to start our weekend vacation.

We had driven to Concord as a spontaneous, last-minute weekend vacation after a fall of unusual work-related stress.  In the days following Middle Babe's wedding at Greentree Country Club in New Rochelle on August 28th, I longed for a period of calm that never quite arrived; in fact, it seemed that the end of the wedding ushered in a season of new challenges, extending an unfortunate trend of dealing with difficult and unreasonable personalities.

After a charming overnight stay in Philadelphia the week before, we spontaneously opted for another great American city for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. With memories of many marvelous restorative winter vacations in the area, of hikes around Walden Pond and visits to the local cemetery where many of the great transcendentalists are buried, I instantly went online and booked the last available room at the Colonial Inn.

Our room was as quirky, old-fashioned, overheated and quaint as I had hoped...complete with beamed ceilings and slanted floors with broad wooden planks. We happily unpacked, set our Scrabble set on the bed as we readied to go downstairs for dinner, uncorked the excellent Borgo Reale Pinot Grigio we had brought from Manhattan and began our long awaited Day of Rest.

After a short traipse through the magical snowy streets of Concord a couple of hours later, mellowed by the wine and the Louisa May Alcott landscape, I sat in the auditorium of the new community arts center, utterly enchanted by the surprisingly professional and inventive production of the show I had last seen 35 years earlier when it opened on Broadway, starring Patti Lupone.

There are the shows we are conscious of loving, the shows whose scores we sing in our heads, the shows whose themes seem intertwined with our lives. West Side Story; Phantom of the Opera; Little Shop of Horrors; The Lion King; The Rocky Horror Show: Hair: Jesus Christ Superstar; The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof top my personal list.

Over the course of my life as a parent, part of the joy of loving -- and sharing my love of -- certain musicals has been my penchant for speaking in lyrics or dialogue to my kids and certain trusted friends. The snide, "What do you mean by that?" from "Pontius Pilate's Song"in Jesus Christ Superstar has been one of my popular refrains. "She asks me why I'm such a hairy guy," from Hair has peppered conversations about the need for waxing. "Very smart Maria, very smart!" snarled by Anita in West Side Story has been employed as a way of defusing criticism.

Sitting in The Umbrella abuzz with excitement -- singing every lyric along with the actors in my head -- I recalled how much I had loved Evita and wondered why it slipped from my consciousness, especially since the sarcastic "Oh but it's sad when a love affair dies," has escaped my lips a few times and "I kept my promise. Don't keep your distance," has also been known to be on my spoken lyrics list.

I remembered how I had excitedly bought the cast recording on cassette after the show and how I sang along with it together with my sister, a musical actress. I recalled how insulted and stung I was when a critic from The New Yorker (or maybe it was the super-nasty John Simon of New York Magazine?) made fun of the lyrics, which I thought were great.

I also remembered that I had seen Evita just before I left for Hebrew University for my junior year semester abroad; my parents presented tickets to the show to me as a gift before I left home. For a city college kid, leaving the country for a year abroad was a big deal, especially for my parents who had insisted we live at home and commute to school. For the oldest daughter of a rabbi who changed careers just two years earlier -- becoming a clinical psychologist, borrowing money to buy a house for the first time, working around around the clock to earn enough to pay his friends back and keep his three children in school -- it was a big expenditure as well.

All this I thought of on Friday night in Concord, Massachusetts, in the auditorium of The Umbrella, 35 years after the fact. "This is very good," HOBB whispered to me as each actor debuted, their sweet and strong voices carrying the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I nodded vigorously, staring at the stage in a state of rapture.

Somewhere in the middle of the show-stopping number "A New Argentina," I nearly cried out with an emotion that blended revelation, joy and shock as I realized that the young bearded actor I had seen 35 years ago playing the narrator Che Guevara revolutionary on the Broadway stage was none other than he who played the avuncular, grey-haired Saul Berenson of "Homeland," a show HOBB and I follow with a passion that borders on religious devotion.

"Ari!" I whispered in a hoarse voice. "I just remembered that I saw Mandy Patinkin for the first time in Evita! How crazy is that?"

"What?" he whispered back, unable to hear me above the swelling, soaring music.

