An (Im)Perfect Step

by Jhos Singer, SVARA Fellow

Three SVARA-niks, including Jhos, dance in a line, holding hands and smiling.

Here we go. True confession. I was a serious marching band nerd. There. Done. I’ve said it.

In a time long ago—before computers were small enough to fit in a dorm room, when attached-to-the-wall-by-a-cord phones making calls outside their area code were charged handsomely by the minute, and people routinely smoked cigarettes in public places—earning the sobriquet “nerd” was not to one’s advantage. Unless you were in marching band. Once you agreed to be part of an organization whose raison d’être was to use piccolo-, trumpet-, and drum-playing bodies to create a hundred-foot-tall cowboy boot while wearing a white shako, spats, and a double breasted robin’s-egg-blue band uniform adorned with now dingy, once golden epaulets, being dubbed a nerd was really the least of your worries. 

And whatever one thinks of marching bands, it is hard to not have some respect for the teamwork, group cohesion, and sense of camaraderie that rises to pull off something that difficult and absurd. I loved being a band nerd. Loved, loved, loved it. I was thrilled that it was the one place in my high school where girls got to wear faux-military costume and boys got to don fuzzy, feathered hats. I adored how weird, and fey, and gender-subversive it was. But most of all, in band I was filled with a sense of belonging: we were all for one and one for all, on the field and off. Band merged the cooperation and sensitivity needed for playing ensemble music with demanding choreography that all had to be memorized and pseudo-military bravado. Marching required body awareness, showmanship, musicianship, and even some athleticism. And so, I practiced precise pivot turns in every direction, glide step, high step, and the crabwalk. 

But of all the marching skills that I mastered it was the 22.5 inch stride—which assures the uniform movement of 125 teens—of which I was most proud. I often spent my lunch hour on the field practicing that stride, which, when done perfectly, moves the marcher exactly 5 yards for every 8 steps. Starting at the zero yard-line on one side of the field I would close my eyes, take 8 steps, stop, and check if my heel had landed on the 5 yard-line. I practiced this until I could march any length, eyes closed, and hit my mark. I was a marching machine. And I was rewarded. By the time I was a senior, I was a highly respected member of the band leadership. I ran drills, led sectional rehearsals, and trained the new recrui.., uh, new members of the band.

In the fall of my senior year, we were practicing a show that included a full company front. That is a move when the band shifts from a formation and makes a single line facing the bleachers. When this happens all the directional instruments are pointed the same way which is basically like turning the band up to 11. When done expertly it is called a “goosebump moment”—that is, the band forms a company front simultaneously hitting a big chord at a peak moment in the tune and the crowd goes wild. It is visually arresting, sonically impressive, and fairly difficult to execute well. As we painstakingly practiced the move, our band director, Mr. Paney, was up in his perch at the top of the stands calling out commands with a bullhorn. Of course, I had memorized the entire routine, ending with exactly eight strides to land on the 40 yard line hashmark. I looked down, BAM!!! The hashmark was directly under my heel, exactly as the chart had dictated. After ascertaining that I had executed the routine perfectly, I noticed that the rest of the band had missed their mark and were lined up about a step behind me. For a moment I felt the rush of being the best, most accurate marcher in the history of marching band. I heard Paney’s voice, “SINGER!!!” I looked up anticipating his praise. “YOU’RE OFF!! TAKE A STEP BACK.” I was stunned. “BUT–I’M—RIGHT!” I shouted up at the stands. “YEAH. THAT’S YOUR PROBLEM!!” He yelled back. “TAKE A STEP BACK!” In the moment I remember feeling angry, betrayed even, and embarrassed. But as time marched on, years after I hung up my last uniform, I understood what a valuable lesson he taught me: being right is not absolute. Being right is often circumstantial, relational, and relative. And sometimes being right is actually wrong. 

Judaism has a long history of being suspicious of people who are too scrupulous, unyielding, and indulgent in their practice. The first time I studied with my beloved teacher, friend, colleague, occasional chavruta, and fellow Jewish mischief maker, Rachel Brodie, z”l, she lifted up one such teaching. 

