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Pride & Pain

Singing at the interfaith service on Pride, 2016

As our annual Pride parade and celebration dawned this year, our lives were disrupted by a tragic event on the other side of the country. What should have been a time of festivities and coming together joyously in community became a bittersweet and potentially dangerous experience. I went out into the streets to march, but was wary of my environment. I watched the floats and felt the intensity of the presence of armed officers bookending the parade. I sang “True Colors” at the opening interfaith service and was a little more saddened than usual to be countered with words of bigotry and rejection, shouted out through megaphones by religious organizations standing behind a fence across the street from where the queer interfaith clergy team was preaching words of blessing.
Ever since the shooting in Orlando and its repercussions on the political, social and human front, I’ve been thinking to myself how we as individuals can combat the darkness that still seems to befall us and the hate that still is taught and preached towards anyone who is different. Yes, there are charities to donate to and Facebook filters to update one’s profile pic in solidarity with the victims and that’s all fine and good. But a lasting bitter taste was left for me through realizing the disastrous impacts unresolved internal homophobia (or any other form of internal mental pain) can have. That really hit home for me this year.

As LGBTQ people, many of us grow up in an environment in which we’re led to believe that there’s something wrong about us that needs to be changed. But really it’s the society around us – a society that holds on to “shoulds” and norms and etiquette – that needs the change the most. And so, while I’m not a therapist by any means, I’ve been left thinking that bullies, unkind neighbors, entitled employers and mass shooters too all have in common some unresolved pain carried within them that has gone untreated for too long. After all, it’s easier to just try to blend in and put on a facade of a perfect life, rather than to admit that challenges are real, that struggles are real. Self-acceptance is an evolutionary and often difficult process.

Can we make it our mission to work with and through the pain rather than suppressing it? Can our work lie in releasing our pain by talking about it, singing about it, meditating about it, cooking a meal about it, hiking about it, praying about it, connecting with someone about it, until love, hope, comfort and joy can take the place that was filled up by pain? Can this be one way of combating the darkness outside and inside ourselves? And can we do it alone?

The Orlando shooting occurred on the first day of Shavuot, traditionally one of the three joyous pilgrimage festivals, in which the hallel – a collection of verses of praise – is recited. On the day of the shooting, the first day of Shavuot, Cantor Sam Radwine acknowledged these words from the Hallel: (Psalm 118:17) “Lo Amut, Ki echyeh, Va-asaper ma-aseh Yah—I shall not die, but live and will tell of God’s divine creation.” as “not just a statement of faith” but also as an urgent call to “compel us and all humanity to work for Tikkun Olam, the perfection and preservation of all of God’s creation.” I feel the need to celebrate ourselves with all that we are, as part of God’s creation, more urgently than ever before.

May we, currently divided into many different letters of identities that separate us, use our energy and optimism to overcome the barriers and fences of the past. And may we all come to live in painless harmony with each other and with all that is created.

Things I Learned Working with the BCC Choir

1. Never underestimate the power of a kind word.

Gratitude, a sense of accomplishment, and the trembling caused by musical vibrations are just as much part of a rehearsal cycle as are worry and anxiety. Both make a regular appearance, much like friends you can count on to show up when all else fails. It’s in those moments when I think the choir should feel comfortable with new pieces and I come to realize that there’s still some way to go, that worry and anxiety thrive. At times I doubted the choir’s ability to master all the music and to reach a state of confidence and calmness, in order to give a musical piece the best treatment. When I didn’t know if the choir under my direction would make it through, choir members came up to me after rehearsals or sent emails of encouragement. These words of kindness pulled me out of a place of frustration, worry and anxiety and into a place of optimism, belonging and hope. Kind words can be like magic, conjuring up little miracles.
Where is God to be found? In the place where God is given entry. – Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

2. Failing miserably is part of the process.

Some time around rehearsal number 5 or 6, when according to my plans, a certain song was supposed to be in good shape, everyone seemed to be struggling. I stopped in the middle of the piece and let the choir know that I was a little uncertain about what to do next. According to my schedule we should have been good with the song by now, yet that was not the case. It was then that a choir member raised their hand to let me know that we should sing the song through anyway. They said: “You need to let us mess it up. Like, really mess it up once.” And so we did. We sounded fabulously messed up and we laughed and bonded just a little more and the pressure was lifted just a little and without fully realizing it, we let our failure write our music, not run it.