"I'll tell you later!!!" I whispered, sitting alone with my mind-bending realization, wrapping myself in that most universal human experience -- the stunning experience of past and present blending, the sensation of standing still while being hurtled backward through the tunnel of time.

As often happens when I return to a cultural touchpoint of the seventies -- the movies Carrie, Annie Hall and Taxi Driver, the music of David Bowie and Donna Summer, Laserium, shag hairdos -- I recall  the pre-cyber era. I remember a world before we were points along a worldwide GPS grid, a focused world before the habit of distraction, a wide-open world before it was possible to find just about anything within seconds by staring at a screen, a sincere world where "virtual" and "text" had far different meanings, a world strictly of the here and now.

I remembered the seventies buzz about Mandy Patinkin, his super-Jewy bonafides -- the Yiddish, Hebrew and cantorial songs he had performed, the Old Testament appearance, the name -- and the communal pride that "one of us" had again made it to Hollywood, the Broadway stage and great stardom. 

In truth, I didn't think about him much over these intervening decades until I became obsessed with Homeland.  I knew he had other starring roles but he was off my personal radar screen until Homeland, playing the former head of the CIA and looking quite a lot like our friend, the best-selling author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, at least according to Middle Babe, who introduced us to the show

But being reminded of the 1979 production of Evita and of the spirited and youthful version of the actor now beloved to me as Homeland's wise yet weary Saul Berenson, I fell down a temporal rabbit hole as the 1979 Patinkin met up with the 2014 least in my mind.

On that Friday night in Concord, Massachusetts, watching a local performance of Evita with tickets bought before sundown, I wondered about the Jewish life of the man who brought Che Guevara to life on the Broadway stage. I wondered about his Shabbat observance. I wondered about the journey he had taken as an artist and a Jew. I wondered about his personal life, his web of connections. I wondered what he thought of his accomplishments. I wondered what he was really like.

But mostly I wondered: how could it be that -- in the very same number of years that Mandy Patinkin went from newcomer to legend -- I feel exactly as I did at the age of 19, unformed, unaccomplished, focused, wide-open, sincere, eager to leave home for the first time and begin my own true journey?

Monday, September 29, 2014

In the Velvet Darkness of the Blackest Night* or The View from 2:45 a.m.

The Urban Bungalow is quiet at this hour, Alfie and Nala the Pomeranians respectfully camped out next to me on the mattress in Little Babe's room that is, in fact, his bed, arranged teenage-style.

Minutes earlier, my Israeli nephew quietly came through the front door, returning back home after a farewell night with friends before he leaves for his post-army American road trip.

Midday, the two of us spent more than three hours at the Medieval Festival at Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan. Wandering amid throngs of people, we were dazed and dazzled by the sunshine, the spectacle, the booths, the music, the dance, the cups of mead, the oversized turkey drumsticks, dripping with grease, the duels, the human chess game played on a field beneath the Cloisters, the meditative glass blower, the purveyor of ancient dentistry and other forms of merry entertainment.

Endlessly fascinating was the profusion of era-fetishists --  the civilians who came attired in their version of the Dark Ages Best Dressed List -- looking like goths, members of a punk band or residents of Williamsburg, Berlin or Middle Earth. In velvet, leather, chain-mail, animal skins, corsets, spilling cleavage, heavy boots, helmets, tattoos, bared midriffs, wreaths, veils, capes, caps and other archaic finery, they touched me with their wish to wear the wardrobe of another time and place. I wondered what they were drawn to or what they sought to escape. They were multi-ethnic pre-modernist postmodern performance artists, wandering the paved pathways of Upper Manhattan, transforming the landscape with their costumes and their poignant quest, which seemed prayerful, reverential, deeply and sincerely religious.

At the festival, I longed for the presence of my three grown children, recollected our long-ago visits to the legendary New York State Renaissance Faire, held in Sterling Forest in Tuxedo, New York.  I recalled the swords and shields we had bought our sons -- eleven years apart; the jousting matches we had cheered on; the wreaths and fairy wings our daughter wore. I remembered awkwardly shooting arrows at the archery range and wandering worriedly through the labyrinth and falling off a shaky contraption called Jacob's Ladder. How my kids would have loved the quirky fun of the Fort Tryon festival; how its very proximity to our Manhattan home would have delighted them, even as adults. Especially as adults.

