Jewish Journal

The Handy Hazzan Retreats to the Basement to finish an old project and talk Talmud

by Cantor Harris Shore, The Handy Hazzan

March 29, 2011 | 11:56 pm

If a house is big enough and old enough, there’s almost always something that needs fixing, restoring or upgrading.  Happily, I look around and see projects that I’ve started and completed.  That makes me feel good….complete…shalem; and then there are those other projects. They sit by unfinished… or even unstarted!  I gingerly tip-toe past the latter projects on almost a daily basis.  Just looking at them makes me feel so… guilty.  My least favorite word in the world – that demon word “should” – pops up inside my head.  I get anxious. I should finish that cabinet in the basement.  I should finish my play.  I should replace that rotting kitchen countertop.  I should stop saying should. “Should” means that if I don’t finish it, therefore I am wrong or incompetent, lazy, a failure, lacking purpose…. and any other number of negative terms to identify a procrastinator who just can’t get things done.  (More about “should” another time.  Don’t get me started!)
If that isn’t self-abuse, I don’t know what is.  It’s a mentality reminiscent of slavery… enslaving oneself (or another) with the shackles of being wrong for not being finished; or being wrong for not doing it “my way.” Of course finishing projects successfully gives us all a good feeling of accomplishment.  However there is something to be said for the process, even if these “projects” all look up at me like little puppies that need feeding, walking or house breaking. 

The better part of me knows that each of these projects, finished and not, has represented an opportunity for self-discovery, learning and growth. Greg Anderson, creator of the Wellness Project back in 1964, once said:
                        “Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.” 

There is a certain activity where both the journey AND the destination can both be quite joyful.  (Maybe I should change my name to Cantor Ruth and then it would be okay to drosh about how God told Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky…. or the grains of sand on the beach!)  Anyway, I don’t know if Mr. Anderson had studied any Jewish texts prior to uttering that pithy statement, but in the second or third century CE, the Mishna was created to write down the oral explanation and interpretation of the Torah as told by God to Moses.  The teachings of Pirkei Avot appear in the Mishnaic tractate of Avot, the second-to-last tractate in the order of Nezikin in the Talmud.  I know this sounds very erudite, and I am not an erudite kinda guy.  In fact, the teachings of Pirkei Avot – “Ethics of the Fathers” - are very practical.  There is almost no halacha in Pirkei Avot, just megatips on how to live our lives.  We read in 2:21: “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.”  This Jewish teaching infuses the sense of responsibility into Mr. Anderson’s aphorism.  The rewards of “the journey” are implicit, and it doesn’t in any way suggest that we must be slaves to the task; only committed. We are free people.  We have choice. Absence of choice equals slavery. 

Several years ago Rabbi Barry Gelman, then Assistant Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, wrote a very compelling article in relation to slavery and freedom, the central theme of the Passover story which we will be retelling on the evenings of April 17th and 18th this year. Regarding the above quote from Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Gelman explains: “The Hebrew word used is Ben Chorin - the term most closely associated with freedom from servitude. The Mishna is telling us that there is a new paradigm in the relationship between master and servant now that we are no longer slaves in Egypt. “One is never completely Ben Chorin to forgo an attempt at a particular task, but at the same time, non-completion is not failure. Of course this does not leave us off scott free.” We are expected, in fact required to attempt to heed the words of our master, in this case God. We are free in the sense that God alone is the judge of success and failure, but we are not free in the sense that no effort has to be made.

Rabbi Gelman also quotes “the Slonimer Rebee” – I don’t know which Slonimer Rebee - : “A Jew has to know that service of God is not a matter of accepting upon oneself to complete a particular task, rather it is about accepting to strive with all of ones abilities and strengths, the measure of success or failure is left to God’s discretion.”  I think this best states what I am talking about. Living Torah implies constant service to God.  Yes, that includes all of those projects…. creating a better life for ourselves, our families, and for all those whom we are able to serve in the community.  Projects will go unfinished.  That’s the co-morbid symptom of being curious, industrious, or simply having adult ADD.
I don’t like to think of my death, may it be decades away from this moment…. kinah hurra (Yiddish expression that means “Keep the evil eye away.”), and the fact is ….. you and I will leave this planet with projects unfinished and unstarted – and I have to feel fine about that compared to another alternative which is …. not having any projects at all, which means not having as fulfilled or fulfilling a life. 
I am reminded of that beautiful poem, Acharey Moti – After My Death, written by Chayim Nachman Bialik which I used to recite during Yizkor services at Stephen S. Wise Temple before I began attending cantorial school at the Academy For Jewish Religion here in Los Angeles.  As a sacred singer of our Jewish texts, the literal as well as figurative meaning always struck a deep chord within me.  Here are the last four lines: (It is certainly for both genders.)

