Wednesday, September 23, 2009

And you have your eye on the rabbi's son.

Well, it's that time of year again, and by that I mean the High Holy Days, when even the most lapsed of lapsed Jews find themselves in synagogue humming along to tunes they may or may not know and listening to sermons of dubious quality. It also means rabbinical students, whom I consider to be one of the more fascinating subsets of American society.

My junior year of college, I was at loose ends during the High Holy Days. That August, I had moved into an apartment with a roommate I barely knew and gotten my first ever part-time office job (from whose computer I am currently typing). School hadn't started yet, wouldn't start for another two weeks. And I had volunteered to read Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah...which would mean actually GOING to the second day of Rosh Hashanah, for the first time in my life. I also went to Friday night services at the student center, another first for me. And it was there that I met the adorable (and, regrettably, married, as I later found out on Facebook) rabbinical student from New York City who had been hired to lead the university's Conservative services.

Yes, that's right. I went to three services in a row, plus Yom Kippur the next week, PLUS Tashlich (where we throw pieces of bread representing the sins of the past year into the lake) and dinner at Hillel to satisfy a crush on a rabbinical student. I'll admit that it threw me for a loop. I've never been particularly observant, and I don't know if I could ever really commit to being more involved in Judaism (though I do feel very much connected to it, in my fashion). But the more I think about it, the more I find that there is something really attractive about somebody who can commit, and already has committed to a life in service of God and the Torah. I certainly don't want to be a rabbi, but I really admire people who find fulfillment in being spiritual leaders. Commitment, Abby, as they say in 1776.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if, on the first day of seminary, somebody stood at the front of the classroom and said to the eager young rabbis-in-training, "If you can see yourself being happy doing anything else, you should do that." Because that's what I've been told about singing. And really, rabbis and opera singers have more in common than they might seem to at first glance. Both professions require a certain amount of daily upkeep, if you will, though one is prayer and the other is practice. Both the rabbi and the opera singer must work well with others: the rabbi with his or her congregation and the opera singer with his or her colleagues or castmates. And both demand a colossal amount of commitment to sustain.

I think what struck me about meeting a rabbinical student, rather than an ordained rabbi, was that not long ago, he was a college student. He majored in history at Brandeis, probably spent a lot of time partying with his friends, playing ultimate frisbee, going into Boston to enjoy the night life. And yet he also wanted to become a rabbi. At some point, he must have said to himself, "I enjoy doing all of these other things, but becoming a rabbi is the thing I am meant for." The campus rabbi at Northwestern was a music major in college--euphonium performance. Ben Stiller and Edward Norton, as a rabbi and a priest in Keeping the Faith, play basketball when they're not working the room in their respective houses of worship. When I went to Israel, our bus rabbi danced on a table in Tel Aviv to the strains of "Billie Jean," and there are incriminating pictures of him in sunglasses on the bus the next morning, hungover. In other words, rabbis--and rabbinical students--are people too. Just because they ultimately decided to enter the clergy doesn't mean that they don't have other interests and talents.

One thing I have struggled with (one thing?!) since consecrating my life to music, so to speak, is whether or not I really want the life I'm embarking on. After they tell you that if you can see yourself being happy doing anything else, yada yada yada, they tell you that you won't know if you won't be happy as an opera singer until you have a career. It feels like we could get stuck, for good--spending all of this time, energy and money on becoming an opera singer, only to discover that we don't want to be an opera singer.

But before we start freaking out about this, think about the rabbis. Can you stop being a rabbi once you've been ordained as one? Once you have consecrated your life to God, can you un-consecrate it? Isn't there a story in the Bible about that, and doesn't it involve being eaten by a big fish? What singers tend to forget is that we can do other things. We are competent well-educated human beings. We learn quickly and accurately. We are probably poised and well-spoken (which is why my current job likes to hire singers to work as receptionists), and most of us speak more than one foreign language. What else could we do, if we decide not to sing? Why, anything! To paraphrase the inimitable Dwight Schrute, there is nothing but everything on our horizons.

Of course, none of these things influenced my High Holy Days crush. He was just cute, and had a nice singing voice, and looked great in a kittel and tallit. What can I say? Opera singers are only human, after all.

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