Slippery Words and Sticky Words: Teflon and Velcro in the Month of Elul
A Sermon by Cantor Barbara Ostfeld
Delivered on Sunday, September 15, 2019
At the First Parish in Bedford
From Rev. John Gibbons, about today’s speaker:
Barbara Ostfeld is the first female cantor in the history of Judaism. Her story is, uh, a big deal. She is a pioneer, a heroine, a glass-ceiling breaker. She served Jewish congregations, then became the director of placement for all Reform cantors. She is, to some, a goddess. To me (John Gibbons), she was my lab partner in freshman biology at York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois. We messed with fruit flies and dissected earthworms and frogs. She remembers some other things, some of which she divulges in a new memoir, Catbird, A Memoir by Barbi Prim (we’ll have copies for sale). Barbara lives in Buffalo, NY with her family. As for her sermon with us, Barbara says, “Slippery lessons and sticky lessons as the High Holidays approach. The things one Jew has learned about repentance.”
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“As the curtain goes up on my third act, the stage no longer looks to me like it’s set for a tragedy. Maybe I did feel like a protagonist of some sort all along. But it took a lot of work—and a lot of help—for me to realize that I don’t have to perpetually audition for the lead role in my own life.
Sitting in the catbird seat means directing my life based on what I know instead of what I fear.
These days, a bit late for a cantor, I’m composing a piyyut—improvising it loudly as I go along. Instead of singing like some imaginary, idealized person, I’ve freed my own original hymn its melody scored for my own voice, its words my own – nothing but my truth…
The song I’m making up is a good song. It’s got some counterpoint going on and a Janis Joplin throatiness. It sounds a little like haftarah chant and a little like Dixieland…
Who I am is on the tip of my tongue.
Listen to me sing, here in my catbird seat, unafraid.”
from Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim, by Barbara Ostfeld
Mr. Southard, Reverend Gibbons, Rev. Gonzalez-Milliken and Rev. Schulz,
Members of First Parish,
Your senior minister, John Gibbons and I went to junior high and 2 years of high school together. We were friends and actually our mothers were friends, too.
John taught me how to protest against the war in Vietnam.
Rev. Gibbons taught me a few important words in Spanish. (Tell ya later…)
He taught me about the healing properties of cannabis.
John once made me laugh so hard that…well, tell ya later…
He set quite the example for a nerdy Jewish kid and I was awe-struck.
John once invited my father, a physician-educator, to speak to his UU Youth Group about hallucinogenic substances.
Here’s PROOF: unveil poster.
So why am I, a Jewish cantor, here this morning? There are a couple of reasons. I can’t think of them right now, but I’m going to talk nonetheless.
It’s the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Elul. It’s a time for Jews to prepare ourselves for the High Holidays, which will be here in 15 days! So I’m over-thinking my missteps while at the same time shamelessly plugging my memoir, Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim!
I come here this morning with
a rabbi-cantor joke about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
then some show and tell
and finally, to make some connections among Elul, the joke, the show and tell and my memoir.
First here’s the joke:
One Atonement Day, in a little synagogue in Dingley Dell, Massachusets, the rabbi stops in the middle of the service, prostrates herself in front of the ark, and cries out, “O God. Before You, I am nothing!”
The cantor is so moved by this demonstration of piety that she immediately follows suit, throwing herself to the floor beside the rabbi and crying, “O God! Before you, I am nothing!”
In the ensuing silence, a shuffling is heard in the back row. The president of the congregation jumps from his seat, prostrates himself in the aisle and cries, “O God! Before You, I am nothing!”
Seeing this, the cantor nudges the rabbi and whispers, “So look who thinks he’s nothing?”
Let’s think about this joke for a minute. It poses a serious question. Is showy breast-beating a meaningful approach to a new year of goodness? Does it help us focus on right conduct? I think not.
I think negativity actually hampers us.
“You got to ac-cen-tu-ate the positive, e-lim-inate the negative” as the Harold Arlen song says.
He was a Jewish composer, BTW.
Next here’s the show-and-tell:
What do you imagine is coating this little pan?
Now tell me about this baby bib—specifically how does it stay around the baby’s neck without falling off?
What on EARTH do Teflon and Velcro have to do with this Hebrew month of Elul, the month during which Jews make ourselves spiritually ready for the High Holidays? What do Teflon and Velcro have to do with the rabbi-cantor joke? AND what do they have to do with my memoir, Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim.
Stay with me!
A well-known psychologist named Rick Hanson tells us that the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but like Teflon for positive ones.
That means that negative experiences tend to stick with us, while positive experiences are quickly sloughed off. We tend to obsess about criticism and to gloss over any praise we receive.
Let me tell you about a Velcro experience that happened in my childhood. It used to echo over and over in my mind. It was a Velcro experience in the Dr. Hanson way—illustrating that such incidents tend to dominate our consciousness.
Here’s an excerpt from my memoir, Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim.
I’m in third grade and whenever I run in gym,
some boys yell, “Look at the blubber!”
I try not to run,
but if I don’t run in the direction of
the ball when it’s coming toward me, they yell,
“Move that blubber!”