    There was a man and behold he is no more
              The song of his life was interrupted in the middle.
              One more song he had within himself
              And now that song is lost, lost forever.

We will always be in process. And I repeat:  Nothing feels as good as completing a task and saying, “I did that.  I have something to show for my work.”  What a joyful moment!

You bet I have a particular project in mind!  It’s that unfinished basement I hinted at earlier.  (See the companion video on U-Tube demonstrating how to install hinges on a cabinet door. The URL is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpQMwwfKAIc) Ten years ago we discovered earth pressing up against the outside of the western wall sheetrock in the front room.  I brought in a contractor who had been well recommended and he proceeded to remove a main, structural supporting post.  Even though we could never play marbles here at the Shore Shack, suddenly we were getting our exercise walking up and down hill without leaving the privacy of our own home!  I met a guy named Michael Goldberg, who owns a terrific company called “White Castle Construction.”  Visit them at HouseBolting.com.  They specialize in house bolting and foundation inspection repair in the Los Angeles area.  After seismically bolting the house, Michael’s team jacked up our house (without jacking up the price)! 

This led to a remodel of the basement.  I combed Ebay looking for early 1900s fixtures and hardware…. and found lots of stuff.  Among them was a pair of shower faucets yanked out of an old house in Indiana.  We installed them in the bathroom, which we then tiled in black and white.  I uncovered two original, matching Craftsman windows at a salvage yard on Satsuma Avenue in North Hollywood.  They were perfect for the back room. I started hand stripping the several layers of paint and then thought, “What, am I meshuggah?”  Especially as a singer, I didn’t want to breathe that stuff and I hate wearing a respirator.  Besides, I didn’t want anyone to find out that the local cantor was also a stripper. So I had somebody else finish it.  When the windows were down to the bare wood, I sealed and stained them, found period hardware (not mock-ups - again on Ebay) to create transom windows, put the windows together and installed them. For the front room, I had a pair of small windows custom built to match the architecture of the existing, original 1913 windows in the rest of the house. I pulled a kitchen/laundry privacy door out of a house on Wilcox Avenue to separate the two rooms. Someone was about to destroy a 1937 apartment building in Hollywood, where I rushed over to discover another great interior door, plus a beadboard door as well.  I removed the ‘30s doorknob from the first, and installed something more early teens in its place. We stained everything to match.  I found some beadboard paneling at Pasadena Salvage that I used to create a closet in the front room, along with that other beadboard door, and scavenged around for the right hinges and latches. 

With all this work – I just couldn’t finish the project.  I was suffering from push-pull syndrome. I really wanted to rent the basement out to “the right” person, and yet I didn’t want my family’s privacy compromised.  I pushed myself to complete the project, designing a modest kitchen area with cabinets made of finished plywood, granite countertop, stainless steel sink…. shopped and shlepped all the material.  Not being a custom carpenter, I found a talented guy who needed the work.  We ordered the drawers from Drawer Box Specialties – another great company.  I found old, black surface hinges for the cabinet doors - you guessed where – and the project sat for another few months.

I AM COMMITTED TO FINISH THIS PROJECT THIS WEEK.  (REMINDER: SEE COMPANION VIDEO ON UTUBE TO SEE MY PROGRESS.  URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpQMwwfKAIc) Yesterday I shopped slotted, brass screws to match the black ones I’m running out of.  I love installing hardware. (Don’t let anybody sell you Phillips head screws for an Arts and Crafts - Craftsman style - house. The Craftsman architectural movement in our country ran from approximately 1897 – 1924. Henry F. Phillips patented the Phillips Screw in the mid 1930s. He sold it to the American Screw Company, and after a successful trial on the 1936 Cadillac, it quickly swept through the American auto industry and grew to be the most popular choice in construction.) I’ll either turn my screws black chemically or paint the heads with black nail polish after installation.  I think the basement will look pretty cool when I am finally finished, and it sure does stay cool in summer.  My goal is to get all those cabinet doors on this week.  Look for the photo.

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WHOLE-HOUSE WATER FILTER: I’ve completed all the preliminary set-up for the whole-house water filter I discussed last week, and plan to install it in the next few days.  We’ll talk about it next week.  I encourage everyone to post your comments/questions/answers on the blog.  No need to put your full name.  It’s the comment that counts.

Here’s one response I received personally on my email regarding last week’s entry:

“…. that was hilarious! And soulful, and deep, and informative, and beautifully written. You have an amazing neshama and a great sense of humor. – Susan S., Los Angeles.”  Thanks for your kindness, Susan S.

Remember: Tikkun Olam starts at home.  You can fix it!. - HH




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CANTOR HARRIS SHORE most recently served as Hazzan for Hollywood Temple Beth El in West Hollywood, and for two years at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda...

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