The Jewish Advocate interviews me

My writer friend Michael A. Burstein sometimes writes for The Jewish Advocate, which is the local Jewish community newspaper in Boston. He is also a regular attendee of Arisia, so he pitched an article to the Advocate regarding the Friday night davening and the new siddur, and he interviewed me for it.

Observant Jews ‘daven’ long, prosper at area sci-fi con

The article made the front page of this week’s paper (!), but like all their digital content, it’s behind a paywall. (Boston locals please note: If you’re not an Advocate subscriber, you can still pick up an individual copy at the Israel Book Shop in Brookline… if the snow emergency ever ends!) So rather than the article itself, I give you the (slightly edited) text of my interview answers instead.

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Free Printable Friday Night Prayerbook (Condensed Edition)

This past weekend was the Arisia science fiction convention, which is put on each January by several hundred of my closest friends in Boston, MA. I attended almost every Arisia from 1999 to 2014 (after which I moved back to the Midwest). In 2006, since all my geeky shul friends were attending the convention anyway, I started organizing a Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service at the convention hotel. Those of us who were on the synagogue board borrowed a large (and heavy!) crate of assorted prayerbooks from Temple Beth Shalom of Cambridge every year to make the service happen.

This service, I am happy to say, is still going on, organized by Terri Ash (of Geek Calligraphy) and her family. But for 2017, Terri wanted a pamphlet-style siddur containing only the prayers for Friday night, that could be stored from year to year just for Arisia. But we weren’t aware of any existing siddur that fit our needs, so, what do we do? Build our own (based on the extensive resources available at the groundbreaking OpenSiddur.org website). She asked “Who wants to help make this happen?” and of course I said “Here I am!”  Continue reading

New art piece: To Everything There Is A Season

Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul (which means only one month to Rosh Hashanah). In honor of the new Hebrew month, I’m debuting a new art piece!

As a young teenager, I was deeply into the music of the 1960s, and I still remember getting goosebumps the first time I heard the Byrds’ 1965 hit recording of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)”.

I knew it was taken from a passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes, though I didn’t know much more about it than that. Much later, I experienced Ecclesiastes as the Hebrew scroll of Kohelet, which is traditionally ascribed (like the book of Proverbs, or Mishlei ) to King Solomon, and in many Jewish communities is read aloud in its entirety at Shabbat synagogue services during the fall holiday of Sukkot.

A couple of years ago, at a friend’s house, I saw a framed calligraphy piece based on this same passage, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. That inspired me to want to do a version of my own.

The primary motif I had in mind was to set the English phrases as a sine wave or a helix, winding around the structure of the Hebrew. The above-and-below undulation would convey the duality in each of the pairings. Each Hebrew phrase is color-matched with its English equivalent to create a visual connection between the two levels. I chose to invert the Hebrew in these layers so that the text flow of both languages could run in the same clockwise direction — another way to echo the “wheel of time” feeling of the passage.

Ultimately, I arranged the text in a mandala of four nesting circles. The outermost circle is formed from the opening verse, which provides the conceptual frame for the whole passage. The second layer contains eight pairings, the third layer five pairings, and the last pairing forms the final circle with “peace” at its center… driving the whole composition, like Pete Seeger’s adaptation, toward an optimistic goal at its core.

One note on the translation: The well-known King James Version translates the second half of verse 1 as “and a time to every purpose under the heaven”. The Hebrew word used there, however, is cheifetz, which in other contexts is always rendered as “please” or “enjoy”. (Compare to Psalm 115:3, V’elokeinu ba-shamayim; kol asher chafetz asah. “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”) Thus, some English translations give it as “to every delight” or “pleasure under the heavens”. Many other translations simply say “event”, “matter” or “activity”. I wanted to find a word that conveyed the semantic direction of “pleasing” without categorizing killing and destroying as “delights”, and settled on “to every impulse under the heavens.” I also tried to preserve the distinctions in the Hebrew between “a time to [verb]” and “a time of [noun]”.

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I created Version I using the classical Roman-style font Trajan for all of the English text, for a smooth and formal look. However, then I wanted to try to bring out the (literal) texture of the passage with a little more contrast, so I experimented with applying a calligraphic italic hand (a font called Aquiline) to accent the changing keywords in each English phrase. This resulted in Version II.

Both pieces are now available in my Etsy shop, along with a hi-res PDF download that includes both versions in case you prefer to print your own.

Which version do you think works best? Let me know in comments.

