One of the great things about being Jewish is that we get not just one, but two New Years.
Last night (Sunday) was the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.
I’m not a “religious” sort myself, though I do happen to help lead my synagogue’s High Holy Days services (what can I say, one’s relationship to religion is a complicated thing). That’s what I was doing for almost four full hours this morning.
You might think a four-hour service was a drag, but I love leading services! In fact, there was a brief period in my late 20s (right after realizing that Judaism and Feminism didn’t have to be mutually exclusive) when I toyed with the idea of becoming a rabbi.
In the end, being an artist (and ultimately a creator in many expressive realms — a Passion Pluralite) was a better fit for me. Still, thanks to my mostly lay-led synagogue, I get to do rabbi-like stuff, without having to actually be a rabbi.
Or as I sometimes joke, “I’m not a real rabbi, I just play one on TV.”
I’d be lying if I said my ego wasn’t involved here. I love being in the spotlight. I love singing for an appreciative audience. I love speaking in public. I love improvising.
In other words, all the things I love about being a performing jazz singer/songwriter are things I love about leading services for High Holy Days.
People who come to our services for the first time usually assume I’m a rabbi. Or a cantor. Which isn’t surprising — after all, I’m up there on the bima, doing stuff that one associates with rabbis and cantors. And I am awfully comfortable up there. There was a lot of improvising this morning, as my co-leader and I hadn’t planned out exactly who was going to saw what, when, and we had to wing it several times.
But that was fun for me! This morning was a treat. A total blast. If you had been there, you might have thought I was born doing this.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
First of all, I never even set foot in a synagogue until college (well, except for one time, around age 10, when I attended the bar mitzvah of a friend of my brother’s). When I first started going to services I had no idea what was going on, but because I’m Jewish, I kinda felt like I should know what was going on.
It was very confusing, and not a little stressful.
I was also far from being comfortable on stage!
It’s true I had a modicum of performance experience, in a handful of childhood recitals, in youth choirs and orchestras, in a couple of college musicals, and as a dancer. But leading a service?? That was an entirely different animal! That required a whole set of skills and a bunch of knowledge that I certainly didn’t have!
I remember, before my synagogue started holding our own High Holy Days services, attending Rosh Hashanah services on the Stanford campus. The rabbi was aided on stage by a very confident student, with a gorgeous voice.
How I envied her poise and confidence! How I wished I could do such a thing — stand comfortably on stage in front of a large crowd of people, and bring them together through the power and beauty of my voice and bearing!
It seemed utterly impossible.
That’s certainly what my Inner Critic Gremlin told me! “You could never do that,” it said.
Little did I know that a handful of years down the road I’d be doing exactly that!
Inner Critic Gremlins are notorious for being wrong. Which is why it’s so important to learn to manage them! If I’d listened to my gremlin, there’s no way I’d be leading services today. (Join me at my Gremlin Training Lab on Wednesday and I’ll teach you my secret “gremlin-whispering” techniques.)
How did this happen? How did I go from dreaming longingly about something that seemed utterly impossible, to mornings like today, when people actually lined up after the service to thank me for leading?
One baby step at a time, that’s how.
First I learned to lead Shabbat services for a tiny group — generally no more than ten to twenty people. And let me tell you, the first several times I did that I was quaking in my boots! My mouth was full of cotton, my armpits were sweating like crazy, I felt dizzy with nerves!
After awhile, leading Shabbat services became normal, and no longer freaked me out. But when my synagogue decided to host our own High Holy Days services, and I was invited to help lead the many rounds we sing throughout the services, it was dry mouth and stage fright all over again!
That’s the way these things work: you push the edge of your comfort zone just a little, until your comfort zone expands. Then you push it a little more.
All of which requires an ability to wrangle that Inner Critic Gremlin, who lives to keep you well inside your comfort zone.
Nowadays, leading a service for a few hundred people doesn’t even make me flinch… except when (like this morning) I’m expected to sing a whole new set of melodies and songs that I don’t completely know by heart yet. (Ack!)
But even stepping onstage in a state of uncertainty like that is something I’ve gotten more used to. (I’m here to tell you, if you wing it enough times, even winging it becomes less scary!)
All I can say is, Hallelujah for pushing beyond your comfort zone!
And take that, gremlin!
Oh, and Happy New Year! May it be a sweet one, filled with expanding boundaries.
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!
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