The December issue of Sh’ma explores a multitude of reflections on personal journeys that lead some toward their Judaism, others, away from it. As usual, the Ultra-Reform Midwestern Jew (Myself) related most to the former Ultra-Orthodox Hasid from Brooklyn.
“Over the next decade or so, as my attachment to Hasidic teachings deepened and my religious views matured, I would come to see the tisch not merely as a place for song and dance, but as a vessel for experiencing the transcendent — what the behavioral psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences…”
– Shulem Deen.
“Ex-Hasid at Rainbow: Memories of a Hasidic Tisch”
Being raised in Iowa City, Iowa, not known for their overwhelming Jewish scene, I had to depend on my intimate relationship with (what I would come to learn is) “my Jewish soul” for spiritual nourishment. This has lead to what some may call “an active spiritual imagination,” while others may call it “a mystic identity.” Regardless, I would like to try to give a glimpse of one such ‘peak experience’ that blew my mind early in my Bible Raps career. It was late 2008 and I was recording “Light is in the Air,” a song that traces the fire that started at the burning bush through the Bible, then the Rebbes arriving, somehow in tact, to present day Hanukkah. I titled this piece exploring my ‘peak experience’ as “We Were All at Sinai: A Mystical Proof.”
1. Two qualifications:
First off, I very well recognize I might be walking through the mystic’s trapdoor, transposing a narrative on a reality with no plot-line. That is, I might be delusional.
Secondly, I intentionally use language that disorients and plays with shadows in an attempt to transmit the rhythm of the mystical experience. So the piece may not make sense.
2. A brief introduction: When you record songs you’ve written, you are forced to marshal your ego into specific personas – if I’m singing a love song, in order to do the song justice, I need to be in love when I sing it, even if the love behind the song has died since it inspired the song’s sentimental tone. Such intensive corralling of your ego from this persona to that persona in the “temple” of the studio (it’s an intense place) shakes up your ego and sometimes allows a view underneath it – a front-row seat to your soul. This is what happened when I was recording “Light is in the Air.” The tension between the necessity of being Torah in order to do the Bible rap justice and the feelings of holy unworthiness of even tieing a Midrashist’s shoes, let alone stand in them, created a window through which an intimate portrait of my “soul” appeared…
And there they were – some of my teachers. Tiny Fragments of their souls embedded in mine. Active.
The experience gave me a literal rendering of the phrase ‘Torah Mi Sinai,’ that says every Jewish soul, born and unborn, was at Sinai. You will see in “We Were All at Sinai: a Mystical Proof” how this concept plays out through the golden thread of the Rebbe/pupil relationship.
We Were All at Sinai: a Mystical Proof.
The studio lights are dimmed like a dying diamond. Incense smoke snakes to heaven as if a hypnotic pipe is played above or smoked below. I put the headphones on and stare down the familiar idols of anxiety. They think I’m whack. I raise my upper lip like an eyebrow growling and focus on the mountain-chain challenge of “putting down the vocals”: To feel each word, to be each word. All insecure thoughts that deny my total presence in each line must be slaughtered. (to the altars) The altars will drip with the blood or the God of ‘flow’ will not be appeased.
“Drop the beat.” I tell my Producer.
My verse is 15 seconds away.
“Yeah…yeah…” I find the beat.
10 seconds til take off.
“Let’s go.” My voice entreats my mind to meet in the beat.
In the remaining 5 seconds the following occurs:
I am used to recording my love songs and my battle raps – embodying those sentiments, but as I position my soul to embody Torah I am flung for a floop. It’s weird to consciously attempt to be Torah! Enormous doubts about the disingenuousness of my orating Judaism as if I had a clue; creep, skidaddle and menace from the dirty shadows like pestiferous insects. Stink-bombs with eyeballs and wings zip from the eye sockets of the idols I had previously tore down. Pestiferous is a word.
The beat bumps, the verse approaches, 4 seconds…
Hairy and horned legs climb upon my toes and brush past my heels and earlobes. My knees buckle. My belt moves.
Eyes closed, I contemplate rapping Torah, I don’t even wrap Tfellin. My words are small, the stage is the cosmos, the audience is a classroom. I’m disoriented.
Scanning the landscape of my being I am radically surprised to encounter alien elements that have infiltrated my soul. They are allies. They are slivers of the souls of my teachers.
Bits of their being, their energy, their whathaveyous, in different magnitudes, now exist in me.
Just chilling (well, slivers of souls don’t exactly chill, they kind of vibrate to a foreign rhythm).
winking stars on the horizon of my consciousness,
little vibrating ripples on the pool of my being, embedded in the tapestry of my Jewish soul.
Psychic existants in my consciousness as individual and identifiable as the teacher.
They don’t push, their presence simply supports.
Doubts of unworthiness scatter at this teacher’s quiet harangue, insecurities of inauthenticity retreat at that teacher’s resounding whisper, and others, when needed, would each, in their own way, say essentially the same thing: “BE!”
“Every Jew was at Sinai,” is no longer a poetic device. I have a reality to hang its hat upon. Each sliver of my teacher’s soul that has embedded itself as a vibrating node in the fabric of my being is composed of a bit of their total being. I presume, in their total being, slivers of their teacher’s souls are likewise inextricably bound. Thus, in my being is a bit of my teacher’s teacher’s soul. The moment I carry this reality to its logical end is the moment my verse begins at Sinai.