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What Whitney Houston and Cantor Max Fuchs Have in Common
Last night, Rabbi Kleinbaum struck me as the "Ellen" of the Jewish Queer world and also as my conduit to God, a striking combo. The bigger and less traditional the crowd, the funnier she is. She is so funny from the bimah that when she introduced the "Achot K'tanah" as a traditional melody from Casablanca, a number of the congregation laughed, thinking, I guess, that she was referring to the classic film.
At the outset, Rabbi Kleinbaum set the life-is-hard-but-redemption-is-possible tone for the service, discussing how, right where she was standing, earlier in the week, Oprah had interviewed Whitney Houston. Our High Holiday services require no tickets -- unlike nearly all other synagogues -- and so they are too big to hold in our regular setting; Rosh Hashanah services are held at the Town Hall and Yom Kippur services, at the Javits Center.
Whitney's misfortune, said Rabbi Kleinbaum, was that -- like a number of us -- she yielded to her self-destructive impulses, but in her case, she had to do it in the glare of the spotlight, since she was a celebrity. During her riff about Whitney Houston, she got a little edgier than I've ever heard her be and, though I'm sure unintentionally, her narrative almost seemed a bit dismissive of human frailty to me; by the end of her statements, she brought it back home to how any of us could relate to the struggle of being self-loving vs. self-destructive and, I thought, redeemed herself.
The "conduit to God" feeling happened at that point, and then again when right before we sang "Yigdal" as a congregation, she mentioned "The New York Times" article from that day's front page, about Cantor Max Fuchs. I knew that if I heard his voice, singing "Yidgdal" on Nazi soil, with bombs going off in the background, I'd be even more moved than I was in listening to her speak about it. And so I was when I went online today to find the clip (see link above to "Cantor Max Fuchs").
As we sang "Yigdal" ourselves, I thought, what a contrast: a platoon of young, Jewish men, who had survived the Omaha Beach landing, if I remembered correctly, singing during battle compared with more than 1,000 queer Jews and our non-queer, non-Jewish friends and family, singing the same piece of liturgy in post-9/11 New York City, relatively so much safer, if not yet having achieved first-class citizenship.
The Other Useful Message of the Evening Came from Rabbi Cohen
Rabbi Cohen related the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's exploration of the river that the Lenape Native Americans called Muhheakantuck to our need to appreciate our surroundings and be far more observant than we are. She spoke of Spencer Finch's installation on the High Line, which represented how the water of the Hudson River (formerly known as Muhheakantuck) looked to the artist at 720 different times of day.
Rabbi Cohen also spoke of ben ha'shmashot, the time between sunset and nightfall, as a time of uncertainty and also possibility and asked all of us to be more alert to possibilities, or at least that was my interpretation. I loved the reminder. Finally, she spoke of the wonder renewed in her life as she and her husband saw the world through their baby daughter's eyes during this, the baby's first, year. Rabbi Cohen explained that among the baby's first words was, "Wow!"