Chodesh tov!

Because this is still a design blog: Who By Fire

I’ve occasionally tried my hand at creating holiday cards, but never anything particularly inspired, somehow.

Then during Rosh Hashanah services this year, I managed to remember that the Thing I Do is play around with text, especially Biblical or liturgical text… and there’s no shortage of great material in the High Holiday liturgy. Which excited me, even if it results in a bit of a departure from your basic apples-and-honey “good and sweet year” greeting card motif.

So here’s the first one:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed...

This famous liturgical passage is from the central U’netaneh Tokef section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf prayer service. Click to enlarge.

I have a few more passages still in mind to work up. Next year I intend to actually get some of them printed up in time to use for the holiday… so I made sure to use up the last few mundane ones in my stash this year.

Edited to add (2015): Buy it on Zazzle!

Ketivah v’chatimah tovah: May you all be written and sealed for a good year.

Where you can find me for the High Holidays

One of my fellow members at Town & Village Synagogue in downtown Manhattan is Rabbi Judith Hauptman, who is on the faculty at JTS. I first met her over Rosh Hashanah lunch this time last year. For the past several years, Rabbi Hauptman has run a free, public community young adult High Holiday congregation under the name of Ohel Ayalah (“the tent of Ayalah,” named for her mother z”l, the inspiration for this hospitable service). Ohel Ayalah also runs a community young adult Passover seder, which I happened to attend this past April when I needed a place for 2nd-night seder, and I was impressed how they managed to do what felt like a full and complete traditional seder liturgy, blend in enough time for socializing, and still get us out of there at the stroke of 10pm.

One week earlier this summer, I attended T&V’s regular Friday night service, which as a rule is incredibly rich with powerful singing (thanks largely to the amazing Cantor Shayna Postman, and whichever of my fellow choirmates happen to be in the congregation on any given week). After the service, Rabbi Hauptman came up to me and said “How would you like to come daven with me for the High Holidays?”

“Um,” I said, “I’m not sure how useful I can really be to you on that!” I’m not, in truth, very well versed in actual liturgy for anything beyond the Friday night service, Torah service, and occasional Shabbat Musaf. But she has (as I knew) a regular cantor, Josh Gorfinkle, who does the liturgical heavy lifting, and a couple of additional/backup service leaders. In particular, she said, she was basically just looking for someone to reinforce the singing up front on a microphone and thereby add to the overall ruach of the service. That, I said, is something I can do. Even if it means I have to negotiate splitting my time with the choir at T&V, where I would otherwise be spending all of the holidays.

The upshot is that I’ll be with Ohel Ayalah’s Manhattan service for the first evening and day of Rosh Hashanah and for Kol Nidrei. And in addition to harmonizing throughout the services, and reading the Haftarah (the story of Chana, which is my Hebrew name, so that’s awesome), she asked me to sing one of the three repetitions of the Kol Nidrei prayer. I am deeply honored… and only a little terrified. It turns out that I have at least some version of Kol Nidrei internalized from the many years I spent in the professional High Holiday backup choir in Swampscott/Marblehead (starting in 1997 at Temple Israel, which eventually became Congregation Shirat HaYam). Of course, the arrangement in my head is a choral monstrosity for cantor, four-part choir, and possibly organ… but if I sing through some combination of the lines I remember, with enough conviction and kavannah, it seems to hang together well enough.

Rabbi Hauptman offered to lend me a kittel, since she wants all of us to wear them on the bimah. But the Sunday before last, I went up to West Side Judaica on 88th & Broadway and bought one of my own. Amusingly, the nice lady at the register wished me mazal tov… because these are—like the tallit—traditionally considered a men’s garment, and worn particularly for weddings, as well as High Holidays and Passover seders. So, y’know, what else does it mean when a woman of marriageable age is buying one? (Granted, the last time I bought one, that was what it was for, but that’s another story.) Happily, the gentleman who assisted me in finding one had not batted an eyelash when I asserted that it was for myself and patiently helped me sort through and try on all the sizes of the three or four styles they had. I purposely picked out the very most girly-looking one: all pintucks and lace edges. It’s like the world’s prettiest lab coat. I am excited.

I think it’s going to be a good year.

And if you want to come and daven with me, they’re still accepting walk-ins at the Prince George Ballroom (15 E 27 St., between 5th and Madison), tomorrow night at 6:45pm and Thursday morning at 9am. L’shanah tovah u’metukah!