Monday, July 21, 2014

Current events in Israel

To all who read my blog, I want to offer my very heartfelt thanks for you taking the time to share my perspective in this crazy world that we live in. I haven't been very good about responding to posts when people have left them, so I apologize for that -I will be better about that in future. I hope you all will continue to read and enjoy (as I will continue to post on this blog throughout my cantorial school adventures in New York -or the Old Country as I like to call it).

I try not to get overly political in my posts, because my objective for this blog is not political ranting or lambasting, nor do I want to come off as extreme. I've struggled in writing this post for a long time, but I find the reaction to recent events in Israel and the Middle East so troubling that I can no longer stay silent. Our American media is unfortunately (and unfairly in my opinion) biased, verging on a perspective that can come off as anti-Israel at times. Politics are sticky and complicated, especially where the Middle East is concerned, but after living there for a year, traveling to the West Bank and really struggling directly with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and what that means for me as an invested, observant Jew, I can tell you that Hamas does not have the common good of the Palestinians at heart. True, they are the Palestinian authority, but they don't care about providing their citizens with basic, fundamental needs such as clean water, health care, adequate housing and access to education. What's more (from a Jewish perspective at least), is that too often Hamas takes advantage of our media's bias and focuses its energy on provoking Israel into defending herself, knowing that the only part of the story that will reach American ears is what Israel does in retaliation. By provoking Israel thus, Hamas has been able to ensure that the Palestinians are portrayed as the helpless victims of Israeli brutality.

With this in mind, I beg you all to realize that there is always more to the story than what our media presents to us. There seems to be a lot of anti-Israel sentiment in the air right now -what with protests against Israel in London and France and even here in the United States that seem to grow more frequent by the day. It is true that many Palestinians have suffered in light of recent events, and to call it tragic doesn't even begin to cover the injustice, but I am suggesting that Israel is not the Big-Bully-of-the-Middle-East that our media loves to portray her as. If Hamas really cared about the Palestinians and building them the homeland they deserve, if they really wanted peace in the Middle East, they wouldn't be trying to wipe Israel off the map. I am not trying to suggest that Israel is perfect and the answer to all the problems in the region, but it angers me when Israel is held to a double standard. By the modern definition, a people is not considered a nation until or unless they possess a country. Defending the borders of a country comes along with the territory -if you'll forgive the pun. Thus, if we recognize a sovereign nation's right to defend her borders, why is it any different when Israel defends herself as opposed to the United States, Great Britain, France, or any other country in the world? We, the Jewish People, have a right to defend ourselves against those that wish us harm without being labeled as murderers, hypocrites or worse. Hamas' use of the Palestinians as a political pawn has nothing to do with Israel or her right to defend her borders -plain and simple. Along those lines, I must emphasize here that it was Hamas that rejected the initial ceasefire proposal, after which subsequent talks have failed again and again. Media reports of Israel launching attacks on Gaza after ceasefire agreements are out-and-out lies. Also, people seem to forget the events that started this most recent cycle in the Conflict. I am, of course, referring to the capture and murder of the three Israeli boys, Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali. Our media, as I've been saying, has not helped this situation either, and thus continues another cycle of terror, destruction, and bitterness.

While I could go on, I won't belabor the point, because blame-laying is counter productive despite its infinite allure. I do, however, see it as my obligation as a Jew to defend and support Israel. I don't mean blind-faith support no matter what Israel does (as I said, she isn't perfect) -that, too, is counter productive. But I do wish people to know that the truth is never simple, and this couldn't be more true in the case of Israel. Sometimes I feel like a broken record I say that so much; I guess it's hard to fathom if you haven't spent time there. Not to be trite in an effort to put a positive spin on a post such as this, but I feel the only thing I can say to end this entry is that I urge the global community to wake up and realize that the problem does not necessarily lie with Israel. If we spent our time and energy in supporting the Palestinians to stand up to Hamas instead of trying to paint Israel unequivocally as the enemy, how different things would be. Jew and Palestinian alike deserve a place to call home in the Middle East, but it will never happen as long as organizations like Hamas are in power.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

