“You Want it Darker”: On Rosh Hashanah & New Beginnings

Rosebud Ben-Oni
October 3, 2016
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Cloaked in Light (2007) by Michael Hafftka

Cloaked in Light (2007) by Michael Hafftka

 

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame

—Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker

(Before reading this, if possible, please give the song a listen.)

In Paul Williams’s Leonard Cohen: The Romantic in a Ragpicker’s Trade, Cohen reveals that since he is a Kohen, or a Jew of priestly status descending from Aaron, he had “a very Messianic childhood.” On the day of his eighty-second birthday, Cohen released “You Want it Darker,” the title song of his forthcoming album, and after listening to it these last few weeks, I found myself wondering if he was not answering a higher calling, if perhaps he felt a need to fulfill some ancestral promise to those priestly roots.

Given his deep, guttural speech and the rich, somber minor key in which cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue choir join him, I also wonder if Cohen has yet sealed his place in Jewish history as both prophet and sage. The words “Hineni, Hineni” are taken from this prayer that is sang by a hazzan (sometimes referred to as a “cantor” but translates as “overseer”) as a prologue to the mussaf service. Hineni means  “Here I am,” or “Here I Stand,” the very words prophets uttered when God called to them, to show their devotion to living a Jewish life. The hazzan alone sings these words; that is, the congregation does not join in, nor is the hazzan singing to them.

The hazzan sings for the congregation; he or she is both emissary and conduit for the community. At the same time, it is also a deeply personal prayer for the hazzan as he or she approaches the Holy Ark, heralding the coming days dedicated to deep reflection and atonement.

While he perhaps sings as a Jew with a renewed sense as a Kohen, I don’t think he is only singing for observant Jews, but for those like myself who wander in and out faith, the overseer of twenty-first century earthly and “middle class” demons that have plagued him alongside times of war and genocide (“They’re lining up the prisoners / And the guards are taking aim”) in which human free will clashes with our capacity to grieve not only the aftermath of such atrocities but also for a God gone silent so long ago (“A million candles burning for the love that never came”).

There is an underlying electricity amid the melancholic sense of death always one step too close. “If you are the healer,” he sings, “I’m broken and lame. / If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame.” And yet for all the brokenness and shame, here is a man who takes hold of his own remains and perseveres to act as hazzan, “Here I Am.” In confronting his own mortality, alongside those departed beloved he’s lost recently, Cohen is not only embracing the idea of what it means to be A Righteous Person (which I wrote about here), but explores what is the Darker beyond the silence, beyond death itself, beyond the sins we commit every year only to then ask for forgiveness? Why do “we kill the flame?” What lies beyond human responsibility, human behavior, our evolutionary purpose and faltering promise as a species?

I wonder if one day “You Want it Darker” will enter Jewish canonical text as a prayer. Will we hear Cohen’s sonorous voice pealing through our synagogues? After all, have we considered that there are yet sacred texts to be written? Or that prayer itself as an idea is unending, that the words themselves are gateways to elsewhere?  If Hineni serves as an answer from the most faithful, is “You Want It Darker” an resumption of this single prayer itself, in such a stagnant time of faith?

During the High Holy Days this year, I consider my own stagnation and my own growth. I still have not joined a synagogue. And yet it has been a year since I first started writing for this blog at The Kenyon Review as to the reasons why I could not pray during the Jewish New Year. I never thought writing this kind of prose would change me, but it has, not only as a poet but as a person, and for that I’m grateful for this space. I’ve returned to texts I once loved, both secular and religious. And as far as I know, unlike Cohen, my Jewish heritage does not descend from Aaron the High Priest, unless there’s something my father or uncles never told me. I do know that family was lost in the Shoah, to pogroms in Russia. There’s a lot missing, my father has always said, even though we as a people write everything down, even though we have remained a people in the diaspora because of the written word as faith.

So, a year later on this blog, where is my own faith? Where am I?