In the 1960’s the term “body-shaming” had yet to be coined, but it’s an apt phrase.
At age 8, it felt to me as though my whole self was reduced to one ugly word.
It felt, to cite the words of the joke, as if I were NOTHING!
But here’s another vignette from CATBIRD. This one is just a few pages later in the book—I’m still age 8! It explains the origins of the good feelings that I have always associated with being in a house of worship. This vignette explains why I went on to apply to the cantorial school of Hebrew Union College.
Rabbi Samuel Schwartz is the rabbi emeritus of Oak Park Temple. That means he is old and a saint, I think.
He sits in a fancy chair on the pulpit and says, “May the Lord bless you and keep you” at the end of services.
It’s like a magic spell.
Last Friday night when I had a solo for Family Night, he put his hands on my cheeks and said, “You will sing in the opera!”
He didn’t say it softly either.
I whispered back, in his ear, which had a lot of hair in it, “But I want to sing here–in TEMPLE.”
When I looked at his face again, he had tears in his eyes.
THE KIND WORDS motivated me and helped me put aside the bad feelings I had about my body. The GOOD FEELINGS gave me a career!
So, let’s cure ourselves of the Hanson disease! Let’s deliberately CHOOSE to focus on the effects of KINDNESS!
It’s easy for me to say here, this morning, at age 66, that we should all resist the effects of incidents that do nothing but wound us—
BUT: Stop now and think about singular and specific compliments! Think “OPERA” and hands on cheeks and eye contact! Happy images!
Or—to harp on:
You got to ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE.
Now I’m going to try my hardest to work the Teflon-Velcro model into the theme of preparation for the holidays, our Jewish Days of Awe.
During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we Jews sit in our prayer spots and pray either out loud or silently. We sing melodies that set up our minds for introspection. An inward-looking person is going to be hampered by emotions like shame, not helped.
But again—we should be fighting our Hanson tendencies and resist beating our breasts as did the rabbi and the cantor in the joke!
Instead, let’s focus on the “moving forward into the New Year” part!
I’m thinking about a relatively recent session I had with my psychiatrist. I was depressed and having trouble climbing out of the quicksand. Probably some of you know that feeling?
Anyway, I’d always talked to the doctor about my grandchildren and I regularly recounted conversations with them.
My psychiatrist is a young parent with kids the same ages as my grandkids.
In the midst of my despair, he asked me if I’d forgotten that I was, in his words, “a kick-ass grandmother”.
And I remembered that in fact I AM a kick-ass grandmother! Guess what? I started to feel better!
Because of therapy, mindfulness and medication—yes, that’s “medication” with a C and not a T—I’ve learned how to focus on the thoughts and words that help and how to release the ones that do nothing but hurt.
When we hurt or suffer shame, it’s as if we’re stuck in a freeze-frame. Can’t heal the planet if you’re frozen!
Catbird is about the steps between a childhood of shame and an adulthood that is blessed by its many special moments. Mindfulness of those moments empowers me to continue to work on myself!
James Thurber would say, as he did in his short story, Sitting in the Catbird Seat, that it’s as if I’ve flown up to the top of a tree, where real catbirds sit, looking out and absorbing the beauty below. It’s nice sitting in the catbird seat.
And, like Reverends Gibbons, Gonzalez-Milliken and Schulz, I’ve had other privileged vantage points. Members of the clergy sit UP on the altar. We have a panoramic view of the pews! We’re blessed regularly as we observe the real-life, every-day goodness of the people to whom we’re supposed to minister.
Catbird is about that privilege of being on the 50-yard-line of a church, synagogue, mosque or temple! In your local house of worship’s best seat! In catbird seats, where we observe so-called “lay people” who show US how to live.
And it’s all about HOW TO LIVE!
Soon it will be time for Jews to chant Viddui, confessional prayers. These are alphabetical listings of our misdeeds. They sound like this:
Of these wrongs we are guilty:
We A-Act perversely.
We ARE C-Cruel.
We Deceive. These are negative statements that, however true, create an atmosphere of shame and guilt! They’re not exactly the same as the lines spoken in the joke, which if you’ll remember, are “I am NOTHING!”, but ARE THEY the best we can do if we’re striving for tikkun olam, the reparation of the world? We humans are DETERRED by negativity!
What if we created instead a worship environment of encouragement? What if we cheered ourselves along, reminding ourselves that, with work, we can do things better in the new year?
“You got to accentuate the positive!”
So, in that context, how about another kind of recitation, too? The kind where we list the things we’ve done RIGHT?
Kinda like this:
We have a-acted lovingly
We have b-been crying,
We have c-created,
We have done beautiful things!
Yes! We have a spiritual NEED for words that affirm us and uplift us and make us nod yes!
In the season ahead of us all, let’s let condemnation slide away, as if from Teflon. And let’s get a Velcro-like hold on the affirmations that lead us into a new season of goodness.
Um-uh—an autumn of reading uplifting books—not gonna mention any particular books by NAME!
Here comes FALL, decorative gourd season and the Hebrew calendar year 5780! Bring it on! We’re ready, against all odds.
Let’s go out into the world singing:
“You got to accentuate the positive…”