If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative. – Woody Allen

3. Structure is useful, until it isn’t.

Each year I try to improve the process of High Holiday preparations with the choir just a little more. I plan out what we’ll be singing each rehearsal; I lay out a “welcome to the choir” document with a list of expectations and suggestions for a smooth, fun and efficient choir practice. I know it helps me and the choir members a lot. But life is often unpredictable, and there were times when we needed to use creativity and play as tools to create a space outside of the barriers of imposed structure. Sometimes we’d tell a joke or two or three, sometimes we’d give each other neck massages, sometimes we’d make strange sounds and movements and whatever else it would take to create something beautiful, achieved by intense cooperation, sustained effort, week after week, regularly working through mistakes.

Chaos is the score upon which reality is written. – Henry Miller

4. Beauty is best achieved through “I and thou,” not “I or thou.”

When the choir sings together, it’s team effort at its best and somehow, when we pay attention to our voices blending in with the others, gently pushing the piece forward, we nurture the attributes of human beings that set us apart from machines: love, compassion, kindness, caring and determination. Our singular voice becomes an indispensable and important part of a whole that is the choir. When we sing a great piece of music together in harmony, as opposed to listening to it, we discover how to listen carefully and we become a great piece of music.

A good team, like a good show, comes into being when the separate individuals working together create, in essence, another separate higher entity – the team – the show – which is better than any of those individuals can ever be on their own. – Gary David Goldberg

5. Everyone can sing!

It’s not crucial to have a fantastic voice in order to be part of the choir, though the harder we work on our voices and on singing together, the better it will feel. Many of us have been told at some point in our lives not to sing, or that we should never use our voices, and that leaves a mark. I’d like to think, when we’re having a hard time holding the pitch or even producing a sound, it’s not so much because we’re tone-deaf, but rather because we’re extremely nervous and unfamiliar with using our voices for anything but talking. I learned that when the choir is relaxed and feels good about themselves, they sound great as well! I’m grateful for everyone in the choir who sought me or anyone else out to listen to their voice and to help boost up their confidence in using it.

I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain; what a wonderful feeling, I’m happy again. – Arthur Freed

6. Spirituality and religiosity are friends.

Introducing a song to the choir for the first time is a powerful experience. Practicing it every Monday night, discussing its meaning and message, enhances the spiritual experience as the music bridges people with different ideas, politics, religions or no religions, and goes straight to our common ground, which some people call spirit, soul or our heart. Tears might fall, silence might occur after a piece is sung, and transcendence might be felt.

A choir member once wrote to me: “…on the High Holy Day itself, something happens and all the adrenalin is on, and occasionally there is a miracle and we sing a song better than we have ever sung it before.” I’d like to think that what actually happens is that the practice and the intentionality in extracting the meaning and emotions out of a melody and/or lyric are exalted by the religiosity of the High Holidays, the rituals, the framework of the liturgy, the space and the worship. And so, having a spiritual practice, whether it’s singing, or meditating, or acting kindly to others is enhanced when contextualized within a religious tradition.

I’m a big believer in the way ritual can put us in connection with our spirituality. – Sue Monk Kidd

7. Perfect is boring!!

The more I spend time with the choir the more I learn that it is not about being perfect. Perfection doesn’t really matter when rehearsing and practicing a piece in order to move the worshippers and stimulate them spiritually. I have learned that what matters is having enthusiasm, the ability to embrace the possibilities, rejoicing in the achievement of the group as a whole, working as a team, being fearless, being patient, and the amount of effort being put into the process.

When you’re passionate about something, you want it to be all it can be. But in the endgame of life, I fundamentally believe the key to happiness is letting go of that idea of perfection. – Debra Messing

Thank you dear choir for your lessons! I look forward to singing with you again! Relive portions of the choir singing during the High Holidays by clicking here.