כִּי הָא דְּרַב רְחוּמִי :הֲוָה שְׁכִיחַ קַמֵּיהּ דְּרָבָא בְּמָחוֹזָא, הֲוָה רְגִיל דַּהֲוָה אָתֵי לְבֵיתֵיהּ כֹּל מַעֲלֵ יוֹמָא דְכִיפּוּרֵי. יוֹמָא חַד מְשַׁכְתֵּיהּ שְׁמַעְתָּא. הֲוָה מְסַכְּיָא דְּבֵיתְהוּ: הַשְׁתָּא אָתֵי, הַשְׁתָּא אָתֵי. לָא אֲתָא. חֲלַשׁ דַּעְתַּהּ, אַחִית דִּמְעֲתָא מֵעֵינַהּ. הֲוָה יָתֵיב בְּאִיגָּרָא, אִפְּחִית אִיגָּרָא מִתּוּתֵיהּ וְנָח נַפְשֵׁיהּ

It was like this with Rav Rechumi: He was frequently found in front of Rava (the head of one of the top-tier schools in Babylonia) in Mechoza. He would usually come home to his wife every Yom Kippur eve. But one day he got totally absorbed in a discussion on halacha. 

His wife, anticipating his arrival, said “He is coming now. He is coming now.” 

He didn’t come. 

She was distressed, and a tear seeped from her eye. He was sitting on a roof. A hole in the roof opened underneath him, and his soul rested (he died). 

Ketubot 62b

When Brodie taught this piece, we looked at it in short fragments, digging deeply into every subtle clue and message that is embedded in this short, heartbreaking, cautionary tale. Ironically, this teacher’s name, Rechumi, comes from the root ר-ח-מ meaning love, compassion, sympathy, belly, and womb. At what point did Rechumi lose himself—lose his loving, compassionate, and sensitive self—to the addictive drug of rabbinic discourse? When did receiving the attention of Rav outweigh his commitment to his spouse? Was his wife being let down for the first or umpteenth time? What kind of Rav lets a student get so subsumed in their examination of halacha that they no longer actually practice its principles? What is the text trying to tell us about the dangers of letting ego and intellect take the wheel? What happens to us when we spend more time studying on the roof than walking with others on the road? At what point does our pursuit of perfection override our ability to connect to the imperfect world in which we live?

As a teen, I sought power through prowess. I thought that it was possible to be truly, unequivocally correct about certain things. I was comforted by the idea that if one tried hard enough, they could become so good at something that they were above reproach. Perfection was, in my childish mind, a goal attainable by setting and following explicit rules—literally halacha, a way of walking, in the case of marching band. And how lucky I was to have my Rav holler the truth at me, with a bullhorn no less, that life really doesn’t work that way. That sometimes you gotta step back and be technically wrong to be communally in tune. Both Brodie and Paney were persnickety designers. They spent hours and hours planning and refining their craft. And then they just let it be what it was going to be. So what if the band didn’t hit the exact mark, as long as we were all wrong together? When Brodie taught the Rav Rechumi piece, she never knew what people would find, so she made room for her students to discover things that she missed or just couldn’t apprehend. 

Recently I was teaching this text in Brodie’s honor. We were unpacking the text, as she would, a few words at a time, and at the end one learner suggested that Rechumi was standing in front of Rava because he was in trouble, that he really wanted to go home, but that he was such a bad student that he couldn’t figure out the halacha and wasn’t allowed to leave until he did, and finally that he was up on the roof as a punishment for not being smart enough to understand the law, that he was being bullied up there and that his “soul rested” was maybe insinuating that he took his own life as a result of being harassed. That pretty much tanked the point I was guiding them towards, and my brain screeched to a skid-marked halt. I could feel a jittering inclination to correct the learner, steer things back to the road, stay on course. And at the same time, I imagined Brodie in the same situation—she would consider that this was the byproduct of another person’s life experience refracted through the lens of the story, she would shift gears, try a new road, enjoy new scenery, explore this new pathway through the text. I could hear Paney whispering in my ear, “Singer. Step back, or you are going to fall through the roof.” I took a deep breath. “Wow.” I said. Liberated from the conviction that I knew this text, I just lingered for a moment in this new to me perspective. “That’s amazing. I’ve never considered that possibility!” 

Pirkei Avot 4:1 teaches:

בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר: אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם? הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם

 “Ben Zoma would say: “Who is wise? Those who learn from everyone.” 

I no longer understand what it means to be “right” and I’ve mostly lost my faith in perfectionism. I’ve been blessed with every kind of teacher and I hope I’ve gained at least a light dusting of wisdom from each of them. I can no longer march a perfect 22.5 inch step and I’ve gone from being a band nerd to a Queer Talmud nerd. And I’ve discovered, strange as it is to say it, there is one place where those worlds overlap. Though I am no longer traversing a field, everytime I endeavor to march my way through a text, I remain fully committed to mastering the spectacular and sacred art of the graceful pivot. 

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