Cantor Janet Blog
Purim for Grownups
Cantor Janet Leuchter on Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 12:00:00 am
When we were kids, we all thought Purim was a kids’ holiday. Now that we are adults, most of us, sadly, still do. We seldom give a thought to what’s really going on in the megilla (the Book of Esther), especially during the bedlam of the service.
So treat yourself to reading the Book of Esther in a good English translation during a quiet moment before Purim. The Jewish Publication Society offers the original Hebrew and a modern-English translation of all five “megillot” plus Jonah—plus audio versions (www.jps.org). Each version costs a whopping $13.
Believe it or not, much ink has been spilled on ADULT commentary on Megillat Esther and Purim. Some scholars think the megilla was never intended as a true story but as a satire on Persian-Jewish current events c. 400 BCE, using Persian-god stand-ins like Ishtar and Marduk. Others think it a Mardi Gras-like acknowledgment of the upside-down chaos of human existence.
More than 2000 years later, the great Romanian Yiddish poet Itsik Manger wrote a cycle of poems called Megile Lider, which the Israeli composer Dov Seltzer turned into the wonderful Yiddish musical The Megile of Itsik Manger, performed around the world in the 1960s by Peysakh Burstein and Lillian Lux, and their children, Susan and Michael. (Michael grew up to be Mike Burstyn). In these works, the megilla is updated as a story of Eastern European Jews modernizing into the working class, the bosses, the nouveau-riche, and the classic Court Jews. Esther abandons her boyfriend, a poor tailor, and the garment workers rise up in revolt.
Manger's modern work riffed on the centuries-old Ashkenazic custom of itinerant Purim players, or shpilers, who would go house to house in costume, improvising songs, poems and skits for a few groshn. The shpilers led to the creation of Yiddish theater, which in America had an outsized effect on the mainstream, through such institutions as the Group Theater and "Method acting" studios of Adler and Strasberg (satirized in the current film My Week with Marilyn).
Megillat Esther has inspired any other sophisticated pieces of art. Many painters, including Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Dali, painted scenes from the megilla; you can sample them on www.bible-art.info/Esther. Hugo Weisgall wrote the opera Esther for the New York City Opera, which was revived last year to acclaim. JT Waldman wrote the 2006 boundary-pushing graphic novel Megillat Esther, published as an “e-novel” by JPS.
One of the megilla’s inspirational points is Esther's growth from a timid puppet of her uncle Mordecai to a brave woman who risks her life for her people and finds her own power. She continues to be a model for all of us—women and men. An example of her contemporary relevance is the Esther Foundation, in Perth, Australia, where young women-at-risk (and their children) can live in safe and supportive residences while acquiring skills that will empower them to lead productive lives.
When I was young, it was politically correct to venerate Vashti as a proto-feminist and denigrate Esther as an unliberated woman. But over the years, I have come to see Esther's journey to empowerment as timeless and relevant.
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Praying for Rain - Far from Here!
Cantor Janet Leuchter on Tuesday, October 4, 2011 at 12:00:00 am
I love Sukkot in Israel--still warm, the fall flowers blooming, everyone on holiday all week. Sukkot in Israel means the start of the rainy season, or so everyone hopes. This season is reflected in Jewish text and song over many centuries. The Song of Songs--chanted at Pesakh in the spring--says, Hageshem chalaf halakh lo/the rain is over and done. T'filat Geshem, the ancient prayer for rain, is chanted on Sh'mini Atzeret--after Sukkot is over, so we don't get rained out of our sukkas!
According to the Talmud, Geshem grew out of the even earlier insertion at the start of the silent Amidah - Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem/You are our God, who makes the wind blow and the rain fall. Jews round the world sing it all winter--maybe we've even overdone it recently. The first part of the Geshem inserts, rarely done today outside the Orthodox world, is right out of Jewish mythology--a tribute to the angel of rain, called "Af -Bri" in the Book of Job. Rashi points out that "af" means anger and "bri" means health. These, he says, refer to the two ways rain can fall--destructively in torrents, or beneficially, bringing good health.
