…and yes, back to a play-by-play account of Hallelu Atlanta. Sorry it wasn’t sooner, but y’know, I have a JOB, people. When being a Yenta pays a salary and benefits, I will be happy to be at your full-time Hebonic service. In the meantime, Mr. Morris owns me from 9-5, the Yenta family gets 5-9 and once in a great while I get from 10:03-10:14 to hang out with El Yenta Man before he starts snoring.
Also, I lost my voice the minute I left Atlanta – literally, we pulled onto I-75 and it whooshed away in the middle of a sentence. I still have not quite found it, which is making it hard to interview people and organize this huge booksigning for the publisher of the magazine tomorrow, not to mention motivate two children into school clothes at 7am. I sound like a cross between your phlegmy great aunt who smokes a pack of Benson & Hedges a day and a hyperactive phone sex worker.
But back to the show. Before we continue, I have to give props to the fabulous Rachel Leah Cohen, who not only worked backstage and dealt with all the talent and coordinated all the difficult people who wanted extra hotel rooms for their children (ahem, ahem) but delivered a darling monologue in between Neshama and Mare (or was is between Mare and Joshua Nelson? What can I say, I was starstruck) about what a gift it was to come home to her original ‘hood of Atlanta and witness this communion. Rachel might be Craig Taubman’s organizational elf for now, but mark my words, that girl’s got the moxie to bring her L.A. dreams to life.
Also love to Michael from CraigNCo and Hallelu’s very patient and inspiring director Stuart Robinson.
So, I left off at Joshua Nelson’s awe-inspiring performance, right? I am adding “kosher gospel back-up singer” to my list of things I want to be when I grow up. While we were all catching our breath, a dozen or so dancers from the Atlanta Jazz Theater clad in Israeli blue graced the stage and silenced the room. Their interpretation of “Eliahu Hanavi” gave me (the good kind of) chills and I could Little Yenta Girl in the audience swaying her shoulders, mesmerized.
The hypnotic soundtrack was Craig Taubman’s, natch, and it began with a Midrash interpretation of Elijah’s presence in our present: That the prophet is in the world, “waiting for a person to turn to him in compassion. He could be a child waiting for a hug…He could be the person sitting beside you, waiting for a word of welcome. And when we turn to him in compassion – in kindness and love – he will bring Redemption and make the world whole. But then again, if we act with compassion, kindness and love – the world will be redeemed anyway.”
I love this idea that we are active in humanity’s redemption; that every good deed, extra tzedakeh and smile for a stranger counts, and that ultimately, the way we treat each other supersedes how kosher our kitchens are, how much Hebrew we can quote and whether we light our Sabbath candles on time. I believe that what God wants from us most is our love – for creation, for life itself – and this is why Hallelu was such a valuable experience: It was an authentic spiritual event rather than the kind of mindless ritual most of us witness in shul (as opposed to participate in.) At least that’s how it seemed from my vantage point; Abbie reports that there were some grumpy haters in her section, but they probably just had gas.
Anyway. After the dancers came the Silver Fox himself, singing and clapping and revving up the house. And then he did what every Jewish mother wants for her gorgeous daughter – he grabbed my little moochkele up and danced around with her, getting a big “awwww” from the audience and earning our family’s undying worship for life. But wait, it gets better: Backstage, after the show, she pointed at Craig and said “I want to marry him.” Adorable.
So then it was back to me, sitting on the stage. I typed some notes and observations down during the show, but I found it impossible to compose a snappy little paragraph suitable for immediate delivery. My writing process doesn’t necessarily require complete silence, but I found 4500 pairs of eyes on me kind of distracting. So I don’t actually remember what I said, but I tried to just match the energy coming from the performers. I came to see myself as kind of a liaison between the audience and the talent, since I was neither or both, depending if you’re related to me.
The second half of the show brought out the legendary Theo Bikel, who just looks so much like Tevye that I wanted to get up on the roof with him, who in turn called out Our Lady of Perpetual Song Debbie Friedman for a duet blessing the hungry and sweet. Forgive me for being sacreligious (or don’t, I don’t care) but I felt like I was standing at the foot of Sinai when the Word first came down. When Debbie broke into “Miriam’s song,” all heaven broke loose – every woman in the Fox theater including me was up and shaking her groove thang with her invisible timbrel like we were on the safe side of the Red Sea for real.
Then Syngagogue 3000’s president, the wonderful Ron Wolfson, came out to honor the moment with the Shehechianu and talk a little about the work that had gone into this year of programs and planning that culminated in all 20 of ATL’s synagogues gathering on this day. “Baruchim ha-ba-im!” he cried. “Bless us all who have come together!” (For more about how Ron has found unlikely inspiration from the evangelicals and the Christian megachurch concept, check out this NYT article; it makes sense, people!)
Ron’s speech led right into a righteous performance by a choir composed of folks from all the congregations, and by this point I was in such a state of bliss that I hardly noticed the flashing red light on my computer. As choir crescendoed through its closing harmonies, I watched the little battery icon get smaller and smaller until finally, my screen went black. Whereas I had been winging it before, now I was literarily (not literally, thank God) naked. My first impulse was to panic, but I looked down at my family’s and everyone else shining faces and figured So what? Yah tov – it’ll be fine.
This joyous day shared a date with a tragic one, and all the artists returned to the stage to pay tribute to Yitzak Rabin, who was assasinated 12 years before. But even this important remembrance couldn’t dampen the elevated mood. I was beckoned to join everyone for the finale and it must have been quite a spectacle seeing all of us jumping up and down.
This is was what synagogue is supposed to be, I thought as I do-si-doed with Rachel. Praising equals joy, worship means love. I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve found what I’ve felt has been missing in Judaism my whole life except for summer camp. Hallelu-JAH!
Now the question remains: How do we re-create it in our daily lives? How do we bring the joy back to shul for real? This was so much more than just a “performance,” yet how to marry it to the rigidity of halachic life? I’ve got lots more to say and think and wonder about it all, but right now I’ve got to get back to the work I get paid for.
For now, at the very least, I’ve got a whole new set of dance party tunes for this Sunday’s Shalom School lesson.