So, Here I Am: I’m a Jew who prays outside synagogues and churches, outside crumbling storefront churches in Queens and grand cathedrals and temples in Manhattan. I am a Jew who feels the weight of each year I do not belong to a synagogue and yet I cannot bring myself to commit to one, to a community, to my people. I’m a Jew who still wanders in both unbearable and radiant solitude, a Jew who does not want to return to the synagogues of her childhood, but to the praying beside her father bent over his makeshift lectern at home. I am a Jew who misses being beside her family in the cold, somber breath of a congregation, the main sanctuary filled to the brim with congregants on Rosh Hashanah morning but how there was always a chill inside, even if a heat wave awaited beyond the outer doors, as the sun broke through stain-glass windows, always stain-glass even when it was simple, smudged glass with bars on the windows. Every New Year as a child, my eyes were always blurry, and I had a slight headache as I read prayer after prayer, and how I miss that, too. And I am a Jew hopeful one day I’ll find a temple that feels like the home I’ve created here in New York City, with my husband of almost two years, with the friends I’ve made over the years and just recently, with the poets whose books I keep reaching for, whose books I would not part with, even when I left Jerusalem and had to sell almost everything.

In the spirit of congregations, I’ve asked a few poets, whose words are below, to share what autumn as beginning means to them. I hope you enjoy their words as much as I do. L’Shana Tova, to everyone, to all those who know it darker, who know both the ephemeral and eternal flame.

 

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Perhaps only due to some residual (or is it latent?) Catholicism, autumn seems to me a season of judgement, a taking stock of one’s summer sins in particular, before being sent, like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, into winter’s Siberian exile as punishment. How severe will this year’s judgment be? Autumn decides the sentence, and weighs the potential for redemption, demanding you consider what you’ve done to yourself and to others, whether you’ve worked hard or shirked what you know to be the year’s important work. In this election season, the country, too, will have its sentence decided, and get the candidate it deserves. Back hard at work, now penitent, we roll up sleeves for the cuffs of that first cooling breeze. Fall throws the book at you: get back to your reading, you idler, you slouch, after all the cocktails, beach trips and bike trails. Deadbeat, meet deadline: let’s see the lesson plan, how is the current draft of that manuscript coming? But as we are all, writers and law-abiding civilians alike, doing the best that we can with our fallible characters, I think internal bylaws need not be so severe. “Autumn already!” Rimbaud cries at the end of A Season in Hell, before wrapping arms around “gnarled reality.” But these stark and gnarled trees of reality don’t embrace back. If, like me, you are prone to such (self-) recriminations, I recommend finding something or someone a bit warmer to cling to, or else moving where the climate is less unforgiving.

—Jerome Murphy

*

When my husband and I were in fertility treatments, I learned menstruation is not the end of a cycle, but the launch of the next one, a new start after what always felt like failure. Fall has always seemed like beginning to me—of school, holidays, structure after the looseness and wonder of summer—and this fall, a year after he told me he would move out, and then did, my husband is telling me he will divorce me whether I agree or not, and I am thinking it is like the bleeding that seems to mark an end but might really be a beginning.  We used to always say, Bon Hiver, French for Good Winter, to each other when the first snow came, usually in late fall. It meant silence and cleansing after the cicadas stopped their saw-buzzing, and the shuttering of dried leaves into bag after bag was done, fall full of kicked up dust, insect casings, and scattered leaves. He told me once winter was a little dying, a little holding on until spring. But now I wonder if surviving isn’t enough, if instead of dying, choosing to live is really about letting go, a little falling into what comes next.

—Laura McCullough

*

In the hot Rio Grande Valley of Texas where I live, about a month into fall, is also a respite. Outdoor laborers still wear long-sleeves, though I imagine some comparative relief—also for refugees making the dangerously hot trek through these borderlands.

Temperatures also drop at South Padre Island, free of spring breakers, a local’s paradise. You won’t get scorched at the lovely wildlife refuges, and around Día de los Muertos, the orchid tree in my yard blooms again, a second spring.

In Southern California where I’m from, fall is a shift I feel in the soul like homesickness, like apples falling. Even with the promise of sweet, nepantla is inherent for me in fall everywhere, the in-between state Gloria Anzaldúa describes so well. We can decide to make changes in our lives, identities, and further decolonize. For me, a time to leave everything air-conditioned behind, sweat, and better feel conflicting ideas and past traumas.

More and more, I realize that radical self-love and care for women of color is a way to do everything better. Advocating for social justice begins with our own wellness. And for those with relative economic stability, this might require a greater acceptance of our privileges, while still keeping them in check. A balancing.