Several hours later, sunburnt and slightly dehydrated, heading for the A train with possibly three thousand strangers, I heard about the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group through which enthusiasts of pre-17th Century Europe connect and find out about opportunities to dress up and celebrate their favorite historical epoch. For perhaps the billionth time, I praised the Internet for the mitzvah of bringing people together.

Regarding anachronisms, the summer-like weather of the past few days was both a worrisome sign and a delight. Having heard reports that the upcoming winter is shaping to be even worse than last year's relentless reign, I welcomed the heat that insisted upon loitering into late September and yet, with the urgent message of the People's Climate March still ringing in my ears, I knew that this gift comes with a steep price tag.

But it is not my aim to write about the weather at this hour, nor even the marvelous fair overlooking the Hudson River.

Instead, it is my intention to document this moment of wakefulness, this sliver of soul disturbance following a flawless fall day. It is my duty to examine the act of staring into the velvet darkness of a liminal moment -- poised between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, between midnight and morning, unmoored, one week after Big Babe, my oldest son, returned to Berlin after a month's stay, five weeks after the return of Little Babe, my youngest son, to his Pennsylvania college, one month after the wedding of my daughter, Middle Babe and three weeks after HOBB and I marked our 31st wedding anniversary.

As someone forever in search of connection, I experience transitions and separations as invariably tinged with pain. The many morphings of a family take emotional adjustment. Milestones occasion great introspection and evaluation. Marriages go through grand upheavals when children are grown and the respective dreams of the liberated spouses collide like comets.

Though I ponder these matters during daylight hours, the deepest processing happens in the middle of the night.

As someone who loves deeply and possessively, as I believe one is entitled to, I ponder that which I have and seek. I take my cue from God, depicted in Scripture as a jealous God, forever outraged that His chosen people are consorting with other gods. I love that unabashed pronouncement about God; it is so honest. I, too, believe in relationships where such jealous claims can be made, where one is empowered to stake one's claim against other gods, human and otherwise.

I deeply believe that some things are so sacred and basic that they are worth fighting for... or grieving over, if lost. I believe in being called to account for my own inability to satisfy the jealous God emotional needs of those nearest and dearest to me.

Sacred, too, within this dark room are one's dashed dreams. The pain, outrage and sorrow experienced at the moment of this honest encounter can be either cataclysmic or a catalyst for change.

This clarity comes in the space between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is a clarity that induces a form of madness, or perhaps is borne of madness. The quest for Teshuva is not just about atonement for our sins but for the restoration of all that has been shattered and lost.

In the darkened room where I am alone with God and my private self, I can name feelings without blame or reproach. I can say Ashamnu, Bagadnu, beating my breast...or not. Alone, apart from the congregation, I can confront my sins and failures as well.

Perhaps I can even befriend them.

I can confess my hurt and my shortcomings and feel comforted by the maternal night.

Adopted nearly 54 years ago, I can examine the wounds that will likely always be mine.

And because it is night, I can dream of the time when they will be healed.

In this quiet room, dreams start to take shape. At this moment, I strive for strength, steadfastness and fortitude.

Deprived of external images, introspection yields understanding. I return to the task of Teshuva. I pray for honesty. I see my own misdeeds. I see pathways to restoration. I struggle, like Jacob, with dark angels. I twist and turn like I did on the aptly-named ladder at the Renaissance Fair so long ago. I fall, I land in dirt, I get up, I attempt to steady myself on the shaky rungs. I take aim at the archery range, missing the target repeatedly, trying again, gaining a bulls-eye eventually. I wander in the labyrinth, lost, found, running on instinct, fear and exhilaration.

In this space, I can focus on faith, something I am deficient in, like Vitamin D. I can believe that the new day will bring insight. I can believe I will be given a gift or a key or that I will have a personal encounter that will change my life.

And then, I will feel whole. Perhaps.

Mostly, at this hour, I can write freely, thereby dignifying the fact of my solitude, a necessary pre-condition for insight.

And like the Medieval enthusiasts who find one another through a website, I can reach out through this 21st Century portal and connect with all those who sit in the darkness of liminal moments, longing for connection, salvation, revelation, redemption.

*Lyrics unabashedly stolen from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "There's a Light."

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Broken. Together. Alone.