GLBTQ Clergy Retreat

In 2009, as my studies at the Abraham Geiger College drew to a close and my ordination was approaching, I found myself sharing my story often with the German media. “First trained Reform cantor in Germany since World War II” was a title they seemed very curious about. I never thought of mentioning my sexual orientation, as I never thought it mattered. I remember my irritation reading about my “soft features” in an article, which I assume was intended to describe my body language. Was “soft features” a way of suggesting I was effeminate and perhaps gay? I realize that beyond my sexual orientation being irrelevant to my ordination and my profession, its potential revelation stirred up a wound of shame and sorrow I wasn’t quite ready for.

I wrote an abbreviated form of this insight on a piece of butcher paper taped along a wall of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco in early December during Nehirim’s first LGBTQI Jewish clergy retreat. Rabbi Lisa Edwards and I were there among 64 rabbis, cantors, students and others. In the four days I spent there, I felt pushed out of my comfort zone, comforted by likeminded souls, amazed by queer text interpretations, and transported by original forms of liturgy.

Mostly I felt in touch with seeming contradictions – the joy of living in a time and place of freedom, contrasted with the sadness of those who have been excluded as clergy because of their sexual preference. Having grown up with traditional liturgy and often being nervous about modifications of the Hebrew, I felt a surprising connection to the queer Amidah (silent prayer), as formulated by the creative writers of Sha’ar Zahav’s own prayer book, acknowledging God as the one “in whom are united all separations…queer ourselves, made of heaven and earth, day and night, female and male.”

I experienced the wonder of living in a time and place in which our trans-brothers and sisters might consider our ancestors Abraham and Sarah as genderfluid, transitioning towards their most authentic selves. You might raise an eyebrow or two (or not, and congratulations to you for that!) while trying to wrap your mind around the idea of Abraham and Sarah being in transition, but an actual midrash (exegesis of Torah texts) in the Talmud (tractate Yevamot 74:A-B) suggests just that!

I experienced the power of living in a time and place in which we can discuss BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadomasochism) as a possible spiritual practice, or the blessing for unexpected intimacy found in Sha’ar Zahav’s prayer book and originally a blessing for anonymous sex. The blessing suggests that, just like Jacob, “who has encountered a stranger with whom he grappled all night,” who “never knew the stranger’s name, yet their encounter was a blessing,” we too can find blessings in intimate times with another person, possibly a stranger, “turning strange places into holy ground and strangers into a source of blessing.” The attempt to elevate unexpected encounters into something spiritual and the process of integrating that into the prayer book, as told by Rabbi Camille Angel and Maggid Andrew Ramer, moved me immensely and I couldn’t help but feel awe for being part of a community that fosters a more compassionate humanity by offering such insights.

I haven’t yet processed music’s facilitative power in a gathering such as the LGBTQI retreat, but based on the closing song session, in which we chanted “Hineh Ma Tov” (How good it is) for achim (brothers), achayot (sisters), and kulanu (and all of us) to be in one space together, or my I-kissed-a-girl-and-I-liked-it-niggun (yes, that happened), I can’t wait to further utilize music for future retreats.

There’s so much more to share, but I’ll leave you with that. It’s Hanukkah, as I write these lines – another opportunity to look at our contrasts and contradictions. On the one hand we light candles in memory of a miracle and a victory over oppression, brought by the war of the Maccabees against the Syrians, and on the other hand we read the words of Zechariah in the Hanukkah haftarah that neither might, nor power, but spirit alone will lead to real peace. I also wonder whether there’s a difference between a blessing and a miracle. Looking back at the retreat, having experienced the blessing of being in an open, safe and compassionate place and time, I’d like to believe that it’s up to us to nurture those blessings into miracles. And perhaps our inner contradictions – the sadness and the joy, the peace and the terror, the mundane and the religious — can serve us as a source of strength rather than tension as we reveal ourselves as LGBTQI Jews in our lives and communities.