Several years ago I was one of six people in the nation selected to attend a masters program at the San Francisco Opera House. One requirement was to be a theatre professional already. Once that was established, I had to interview, provide letters of recommendation, and show examples of my work. I’m not easily intimidated, but I had butterflies as I passed through the gilded wrought iron gates on Van Ness Avenue.
I already knew about the intensity, wide variety of people, skills, and discipline required to put successful productions together, but SFO was definitely on a grander scale than I was accustomed to.
Going Back Stage
That summer in San Francisco brought lots of wonderful, unique experiences; I felt as if I’d been invited to a “behind the scenes” encounter that most people, who simply purchase a ticket, don’t get. We shared SFO that summer with the Kirov Ballet, and I worked with professionals from the San Francisco Ballet, the Beach Blanket Babylon creators, famous sculptors, Hollywood makeup artists who worked on Patrick Swayze’s Ghost character and wax replicas, and I was even on the evening news with a well known reporter I’d been hanging out with backstage one afternoon.
I visited the enormous costume shop: a bustling warehouse where all of the costumes are made—first as a mock-up in muslin, before making it in expensive fabric—and the millinery shop, where the hats are made. I saw the prop-shop’s impressive array of 40ft mirrors, pillars, doors, backdrops and so on, and I met men in a room full of computers, high above the Opera House stage, who precisely place the props onto it via CAD software. Everyday I passed by the stage from above and could see its enormity; if memory serves, the SFO hangs 9 shows at once in the vast expanse behind its curtains.
Thankfully, my husband and kids visited every week. One afternoon I showed them around the gorgeous, historic, building. Inside the dimly lit house of over 3000 empty red velvet seats, I was in “mom mode”—which means I was focused on potential injury or damage. I watched as my son tested his view of the stage from a variety of different seats, mostly those higher up, and as my daughter sang and skipped up and down the aisles. The only light came from the stage, and I looked up to see that both kids were blissfully unaware of why it was on, or who they shared the space with. I created a mental snapshot as I watched my daughter’s dress, caught by the air and flying behind her as she skipped around the orchestra pit and Yo-Yo Ma sat above her on the stage, wearing jeans and a tee-shirt, and “practicing” his cello for his concert later that evening.
I wondered if she would ever marvel that she played at a master’s feet.
There are times when sojourning with Jews feels like going “behind the scenes” too. I’ve been to the Opera, so I know the perspective from the house; It all seems to magically come together.
I’ve also worked behind the scenes and know the collaboration, skills, efforts, and perspectives the audience never sees, like the hours singers spend in music lessons, voice lessons, Italian lessons, and rehearsals and fittings. Watching the masterful skills required of the orchestra, makeup designers, wig masters, lighting designers, prop-masters, costume designers, and stage crew, who all work together–not always harmoniously–to eventually make the directors vision come to pass.
Remembering God’s Provision
This last week saw the end of Sukkot, the season that Jewish people dwell in temporary shelters in remembrance of God’s provision in the desert. As a reader quoted to me in a private email, Sukkot is:
“A voluntary acceptance of temporary homelessness.”
Last week also saw the end of the yearly Torah cycle: Simchat Torah [Rejoicing of (with) the Torah]. When the last part of Deuteronomy is read in the synagogue, the scroll is rolled back to the beginning, the Creation account. B’reisheet / Genesis is then immediately read.
This may be my favorite time of the year. Not only because it is the most likely (although not certain) time of the Messiah’s birth, but because I really like the sukkah and Simchat Torah. And, watching as Israel remembers God’s provision, and then rolls back the scroll every year is particularly poignant.
From The Creation to the end of Moses life, the cycle continues to be cherished and read, every year.
“For from Zion goes forth the Torah”
“Oh Lord, Open My Lips, And My Mouth Will Declare Your Praise”
There were a number of them, Torah scrolls I mean, ranging from large, full size scrolls with gorgeous silver adornments, all the way down to itty-bitty baby scrolls, and a lot in between. Probably 20, out of 35-40, scrolls came out of the arc to dance and rejoice in the arms of those honored to carry them through the sanctuary, while the rest of us followed them with our gazes and continued to clap and sing joyful songs.
Over the past several years I’ve spent Simchat Torah mostly in New York and I’m used to a tradition where every family is invited up to the bema, where the scroll is laid, to help roll it back to Genesis. The visible portions are periodically read aloud in Hebrew and then translated into English—so everyone’s on the “same page” so to speak—while the congregation pulsates with music, singing, dancing, and clapping. It’s truly a joyful noise.
This year I stayed on the “left coast” and experienced another tradition. Lining up shoulder to shoulder along the walls in a giant circle, a (retired) Torah scroll was carefully unrolled as each person gently held the top of it and a Hebrew speaker came around and read from the portion of God’s Word that each person held.
“I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be!”
- Saul [Paul] of Tarsus
Often times Christianity doesn’t understand or appreciate what went in to God’s cultivation of “the natural branch”, that is, the Jewish people—His “backstage crew.” We only see things from out in the house, and miss what went on “behind the scenes.” When we non-Jews came in at intermission and realized there was a grand and dramatic production unfolding, it’s not that we had no admittance backstage, rather, we collectively chose to ignore The Director’s whole vision, and overlooked the skilled collaboration necessary to enact it. We decided The Director’s chosen production crew had been fired, and sometimes we think our religion just magically came together without them.
It’s not as if the audience has a minor role in the production, and I like being in the audience, simply enjoying the collaborative fruits of so many talented artists. But I confess that I prefer being behind the scenes, up close and personal, and taking part with the people who are making it happen. I may not be called on to sing a single aria, however, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a role to play.
All of us who call on the God of Israel do.
This time of year reminds me of my thankfulness to God for preserving the Jewish people, which is how I know we’re still in the midst of the play; He is real, and His grand vision has not failed.