I promised this blog post in the morning but was so hypoglycemic from fasting that putting sentences together in any coherent form was beyond me...let alone thinking about how I felt after last night's extraordinary event -- Broken: The Night of the Ninth of Av -- at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, co-sponsored by Lab/Shul and Romemu.

Now, as the arc of the afternoon passes and my blood sugar has long since stabilized, I gratefully grant myself time to reflect and write.

Half a year before Yom Kippur approaches, I find myself dreading its approach as it feels unnecessary since I spend most of my life in deep introspection, searching my soul. I know this is arrogant in a nearly adolescent way, so I fight with myself, embrace the utility of Yom Kippur and enter into the day with high hopes, even if I drag my feet along the way.

In a similar spirit, I dreaded Tisha B'Av's approach this summer as the devastation it commemorates is too frighteningly tangible; as the descriptions of a newly-destroyed Jerusalem seem to resemble what we have been seeing out of Israel and Gaza.

And I was sad that I felt this way because I have always loved the melancholy of Tisha B'Av, the drama of the lit candles and the dirges and the poetry of gloom.

Now I see very clearly that the romance of Tisha B'Av was only possible from my 20th Century American Jewish perch. Now I see that Tisha B'Av is not a feel-good tear-jerker, that depressing movie we love to cry our eyes out at, again and again.

Tisha B'Av is life, not art, a vital reminder to all Jews of what happened once and again and again and again.

Still, despite my dread, I sought the comfort of community and went -- with a large measure of anticipation -- to Broken.

(I went alone, as HOBB went to Ramath Orah, the warm and dependable Orthodox synagogue that is his spiritual home. Ramath Orah is HOBB's community and he needed its embrace as surely as I sought my own sense of comfort. Still, when he failed to even offer to accompany me, I felt betrayed by his lack of adventure and spiritual partnership.

I also felt abandoned by his lack of acknowledgement that this Tisha B'Av was indeed different and warranted different rules, including the rule of togetherness. Then, as I neared Plaza, I realized that this day was a journey I needed to take alone. Indeed, I am writing this post from our bungalow, upstate, where I retreated to be alone.)

Led by Rabbi David Ingber and spiritual leader/student rabbi Amichai Lau Lavie, Broken promised to deliver no consolation...and did not disappoint.

There was the stunned and silent audience, unusual for a Jewish crowd anywhere.

There were the intermittent songs of sorrow, traditional, timeless, transcendent in their beauty, saturated in a sadness that was unabated even by the audience's clapping or swaying.

There was the reading of The Book of Lamentations, nearly unbearable this year, ripe with the pornography of destruction, bearing the stench of the nausea that arises from watching concentration camp footage shot by proud SS officers.

There were the broken voices and faces of our rabbis, our leaders who were too broken to lead us, who offered us their brokenness instead. I gazed at them and saw frightened boys. I felt maternal compassion pour forth for these young Jewish men, brothers of our fallen soldiers.

They promised discomfort. They delivered it and in their authentic pain, they took us to a place beyond the borders of where I wished to be.

Stranded there, I did not experience the solace of community.

Instead, I felt alienated, abandoned again, perhaps a multitude of times.

Over the course of nearly an entire day I have thought about what took place last night on Amsterdam Avenue, reluctantly re-entered that place of cosmic aloneness.

And after 24 hours -- from the safe perch of the departure gate of Tisha B'Av, I finally have insight. It comes from a place of deep honesty, of the fine-honed habit of introspection.

Last night, my overwhelming need was to sit in the sadness of the unique sorrow of Jewish Peoplehood.

Last night, I wanted to grieve for my own, my loss, our loss, that thing we had just one month ago -- peace, peace of mind, heedlessness.

Entering into this day of mourning, this community funeral chapel, I wanted to hear the names only of my own dead. Or perhaps, I wanted to hear them first and loudly so that I might then honor the dead of the Other after I had buried my own.

But instead, last night I found myself led out of the communal shiva house and into an unrecognizable  room whose walls bore charts with the allegations of our own sins and wrongdoings.

There was despair in that journey and in that cramped space. And something that felt to me like dishonesty.

Or perhaps truth but not the truth of Tisha B'Av.

Instead, there was a quality of Yom Kippur -- public confession: Al Chet!! -- in that place.

