Friday, April 8, 2011

Dream Journal (on-going)

I'd been appointed principal of a high school and I was agitated, nervous of ruining my job prospects, and wearing the wrong clothes (socks, jeans, plaid shirt, which made me even more self-conscious - at least I wasn't naked!) and I couldn't find my office, which was in another wing.

Everyone told me Michelle would know, and evidently she was my secretary, but I couldn't find her either. I asked many people if they were Michelle, realizing a second later that it was the same woman I'd asked the day before, and she still wasn't Michelle and was trying not to lose her temper at being asked again, although as she had many other distracting duties she wasn't mean about it. But still she wasn't Michelle. I never did find my office, or Michelle.

I was trying to organize the school play, and that wasn't an easy thing to do as it was The Ring of the Nibelung. Setting up scenery and bleachers in the gym, and auditioning singers, none of them really Wagnerian. And I kept thinking if only I could find my office and my proper agenda, things would straighten out, but I never could, it was in some other wing of the school and I couldn't find my way out of this one. I pinched a biography of Maximilian II - why him? Because I'd never read one. And was it the emperor or the king of Bavaria?

I found myself away from the crowd distracted by corridors of elegant bedrooms with elegant candles that hovered in elegant Byzantine patterns when lit. They had belonged to C.S. Lewis, who particularly liked the fact that shadows resembling their ornamental edges leaped into the air and hovered for quite some time when they were lit. I lay down on the floor to watch them being lit, and woke because someone was stabbing a rusty spike into my shoulder.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Kol Nidrei: A sort of a Jewish story

As I believe all of you know, my ignorance on the subject of Jewish traditional practice is profound. For example: The Kol Nidrei prayer, which is recited on Yom Kippur. I knew nothing at all about it except that various cantorial opera singers had left recordings of it. Its function in the liturgical year I did not know at all (since I have never participated in the yearly round).

My good friend Veronika (who left St. Petersburg for New York fifteen years ago) gives piano lessons. She has great musical feeling and one of her Russian pupils, who has a half-grown son who studies the cello, begged her to listen to that son and give him advice. "And what do I know about the cello?" she said. But she knows a lot; she has an ear; she's a musician. So she gives him cello lessons. One of the pieces she had the young man play was the Kol Nidrei, in Max Bruch's setting for cello. And he played it as if it were an exercise, a bunch of notes on the page. His father said to Nika, "How can I get him to give it some feeling?"

So Nika sat down with the boy and told him the story of Kol Nidrei as she knew it, a story I certainly didn't know: That it was the prayer spoken/chanted/sung by the Portuguese Jews when Queen Isabella of Portugal (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain) ordered them to become Christians, entreating forgiveness if they yielded or submitting if they were martyred. "And why is it all in minor and then at the end major?" she asked the guy. "Because they know if they submit and are killed, their souls will be raised up and united to God." By the end of this, the student was in tears, and played the Kol Nidrei, and his father said to Nika, "What did you say to him? It's totally different! It means something now!" So she told him the story, too.

Then she told it to me. I had never heard it. "But how did you know it?" I asked her. Nika's family were Soviet atheists (her grandmother was French), and as far as anyone knew, they were gentiles. "But I have this face, and this attitude towards music – so I think I must be Jewish somewhere back there. And when I was growing up, they would shout, 'Zhidovka morda!' at me [Jewish mug!], so if I don't have the blood, I acquired Jewishness that way. I got to identifying with it."

Then I went home and Googled Kol Nidrei, and it has nothing to do with the Marranos and the forced conversions (though the belief that it does is widespread). The prayer is centuries older than that (and it's in Aramaic, which implies an origin in Iraq), however, si non e vero, e bene trovato: If it's not true, it makes a good story. A really good symbol (like a really good faith) has no absolute meaning, and acquires ever new meanings over the centuries. Kind of like great music.