From the Notebook of J Michel


If I were the Angel of Death
what would I look like?
Would  I have a face
and what color would my eyes be?
Maybe I wouldn’t have a face,
but rather, I would be a nameless force
that lies just beyond the darkness
waiting to slip in through the cracks.
At night when sleep makes our dreams seem real
would I fill up hollow bodies
and hope, as I fade with the first rays of dawn,
for the cycle to begin again?
I wonder if I would cry, if I would feel anything at all,
for those chosen to walk with me
through the valley
(just for a short time; I’d be an escort).
Would I feel any grief for their families
that weep and wail beside open graves,
unsure whether they choke
on their tears or the fistfuls of dirt
they throw on the casket?
And for those whose bodies are never found,
I would be the last witness as essence
fades back into eternity,
a silent guide for those lost among the stars.
Their bodies crumble back to dust,
but their memories remain, flickering in candles.
Would God send me to wreak vengeance on Egypt
for the deaths of three innocents?
Would I feel vindicated by cruel joy
as they drowned soundlessly in waves of flame
succumbing to the walls of earth kicked up by rockets?
What would I be?
What would I be if I came to the place where you sleep –
Would you see me at all?
Would you see a woman weeping
into the hollows you once kissed
Or would you simply be blinded by pure light? 

From the Notebook of J Michel

Home  (a song cycle)

We carefully put the places and the people we love inside us and call it ‘home’.
We build walls, barriers to create the contexts
that make us comfortable and call it ‘home’.
It is the place, the people –
ourselves in those places with those people –
home is the place where we belong.
Then we leave, it becomes elusive, and we begin to wonder
what all the walls and barriers were for.
Home is, when we return, the place where
we want to belong but no longer fit in.
Home is the place we choose –
can it be the places that are chosen for us?
We move through the years,
collecting stones for each home we have lost.


For a year I chased dreams across the desert
(a year I tried to make a home there)
a year that gave me a perspective I don’t want,
knowledge I’d rather be ignorant of.
I can’t tell if it’s the time spent away or the return
that made me realize this place
is not what it once was
nor is it what I once thought it to be.
A year ago I left the Temple,
singing as I turned from its gates;
here I am again –passing through.
Suddenly I wonder if I loved him because I was home
or if this temple seemed like home
because I loved him.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

From the Notebook of J Michel

Love poem 
If I were writing a love poem I’d begin
with a line about your eyes,
say that they’re deep like still pools of water
or beautiful like the endless sky -
you know, something sufficiently trite and worn-out.
Maybe I’d praise your lips
and add some frothing and feverish line
about how I wonder -during indecent hours -
how the touch of your hands would feel.
I’d have to reference myself too (of course)
in obvious and poorly veiled metaphor
and obnoxiously insinuate the aching curves
of my body, curious lips, idle hands -
just for good measure.
If I’m feeling bold I’ll add a flirtatious line,
with a phrase I fancy only you would recognize,
and hope to make you blush.
Then I’d continue, drawing this out
much longer than strictly necessary
by musing on some irony.
I, a poor student, an aspiring singer,
you, purveyor of the vague and the artful
(or the vaguely artful);
discussions with composers over boutique alcohol,
dinner with artists and jazz in dim lounges
after which I find myself enmeshed in affairs
with architects and philosophers.
Somehow –through a statement that is undoubtedly
overdramatic –I would tie all that to you,
say how terribly romantic it all is.
Yes, that is what I would say if this were a love poem.
But, my dear, you and I are not in love,
nor am I a poet.
So that leaves us at the end
with me wondering where to begin.

Friday, June 27, 2014

From the Notebook of J Michel

For a friend (addiction or symphony) 
Seeing you again is like a dream
in which -after all these years -the same feelings still rush
into my veins. I sigh like an addict shooting up,
relieved to be in love again.

The adrenaline and the fear, 
the bright ache of happiness,
and that peculiar feeling I always get
when you’re puzzling out some progression
and I’m overcome with the urge to kiss you, 
distract you so you can start again.
It makes me wonder if I should speak up.

For years I held my silence,
retreating into dark, empty rooms
when your smile was too intoxicating
(I made you all sorts of promises then, didn’t I?)
Seeing you again makes me angry
for all the times I told myself I was protecting you
with my silence;
now, being in your presence makes me shiver
with pent-up devotion.

We talk late into the night,
I am exhausted and wide awake with girlish bliss -
and when you speak I hear music in my head.
It’s like a dream.
You were so reluctant to leave me when sleep called;
I think it made me love you even more
to realize that I felt the same.