And that felt foreign or at least premature.

Soon enough, Yom Kippur will be upon us and we can confess to all of our sins.

But for 25 hours, I only want to dwell in the destruction of our dream.

On this day, I don't want to be forced into universal consciousness for I dwell in that domain during much of my life.

On Tisha B'Av, I need to experience the brokenness of the Jewish People.

And I only want to weep for the Jerusalem I once knew.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Gimme Shelter

As recently as two weeks ago, I was trying to design a national Flash Mob that would bring to the public's attention what is was like for Israeli civilians to go about their normal lives, only to be forced to dash into shelters at the sound of a siren warning of an approaching rocket from Hamas.

Entitled Gimme Shelter, the purpose of this endeavor was consciousness-raising. As Israel was being rebuked publicly for its military actions in Gaza -- where the attacks originated -- I wanted to convey the threat it was facing in a creative and attention-getting manner. The anti-Israel counterpart to this idea was the Die-Ins that were being staged to simulate the Gaza civilians who killed by Israel's retaliatory fire, the tragic consequence of combatting an enemy who hides its arsenal in civilian locations.

For Gimme Shelter, I envisioned organizing groups of participants in major U.S. cities to gather casually in pre-selected public locations, milling about in faux leisure, only to be made to stand at stark attention at the planned public sounding of a shofar blast -- a tekiah gedolah -- in simulation of a siren's wail.

After the first shocked seconds, the participants would scurry to a safe location. Seconds afterwards, flyers would be distributed to onlookers and a statement would be read, identifying the exercise as a public action designed to alert Americans what Israelis face several times a day at the hands of Hamas.

Dramatic and disruptive, the purpose of Gimme Shelter was to simulate terror locally; to permit Americans to experience, for even a millisecond, the threat of attack in their very cities, the shock of needing to protect oneself in the course of daily life.

In New York, I envisioned such an event unfolding at Lincoln Center, with Flash Mobbers dashing into the 66th Street subway station's various entrances. Because of the wideness of the plaza, I planned on at least two shofar blowers. Stunning tourists and locals alike, captured by media which would have been alerted ahead of time, Gimme Shelter would be hasbara in action, building empathy and understanding for Israel's campaign against Hamas.

This idea appealed to me as recently as fourteen days ago, when we/I thought that the falling rockets were the chief threat against Israel.

But Gimme Shelter was a concept with an exceedingly brief shelf life. 

My idea was based on a delusion that the threat was coming from above. Now we have learned about the tunnels, a network of carefully executed passageways from Gaza into Israel, designed with one purpose, to visit death upon Israelis.  Now we have learned of a nearly science-fiction-like scenario -- a subterranean threat -- and the very concept of shelter has changed.

Hamas is the deadly threat we could see as well as the deadly threat that was invisible...until very, very recently.

There is a horror in the revelation of the terror tunnels, not only a horror at what was planned, but a horror that the building of this network was, quite literally, beneath the radar screen of Israeli intelligence and the world at large.

According to reports, a large scale threat against Israelis was in the planning, scheduled for Rosh Hashana.

This was a valuable, critical finding, an inadvertent discovery.

But this revelation has been very expensive, costing Israel dozens of lives and the Palestinians hundreds more because of their leadership's cynical disregard for their safety.

Compounding the shock of the existence of terror tunnels -- built with funds that were intended to provide a new infrastructure for Palestinian life -- is the fact that the discovery of these underground portals of destruction have had little impact on a public whose favorite pastimes is condemning Israel, and Jews everywhere.

There is a sickening metaphorical appropriateness in the construction of these tunnels.

Jews are not supposed to believe in the concept of Hell...and yet Hell has come to Israel in the form of the terror tunnels.

Gimme Shelter was a great idea for about two weeks. Now it is irrelevant -- quaint and naive.

Now, an appropriate public action might feature armed terrorists emerging from subway stations to shoot at civilians. The role of onlookers would be to skip over the bodies of the slain, sidestepping the horror, ignoring the threat to themselves, voicing support for the shooters.

Naturally it is insane to stage such a happening. Insane and irresponsible and yet irresistible.

I sit in my Manhattan apartment, trying to conceive of a public action that illuminates the new, horrifying reality in Israel and around the world... and come up empty.