Homeward Bound? GOLD NOTES #20
by Matthew J. (Matt) Goldberg
A WEEKLY EXPLORATION OF… SOMETHING
Tuesday, January, 29 2012
So, there I was, last Saturday, at a small synagogue in Ra’anana, Israel, facing the ark with my back to the congregation. I had just chanted the Blessing Before Haftarah, which was easy enough, and now it was on to the Haftarah itself. I belted out the first four or so words and something just didn’t sound right. It didn’t sound at all like what I had been practicing the last two or three days and there was nowhere to hide…
This was only my third trip to Israel, and I came solo to share in the simcha of my twin nieces’ B’not Mitzvah. I arrived at Ben-Gurion airport two evenings prior and was still suffering from a combination of sleep deprivation and jet lag during the service. Truth be told, eight days later (as I write from Cherry Hill, New Jersey), those two issues are still my companions. Such companionship, but was stage fright also hitting me?
My brother, Josh, and his wife, Lorre, made (what I think is permanent) aliyah to Israel in 2005, although my sister-in-law had lived there from about 1987 till 1995, when they got married in the States. Their first home together was her apartment in Tel Aviv, and I visited there about two months after their wedding. My 1995 trip started with an eight-day mission arranged by the Jewish Federation for which I was working at the time. I connected with Josh and Lorre for another week on the back end. Almost everything about the trip was great until the last couple days or so. I got sick…very sick…on an overnight hike with a group that they were a part of. I’m not sure how I walked the last four or so miles back to the van, and when we returned to Lorre’s car, I remember trying hard not to, well, decorate it with my heaves. Elegant, huh…but that wasn’t the worst part of it.
On the way back to their apartment, there were all kinds of sirens sounding from a variety of emergency vehicles. In a little while, we were to hear the tragic news of Yitchak Rabin’s assassination…
I’m not quite sure how I re-started the Haftarah, or if I uttered anything in displeasure about those first four or so errant notes. Hopefully not. While I’m not a perfectionist, and God knows I’m not perfect, I do take great pride in reading Torah or Haftarah with precision. Okay, my trup may be a hybrid of what I learned from my own Bar-Mitzvah and what I later helped teach at another congregation, but it was reasonably accurate and consistent. I’ve always stressed the right part of each word, belted out the notes as best I could, and my pronunciation is usually pretty good, even if it sounds more Jersey than Jerusalem. I re-started, and all was pretty much okay, if not flawless…
My second trip to Israel was in March, 2009 for Rachelle’s (my eldest niece)’s Bat Mitzvah. This time, I came with my wife, Ruby, my Dad (now of blessed memory) and my then-seven-plus-month son, Benny. It was wonderful being able to facilitate such a trip, although I first consulted several of my Dad’s doctors about the advisability of taking him on such a journey with his various health issues. My nieces loved seeing Grandpa Bob, and of course, they were delighted to meet Baby Benny, who was preternaturally calm on this trip. Of course, he’s made up for it since then, not that I’d ever want him to change his essentially unpredictable, energetic, ultra-bright and joyful nature…
Other than one correction from the gabbai (my eyes apparently saw a final tsadee as a lamed), I pretty much nailed it. That was a good thing, as everyone brought their “A game” to the service. My niece, Eliana, did a great job on the first three aliyot, despite her voice and energy being compromised by a bad cough. The torah portion, Bo, was completed in fine fashion by a combination of family members and friends (Josh, Lorre’s Mom and a friend or two); I had terrific opening acts, if you will. Too terrific?…
My brother and his family belong to an Orthodox schul called Kinor David, where we attended the Friday night service, just as we did four years ago. For the Saturday services, they used other venues that would allow their girls to read either Torah or Haftarah. They used a Reform temple for Rachelle’s, and used an all-purpose room at Rachelle’s school—where Shabbat services are held monthly—for the B’not Mitzvah.
A couple other quick notes. I was not able to attend the second daughter’s (Aimee’s) Bat Mitzvah as I stayed home to be near my Dad. Eliana’s nominally older sister, Liora, suffers from a terrible disorder called Rett Syndrome. Unable to speak or stand or walk without help, the family included her in a dignified and touching way that allowed her to enjoy the moment and be recognized. Everything about the service was beautiful. I wouldn’t mess it up, would I?…
The day before the service, my brother advised me that I wouldn’t be able to use the Maftir booklet I had brought with me. Some of you may be able to picture the colored booklets that include the blessings, Haftarah, and Maftir readings. While I like the convenience of everything being in one place and looking familiar, I didn’t think the switcharoo would adversely affect my performance. Josh reassured me that the print I would be using would be just as large as that I had been practicing from.
(My brother has rarely steered me in the wrong direction over the years, other than almost every over time when driving a vehicle.) In this case, the size of the print ended up being smaller than what I was used to, and what I would consider to be perfectly legible given my 2013 vision. The table that I was using was also a bit too low for me. I got much better results when I picked the book up. Chanting the last half of the Haftarah was quite enjoyable, and I felt as if I was doing the portion and the occasion justice. Transitioning between the portion and the blessing after, I caught the eye of the gabbai who looked over at Josh. I interpreted his expression to mean, “Hey, I wasn’t sure about this guy, but he’s a real pro.” Something like that.
All in all, I felt good about it, even if my quest for perfection was undone by those first four notes and that final tsadee. I took my seat next to a man of quite serious visage who had avoided eye contact of any sort for the previous hour. Yaakov, a neighbor of Josh and family, extended his hand to me, and said that I did well, even though my Jersey accent was readily apparent. He, I soon learned, had made aliyah from Vineland, New Jersey 15 years ago.
All of this was both fitting and ironic. I was captured by the powerful reality that the same blessings, prayers and Torah portions were being chanted all over the world that day—whether done in an Othodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist setting. In many ways, I was in my true homeland, although the opportunities to be with my brother and his family have been all too rare. The whole trip was a further reminder of their connection to Israel, and I am happy that they live in a great, supportive community. I’m still not sure if I’m too secularized or Americanized to ever live there, but that may be a discussion for another time.
Five days after the service, I flew back to Jersey, grateful for the opportunity to be with my family, thrilled to be a part of a wonderful service and celebration, and with just a little more of an Israeli accent.
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About the Author: An author, speaker and custom writer from Cherry Hill, NJ, Matt loves to entertain people through his writing and public speaking. Laughs, Smiles and just enough Wisdom reach his audience through the magic of his written and spoken words. More about Matthew