Rashi, of course, lived up north, in France, so his interpretation reflects the weather conditions we New Yorkers can relate to. Up north, the end of Sukkot ushers in a colder, more threatening season. Reflecting the anxiety of poor East European Jews, the Yiddish song "Af-Bri" -- sung to the tune of the Geshem prayer -- offers this view of the season, familiar to many of our more recent anccestors: "The morning after the holiday, I must rush out to buy potatoes. There's no food or money, the house is cold, my boots torn, the roof leaking, walls cracked."
The Geshem prayer we Ashkenazim use appeals to God to send rain through the merit of each biblical patriarch through the twelve tribes. A quite different Sephardic version, however, asks God to bless the earth with the rains of light, joy, splendor and other wonderful attributes listed acrostically. (It can be found in the Reconstructionist siddur Kol Han'shamah.) Both Geshem prayers end with the same appeal--that the rain fall for blessing and not for curse, for life not for death, for plenty not for scarcity.
Like many world traditions, we Jews see the yearly cycle of seasons as reflecting the cycle of life and death. Therefore we also read the biblical book of Ecclesiastes on the Shabbat during Sukkot. By articulating our despair at the inevitable waning of human life, Ecclesiastes offers a philosophy of ultimate acceptance of our common fate, trust in God, and an appreciation of what God has given us.
Contemporary secular Israelis, whom American Jews incorrectly view as having no religious impulses, actually express, in their artistic creations, strong ideas about God and spirituality. On the two-CD set Shalom Chaver/Goodbye Friend, issued after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995, the wonderful singer Yehudit Ravitz sings the song Mishehu/Someone by the iconic lyricist, the late Ehud Manor, set to haunting music by Mati Caspi.
Someone cares about me up there. He lights stars and they fall (and then are gathered) one by one. We spin round on two different paths, day and night along their way--tired, hungry and looking for a sign, in fields of dust and time. We shall meet at the end of roads and questions, of many days and nights. I know that You are near now—spring is over, summer gathers itself in, and the rain returns.
Here too, in a deeply affecting modern setting, is the age-old view of life's fragility at the start of the rainy season. May the start of this season bring to all of us life, blessing and abundance.
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One Small Step for the New Year
Cantor Janet Leuchter on Friday, September 2, 2011 at 12:00:00 am
Oh no, not the Holidays again!! I don't know
about you, but the more times the High Holidays come around, the greater my
"been there-done that" feeling.
For the umpteenth time, I've reviewed my failings, repented before God
and humankind, and resolved to improve.
"Yes, but you've done this so often already," my inner self
says. "Why bother? You never really change."
Meanwhile I look around, and notice how women,
in particular, have something else entirely on their minds: meal
arrangements. Who is going to eat
where when, what meals am I responsible for, how many people and their
ever-expanding list of food issues?
No time to focus on our spiritual selves here.
I notice how others, particularly adults on
either end of the age spectrum, are girding themselves for a Happy New Year of
loneliness, since their loved ones are too far away to gather with, or there
are not many loved ones left living.
Can they focus on repentance while struggling with such sadness?
And I see all of us watching our retirement
accounts drop (again), as well as those among us who are still jobless or
underemployed. I see the addicts
and mentally ill on my streets, and read about incomprehensible human
So is there anything to look forward to this
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Is
it possible to pull ourselves out of our particular distractions to do our
spiritual work and count our blessings?
Start with just one small gnawing thing, I
decided. For me, it was cleaning
out overgrown parts of my home. As
I lighten my space, amazingly my psyche starts to feel lighter too. Then, like event reminders on my
computer, the images of relatives and friends pop up demanding action--those
I've neglected during the year, those with whom I have unfinished business,
those who are jobless, in mourning, or battling serious illness. I can see my life more clearly--regrets
and blessings both. Though these
may not be revelations, they feel surprisingly fresh. Paying attention and taking that one small step has
hopefully set me on a restorative path.
I am reminded of Judaism's insight that God will move towards you if you
take a step towards God.
I can now start to think about who might need a
holiday meal or phone call, what charities and causes I'll be supporting, and
what my next year's priorities should be.
All from taking one small step--cleaning out my closets!
Hal and I wish you a New Year of blessing, peace
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