Let this not be the last time, my love,
because I don’t want the music to stop;
I am afraid. 
Afraid that if I raise my voice in song to this symphony,
if I should speak up,
that this dream will end. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

From the Notebook of J Michel

Home (a song cycle)            

It’s good to be back -though a bit surreal.
I constantly catch myself having to
numb the seizing panic that sets upon me 
in moments of memory,
sudden and nightmarish in detail.
A mantra I repeat to myself many times over:
I’m alright, really. Finally.
I spend long hours talking to friends,
filling myself up with their long-missed presence;
I drive along the coast, drinking in the startling blue of the ocean
and smile, as I think of the eyes whose music I like best. 
In China Town, 
red and green tiled roofs, the fierce and melancholy dog-lions roar silently.
I inhale deeply the scents of orchid, fresh bao, and gasoline
(am I home?)
At the Temple where we used to study -
I walk down hallways and empty corridors,
sit in the tiny cell where I once spent hours
memorizing progression after progression,
reaching into the deepness to find God.
All the ghosts rustle and stir at the sound of my boots on the stones,
smiling in the lengthening shadows.
It feels like home.
I walk by your house 
(the place where you sleep)
I want to slip past your door 
and fall asleep next to you as twilight fades,
to wake up and realize that I will no longer
sabotage love in its process,
to know that I am home and you won’t go away. 
I won’t tell myself I’ve been away too long;
I won’t tell you that it’s too late.
Bit by bit, the panic fades;
I swim in the ocean, contemplating the tides.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Yom haShoa -Holocaust Remembrance Day (Part Two)

All too soon I found myself back at school, feeling like I'd never left and that I would have loved to sleep for two years without interruption. This being yom hashoa proper, we had a special t'filah (prayer) service, followed by a memorial service, in lieu of regular classes. That drained, empty feeling I had felt the day before was back, but this time I was actually relieved to feel nothing as we went through our service, meditating on how to praise God (as we are commanded to do) in the face of such mourning.

I stood, as I always do, to recite kaddish (the traditional prayer for the dead) in acknowledgment that there are those that have no one to say kaddish for them. There are all sorts of traditions and beliefs wrapped up in kaddish. According to one tradition family members must say kaddish for their deceased or the soul may be hindered on it's journey to heaven. It is precisely this belief that has always (ever since I was old enough to be considered an adult in the Jewish community) spurred me to say kaddish at the conclusion of each t'filah -even if I'm not mourning a loved one's death or observing a jahrzeit (the anniversary of a death).

The act of standing seemed to trigger my revelations from the day before, sending them flooding back to me and causing the fine hairs on my neck to rise. I had died in the fields of concrete and gas chambers of World War II Germany. Who had said kaddish for me then? I was overcome with a horrible sense of irony; as far as I remember no one from my family in that life survived. But I remember now, I thought, and it wasn't that long ago. Is my current self saying kaddish for my former self? The thought made me shiver, and I don't really know why.

We ended our t'filah and moved outside to witness Jerusalem mourning her lost children. At eleven o'clock sharp sirens went up all throughout the city, echoing off hills and sounding through valleys like the keening calls of a funeral procession. Jerusalem -unusually subdued for a Monday morning already -fell deathly silent as the sirens began. The few cars that were driving on the street screeched to a halt on the side of the rode and waited as Jerusalem wailed. In the United States we don't typically sound sirens in times of grief, only times of danger, so I'd never before understood why people describe the sound of a siren as mournful. I understood then though, and suddenly felt like I was standing too close to my friends that were bunched together at the steps to the school's entrance.

