“I’m nervous,” my Cousin Tom said as I greeted him in front of the synagogue in Boulder, Colorado last week. We were walking into my nephew Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah, and Tom, a rabbi who was visiting from Tucson – a man who can, incidentally do a headstand at the snap of a finger – even in full suit and tie – and who did do a headstand on the grass after the service – was going to be chanting a Hebrew Torah portion in the ceremony that morning.
“Why are you nervous?” I asked. “This is what you do, this is your gig.”
Tom’s been a beloved rabbi in Tucson for the last 20 years. Even though he was here as family, he’d been invited to chant the Torah because not everybody has a rabbi for blood, and we love this guy – anytime we can get a blessing from him we do.
Well it turns out that chanting a Torah portion isn’t his gig at all. His gig is being a rabbi – which means interpreting the Torah so we mortals can understand what God is saying to us. The singing gig belongs to the cantor of the temple. Asking Tom to chant Hebrew in the service is like asking an electrician to fix your plumbing. They both work on the house, but they do completely different jobs.
But I didn’t know that then. “You’ll do fine,” I said, giving him a squeeze. I thought he was just being modest. Tom is awesome. I wasn’t worried at all.
Until about a minute into his chanting, which is when he started struggling. He’d chant a few phrases, then he’d slow down and appear to stumble through a few of the Hebrew words, then begin again, then slow down, almost as if he were sounding the words out, then he’d start chanting again. It was like watching a child learning to read. At one point my 57-year-old, adorable cousin had to stop singing entirely and the man standing next to him – who I presumed was an actual cantor – had to sing the chant so Tom could piggy back on top of that chant and get a ride to the next part where he’d chant, then stumble a little and then pick it up again.
It went on like this for a long time because apparently this wasn’t a short ditty of a chant, it was a sea monster of a chant – an 11-line chant – which doesn’t sound like much, but one line, if pasted on the floor, could stretch from the front of my house to the back. And so it went on and on with no end in sight.
Let me just say here that Tom and I don’t come from a family that messes up very well – it wasn’t the way we were taught. When our Grandmother was dying she preferred to say goodbye to us by phone less we see her fading away in the hospital. She wanted to leave us with a pristine picture of her perfect spray of white hair, her bright red lipstick, and cheery smile. I did happen to see her husband, my Grandfather, who died years later, coiled in a fetal position in diapers on his bed – but that was an accident. If she were still alive we never would have gotten close enough to see him like that. We’re a family who pride ourselves in keeping it together. Mistakes aren’t spoken of, and those of us who are having a hard time are said to be doing “wonderfully” if anyone asks. It’s an optimism that shares a border with denial. So the not-so-fine moments aren’t mentioned, but instead hushed away.
And yet here was one of the most beloved members of our family, a man who walks around smiling, who does handstands at temple, who counsels people and makes time to hike with cousins when they visit Tucson – struggling right in front of us.
I looked to my left – to my brother, my sisters, my mother, my cousins, as they watched Tom. It was like watching a man lost at sea. Everybody seemed to be holding their breath and leaning forward as if they might leap out of their chairs and join him up there, chanting along with him for solidarity. But we couldn’t. We didn’t read Hebrew, we didn’t know the chant. We couldn’t change the channel, couldn’t freeze the whole congregation, airlifting Tom out and sprinkling a magic potion on everyone so they would have no memory of what just happened. We couldn’t fast forward to the prayer for the grapes either – and which would mean WINE – holy shit – no – we all had to watch Tom get through that whole thing all alone.
Finally he was done and the entire congregation – all 150 people – exhaled in unison. That’s when the rabbi invited our whole family – 20 of us – to join Tom and Jonah up on the pulpit, where we became a human mosh pit of love. The 10-year-olds and the 84-year-olds and the rest of us in between, we surrounded Tom and Jonah and we put our arms around each other and we prayed aloud in Hebrew. I don’t even know what we were praying for – but it felt good to pray for something, for anything – together. I found Tom’s hand in the crowd and I squeezed it hard.
A week later I emailed a couple of family members and asked them what they were feeling as they watched Tom chant the Torah. One said she’d get back to me, but didn’t, the other respectfully declined to comment, citing that it was too painful to recall.
But when I called Tom and asked him about it, he told me it had been a transformational experience.
“You know,” he told me over the phone from Tucson, “for three decades my worst nightmare was to be leading the congregation and to not be prepared, to mess up. And there I was, living my nightmare!”
It turned out that the Torah portion that he’d had to chant was much more intensive than he’d ever done before. “Maybe if I’d been better prepared,” he said.
“Why’d you do it?” I asked him.
“I didn’t want to let Jonah down,” he said.
“Oh shit,” I said.
“But the thing is,” he went on, “the next thing I knew I was surrounded by my cousins and my sisters, my family and their husbands, and everyone was touching me, healing me – the whole family – which wouldn’t have happened if I’d done it perfectly. I was living my worst nightmare and then I was surrounded by love.”
When I was thinking about this post and why I wanted to write it, I thought it was about perfectionism – how it’s okay to mess up – bla bla bla – and how everyone does it, right? But I realized after talking with my good friend, the writer, Lisa Jones, it’s about something much deeper. It was Lisa who saw it, who told me, “you actually have to mess up to be touched by the light. For your family who was watching Tom, you suffered, but not as bad as Tom suffered, and because he did, he availed himself to the touch of God, or grace, or whatever happens to you when you’re in the hot seat. The rest of you weren’t suffering enough to have the benefit of the breakthrough. Breakthroughs happen to those who fall on their face.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever fallen that hard, but I will, and when I do, I’m going to think about Tom and how he kept chanting, how he didn’t stop. Like I said, we never miss an opportunity to get a blessing from that guy, and that was Tom’s blessing to us that day.
(Lisa, by the way, whose memoir BROKEN: A LOVE STORY – concerns a period when she did a lot of falling on her own face)
Failing and Flying
BY JACK GILBERT
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.