“But what are you chanting for?” the woman cutting my hair wanted to know. She didn’t mean the glory of God or even my own spiritual well-being. It turned out she had once belonged to a 1970s church that chanted for things like shoes and better jobs. But when I am standing on the bimah on Rosh Hashanah, before the 1,500 or so people who fill the sanctuary at Temple Israel of Hollywood, I confess I ask myself the same question. I look down at the open Torah scroll, feeling certain that I have never seen these black letters before; the only thing I can think of is the old saying that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully. I hear the congregation settle. Someone coughs. And then, because everyone is waiting and the little silver yad sits pointing to a letter, there is nothing but for it to begin. Amen, four steps. Open the throat and let the mind slip in to the other place, where the shapes have meanings and the meanings are sounds. Then the whole world becomes the scroll, its faintly golden color a source of light, and the whole crowded sanctuary seems focused on the words I am giving my voice to. The moment of being just voice, of giving myself to the words, the experience of it is frightening but exhilarating. It is a unique kind of surrender.
It is the start of Elul as I write this. Time to take stock, to look back and prepare for the Days of Awe and to take out the verses I am going to chant this year. Because I read Hebrew more or less letter by letter, I have to do a lot of preparation. When I was first asked to chant for the big Rosh Hashanah service, my mother offered to help me. This was in some way absurd since she was raised as a Methodist, converted to Catholicism, and knew no Hebrew, much less any trope. But she could hear me. She knew my voice. She could hear when I was true to the text and when my attention wandered. “One more time,” she would insist. And then, “Oh, that was beautiful,” when it was. It was something we did together, by phone, until she developed dementia and moved to Los Angeles. The first September she was here, I had to bring my pages of the tikkun to Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, where she was recovering from a fall. Chanting in front of her and the nurses really tested my courage.
I came to chanting Torah by accident. Before I began to study trope, I hadn’t sung alone in front of people since tryouts for a high school production of “South Pacific.” At my adult bat mitzvah, there were so many of us that no one got more than a verse or two to chant. It wasn’t until my friend and cantor Aviva Rosenbloom was about to leave Temple Israel that I signed up for whatever she was teaching, and it turned out to be this — this ancient practice.
Two months ago, after a decade of slow decline, my mom passed away. It might have occurred to me to say no when my rabbi, John Rosove, wrote to ask if I would chant again this Rosh Hashanah. But I did not. I’ve been a member of his congregation for all my Jewish life. We’ve known each other since our youngest children were babies. When my mother died, Rabbi Rosove led shivah services at my house. About my chanting this year without my mother, he wrote to me, “I’ll be beside you.”
Last year, my mother was with me at the smaller second-day service to hear me chant. The verses were about Sara’s pregnancy and her joy, about the son she calls laughter because — and here the trope trills in lovely rising notes — everyone will laugh with her.
Getting my mom settled in the chapel, finding a place for her wheelchair and trying to explain what was going on was complicated. Sometimes she was heartbreakingly present, oftentimes bitterly confused. It was hard to tell what she could hear or see or understand. When I got up to chant, I wasn’t thinking about the possibility that this might be the last time she would be there, listening to me.
We said the blessing. I looked down at the unfamiliar, unpunctuated Hebrew letters, waiting for them to become words, trying to focus, to be present in this moment instead of worrying about what my mother was going to do or say or what was going to happen to her or me. I began. Amen. And then the words I had practiced and practiced with her took over. When I looked up again, it was done and she was there, her eyes closed, smiling, pleased in her very particular way, careful not to make too much of my success. As if it was what she had always expected from me.
If there is an answer to my hairdresser’s question, it is probably this: I always long for the moment when I can step outside of the tangle of everyday worry and fear to feel the one-ness, the truth that we are all small parts of a large mystery — me, the scroll, my mom, the words and the letters that begin it all.