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a kaddish for perfection

When I lived in the foster home, before being rescued by the tzaddik’s intercession, there was more than one uncomfortable moment. I suppress them as best I can, but every once in a while one of them pops back up without permission and without apology for the intrusion. Like a jack-in-the-box wound way too tight, one of those memories stuffed way down came exploding out uninvited last night.

We went to see Black Swan. And this is not a movie review.

But let me get the movie bit out of the way with, hm, let’s say three points:

a) this is a hard movie to watch
b) this is a hard movie to watch, and
c) this is a hard movie to watch … if you’ve ever done ballet.

Or if you’ve ever done anything that you care about.
Or if you’ve ever become obsessed.
Or — and it’s this last or — that led to the unwanted and heavily suppressed memory.

Or —

But let me start from the beginning.

So. Foster home. Nice, generous family with way too many kids on their hands. But only two girls, and we were very very young. And Mrs. Foster wanted to do the right thing by us, and so she sent my foster sister and me to ballet class. Not just that, but she sewed our little pink costumes all by hand, right down to the tutus. There’s a picture of us to prove it. I, of course, look mortified. The deer-in-the-headlights look. I think I was all of three and a half. Maybe four tops.

And at the end of the year there was to be the performance of our little life-time. Weren’t we excited? Our teacher made us do ‘it’ —whatever ‘it’ was— over and over. I don’t remember any of it. Suppression, remember? But this one thing came back to mind. My foster sister and I were to perform a duet. And just before we went on to the stage, our teacher stared into our eyes severely and said:

“Remember, this is a performance. It has to be perfect.”

And we got into position on the stage. And the music started. And the lights came up and focused on us. And we were facing each other. And I took a glance to my left, and saw a dark room with all these grown-ups that I couldn’t see. And they were staring at us. And when the right note manifested, we began to move. And J, my foster sister glanced into the darkened audience as well. J lost her focus, and our little dance crumbled.

And we stopped, terrified. And the music kept playing. And I whispered with horror, “you made a mistake!”

And we both started crying.

And all those unseen grown-ups in the audience started to laugh.

And I never danced again.

Now. I’m a mom. I’ve been to these horrible things when my own kids have had their little recitals. And I’ve sat there hoping that my own little trauma would stay stuffed deep inside that tightly wound box. And now I know that we must have been adorable. Just like my own kids were adorable. And that those grown-ups must have been parents. But none of them were my parents. And with my kids there was another big difference.

My kids’ teachers had a very different message for them:

“Have fun with it.”

Just that, nothing more.

So. That is the last point I want to make about the movie last night:

Or — this is a hard movie to watch if you are immersed in the pursuit of —

Perfection.

Which is not quite the same thing as just obsession.

Black Swan is all about perfection. And that real perfection requires a modicum of imperfection to be just right. Too much technical precision feels wooden. It feels boring. And our eye strays anywhere else it can to escape. We need a touch of insanity in our art. We need to have fun with it. We need to be unpredictable and wild — without losing our form.

A painter friend of mine painted stencils on my ceiling and made every single repeated geometric a slightly different color. “The eye will not move, otherwise,” he proclaimed. “It will have no reason to move if they are all exactly alike.” What made his murals perfect was his carefully crafted imprecision.

Even Islamic art purposefully includes a flaw somewhere in the piece — saving ‘perfection’ for Allah alone.

And my horn playing partner right here in our kaddish in two-part harmony knows this as well. And somehow I too managed to stumble upon the liberation of imprecision along the way. And I embraced it.

I teach this way. It’s one of the ways I use to keep it fresh. I forget words — and students find them. Find words that work, or might work. And the words they find are fresh and new, and the ideas get to change with the words they find. And we have, suddenly, a new angle to explore.

I tell them to have fun. Have fun with it. I don’t think they believe me.

Black Swan has a perfect moment in it. When technical precision and ecstatic abandon merge — and everyone experiences the transcendence of that moment. The dancer. The audience. The audience watching the film. Everyone, at the same time. It’s perfect.

With the usual consequences.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

2 replies on “a kaddish for perfection”

This one was too hard to comment on. Until I remembered the adult students I’ve worked with who couldn’t sing. Wouldn’t sing. Because someone, somewhere, with that level of forcefulness, told them they couldn’t sing/shouldn’t sing.

I remembered the three whom I coached through chanting Torah, two for the first time ever, and one for the first time since someone who mattered a lot told her that horrible thing that you should never, ever tell a human being, especially a child.

Until I remembered the one who, when she first came to sing her Torah portion to me, privately, in my study, with no one else listening but the two of us, sat for five minutes trying to get the first syllable out of her throat. Or longer, who knows? And the second time. And the third. And many subsequent, even after she’d done it all for me before.

Until I remembered how she now comes up to the bimah for an aliyah and there’s no stumbling, no hesitation, just singing out, claiming her heritage.

I don’t need time travel for much, and I try to keep a hold on my temper; but I would gladly strangle your dance teacher for you before she spoke those words.

Did Erin tell you that our children came to us through foster care? Did I?

Now I know that this is more common than just having happened to me! But the question is, why do some of us get paralyzed or self destructive with it, and others take up the challenge and fly? Or maybe that’s too reductive. Maybe we fly in some areas, and fall in others. In some things, I can soar! But anything physical, and I excel at face-in-the-mud position. Dance — well, we had a class here at Beit Malkhut: Belly Dance for the Very, Very Timid. Problem: It was way too successful! Acquiring a skill in one area bumped up against more mishegas in another: my extreme sociophobia! Gevalt.

But here’s what I really wanted to say. You reminded me:

My Bat Mitzvah. Imagine that. Little sociophobe that I was. And every person in the area who wanted to honor the Tzaddik, came! The shul was overflowing. I got up there to the bimah, and opened my mouth and absolutely nothing came out. Alone on the bimah, I’d been just fine. It never occurred to me for some reason that anybody might be there, beyond the usual small Friday evening folk. This was in the pre-Bar Mitzvah extravaganza days. And girls were new upon the bimah.

The Cantor, whom I adored, slapped me hard on the back — and the sound just started to unravel! At first it was a croak, and then it took shape, and there it was — it all just poured out seamlessly. Not unravel. It knitted itself together into prayer and parsha, speech and thank yous. Only now do I equate that slap with being born! Wise Cantor Cohen. Brilliant Rabbi Schulweiss! Naches for the Tzaddik and his wife. Challah and wine downstairs. Maspik! Everybody happy.

So. We went to Israel, which like me, was just coming of age. We went … for the Eichmann trial. And I learned that my own little victories, whether aided by others, or hindered, are nothing in comparison to the larger forces in the world. A good lesson for a future anthropologist.

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