I'm still not sure if it was just my over-active imagination, lack of sleep, a combination of both, or something else entirely, but I looked into the street and suddenly it seemed to me as though it was filled with people. There were hundreds of them, everywhere as far as I could see in either direction. Some rioted, fighting with anything that could possibly be a weapon, some shouted and wept as they shook their fists at the sky and rent their clothes, and yet others stood still as zombies, staring blankly into space. Even though we were outside I felt suffocated, and my legs carried me of their own accord even farther away from my friends, toward the street. Heart beating furiously, I willed my legs to stop as I reached the curb; after all, I had no idea how long the sirens would last and I was not about to take a chance on the reflexes of Israeli drivers that particular day. On and on the sirens wailed while the phantom people shouted, fought and stared. The still ones in particular distressed me. Move! I wanted to shout at them. For God's sake what's wrong with all of you? Can't you hear me? I felt almost as though mesmerized by the hot air, the weight of the day, and the sound of the sirens. I fought to keep my legs still, otherwise they might have carried me off somewhere away from the noise and the spectral people -or worse, into the street. I was afraid I was going to be sick again. I listened to the siren (which I couldn't help but doing), and gradually all I could hear were the overtones. Never before has the interval of a major third seemed eerie or dissonant to me, but that day it was both.

After an interminable interval (it could have been two minutes as easily as two hours) the sirens ceased and Jerusalem drew in a shuddering breath. I let out my breath -I hadn't realized I'd been holding it. Slowly, the cars that had pulled over roared to life again, scattering the ghostly people into the harsh light of day. God, I thought to myself. I must be loosing my mind. I shook myself firmly and went back to join my friends who were now trooping inside for our memorial service.

I felt restless as everyone took seats in the courtyard and hovered off to the side so as to avoid being in the direct sun. Whereas yom hashoa had made me sad and a little uncomfortable in the States because it felt so isolating, being in Israel was strangely not much better for me. My vague hopes of finding solace in a sense of solidarity as I mourned with Israel (in Israel) vanished. To the contrary, I actually found it oppressive, even stifling, as though this mourning was being foist on me when I didn't even fit into the narrative of the Jewish people anymore. I stood in the shade, resentfully gulping down water as I waited for my part in the memorial service (I had been recruited the week before to sing in a quartet with three of my colleagues).

Slowly, I began to realize I had spent most of the year hating myself for how other people defined me, but didn't yet know what do with that knowledge. So I shoved it aside stubbornly and after a while succeeded in wrapping myself in the numbness of that morning. I breathed a small sigh, grateful to be empty once more.

When it came time to sing, I listened to my voice echoing off the stones baking in the courtyard and once again felt detached from myself. The sounds that my throat emitted bounced off the hard surfaces and came hurtling back toward me, harsh and devoid of any emotion. I wondered how I sounded in the other ears gathered in the courtyard; there were some tears glinting softly on cheeks, so I guessed that was a good thing.

When it came time to say kaddish -for the second time that day - people read names of family members they had lost in the Holocaust. And then it seemed to me that the courtyard was terribly full of people -for every name that was uttered the wraith of a visage lost fluttered into some sort of existence. About fifty names were read, but hundreds of the wraithlike people filled the courtyard. Some of them looked like people I had seen in the street, just half an hour before, and I shuddered, the blissful emptiness wavering inside me. These specters didn't shout, nor did they fight or rend their clothes, only stood there looking at the crowd of living souls gathered in the courtyard with painful longing. I wanted so badly to cry from fear and discomfort -why was I the only one that seemed to perceive this insubstantial host?- but I didn't. Instead, I stared at the ground, stubbornly refusing to look at them and hoping they would go away. We spoke the words of kaddish together, and I added my voice, praying with each word that they would vanish when we were done.

When the last word was uttered I clenched my fists, waiting. Leave now, and go in peace. The thought came as though from outside of me, where exactly I'm not sure, but it worked. The wraiths shuddered and disappeared with a sigh as though they had, indeed, only been waiting to hear us finish and were satisfied now. I blinked in surprise, feeling as though a weight had been lifted from me.

As we left the courtyard I couldn't help but think about the custom of speaking names before kaddish. We often talk about how speaking the names of loved ones aloud keeps their memories alive even in death. I'd never given this much thought before -I have been fortunate enough thus far in life that death has not yet taken any of my immediate family or close friends. I do think, though, that when death chooses to assert its presence in my life I will want to take comfort in the idea of having a connection with those I've lost.

Maybe we seek to comfort ourselves by speaking aloud the names of the Holocaust victims to remind ourselves that they didn't die in vain. We who say kaddish are alive, we are here, in this life, and we remember them. Even those who died nameless, we remember. Perhaps, in the cases of entire families that were exterminated, when we say kaddish we enact the idea of a greater Jewish community, and though we may not be related by blood, they are our loved ones because they, like us, were Jews.