One fall some years ago, mourning personal losses, I felt more open to the world and love than I ever have in my adult life. Every creature, butterfly, parakeet, person, leaf was a spark of god[desses]. How to get back to that openness?

Fall is a chance to allow myself vulnerability, not as a responsibility, but as a gift and a step towards more love of all kinds.

—Emmy Pérez

*

“The motherboard is dead,” the Apple tech says.

I’ve heard that before, different words, different technician. Two years ago, two days before Halloween, I was in the NY Botanical Garden, unable to appreciate the whimsical jack o’ lantern grove, when an attending physician called: “It looks like advanced cancer.” My mother got on the phone then and we cried. After an autumn of unbearable, albeit intermittent, pain and fatigue, trips to hospitals in two different countries, it was at least a relief to have an answer.

The following Halloween, she was dead. Why do I almost unhinge now because a relic is toast, un-revivable? There have been so many options for music since it appeared, so many i-gadgets Eva Cassidy’s “Autumn Leaves” could haunt me from.

The reason is a girl, of course. Our trip down the aisle at TechServe almost a decade ago is the closest I’ve gotten to choosing items for a bridal registry. Difference is, we bought and gave the gifts ourselves. Difference is, she married someone else. TechServe is gone too. Everything ends. The falling leaves and all that.

My mother never listened to much beyond Elvis, Julio Iglesias, and, naturally, Portuguese fado. But one evening when my parents’ divorce was looming, she threw Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” (how she got it I’ve no clue) onto the stereo, manically hit repeat, and she, my brother, and I danced like people possessed.

“You recycle?” I ask the tech once I calm down. She nods and tosses the Nano onto a pile of e-guts in a blue bin.

This autumn, in the rooms my mother left me, at my house re-warming, music will play from that stereo, attached to the laptop, attached to the phone, attached to the wind.

— paulA neves

*

Dear Rosebud: I had intended to write you last week, but never found a way to begin. We were near Ballinskelligs then, near the west edges of County Kerry, rain-beaten from what locals took to be the death throes of Hurricane Hermine. I imagined finishing something in the dark, in a windbreaker, cold but awake.

Which is to say, I wanted to revel in a September just-started, to celebrate the way fall is, for me, more than just a time of leaves underfoot and waning daylight — or, actually, I wanted to say that those things are precisely why right now feels more alive than any spring with its blossoms and pollinators and tiny ornaments.

Dear Rosebud: here in London, most people don’t call it “fall” anymore. They go for “autumn” and it takes a second for our seasons and names to sync.

Dear Rosebud: apparently you can say with some measure of certainty that John Keats finished “To Autumn” on 19 September, 1819. That’s 197 years, today.

The last stanza asks, then amplifies, then answers: “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.” I remember that imperative praise after the upward pitch of question marks, that smirking affirmation. And more than anything, I remember that Keats’ ode was one of the first poems we saw in high school — one of the first in the Norton Anthology I could understand without lectures or explanatory notes. It felt inspired, elusive and mysterious not evasive or overwrought, and I got it on my own.

Dear Rosebud: there’s no infatuation in fall, no illusions, really. Instead, there’s a sharpness in the air, a seeing things for what they are, a kicking what’s shed to the sides.

And September mornings—how you can’t avoid the realization that light, too, has a temperature. Because everything is cooler now at 6:45AM, that hour your bus is supposed to arrive, its yellow a kind of rumbling alarm against the haze and promise and threat of the school day.

Dear Rosebud: just before he fell asleep, my son smiled at me with his one full tooth beaming out of his gums. Beside it, there’s a second one just beginning to erupt. I know this mood won’t hold.

He’s 9 months old now, climbing over every block and pillow-wall we build, giggling and defiant. Despite my best attempts, he’s all I can think about: the way he imitates my expressions and learns my face, the way he tests the feel of sounds in his mouth.

Dear Rosebud: this BBC meteorologist tells me that 22 September is the Autumnal Equinox. He translates “equal night” from the Latin, speaks of celestial transitions and maps imaginary borderlines with his hands. I’m reminded that from here on out, the endings come quicker.

—R.A.Villanueva

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