Slippery Words and Sticky Words: Teflon and Velcro in the Month of Elul

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Cantor Barbara Ostfeld, speaking at First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, the historic meeting house on Bedford Common

 

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Cantor Barbara Ostfeld with First Parish’s senior minister John Gibbons, with an oversized copy of a thank you note that a teenage Gibbons wrote to Cantor Ostfeld’s father.

Barbara Ostfeld became Judaism’s first ordained female Cantor in 1975 after a course of study at Hebrew Union College’s School of Sacred Music.

A long-time friend of Senior Minister John Gibbons, Cantor Ostfeld spoke about Yom Kippur at First Parish, Unitarian Universalist on September 15, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Elul, just in time for Jews to begin preparations for the High Holidays.

Her remarks began with a possibly apocryphal story:

One Atonement Day, in a little synagogue in Dingley Dell, Massachusetts, 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?”

Cantor Ostfeld wondered, “Is showy breast-beating a meaningful approach to a new year of goodness? Does it help us focus on the right conduct?”

Singing Harold Arlen’s refrain, Accentuate the Positive, she went on to explain why negativity can actually hamper productive personal change.

Holding up a Teflon pan, a fried egg slid right off, but the Velcro closure on a baby’s bib stuck tight.

“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?” Ostfeld asked.

Citing a theory promulgated by psychologist Rick Hanson, Cantor Ostfeld explained that the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but like Teflon for positive ones.

“That means,” she explained, “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.”

A body-shaming experience from the 1960s echoed in her mind for years. “It was a Velcro experience in the Dr. Hanson way—illustrating that such incidents tend to dominate our consciousness. 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!”

Another experience from the 1960s had a very different effect: the good feelings she internalized from the rabbi emeritus of her childhood temple explains why she went on to apply to the cantorial school of Hebrew Union College.

In Ostfeld’s memoir “Catbird,” the rabbi’s kind words were like a magic spell that motivated her. “Those good feelings gave me a career!”

“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.”

Another chorus of  Accentuate the Positive rang out.

“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, 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!

“Because of therapy, mindfulness, and medication—yes, that’s medication with a C and not meditation with 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.

Cantor Ostfeld concluded, “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:

אָשַֽׁמְנוּ

בָּגַֽדְנוּ

גָּזַֽלְנוּ

דִּבַּֽרְנוּ דֹּֽפִי

Of these wrongs, we are guilty:

We A-Act perversely.

We B-Betray.

We are C-Cruel.

We D-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 remember, are “I am NOTHING!”, but is that 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? Kind of like this:

אָהַבְנוּ,”
“בָּכִינוּ,
גָּמַלְנוּ,”
דִּבַּרְנוּ יֹפִי.”

We have A-Acted lovingly

We have B-Been crying,

We have C-Created,

We have D-Done beautiful things!

“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.

“Here comes FALL, decorative gourd season, and the Hebrew calendar year 5780. Bring it on! We’re ready, against all the odds.

“Let’s go out into the world singing: “You got to accentuate the positive…”

“Amen!”

Before Cantor Ostfeld arrived in Bedford, she spoke with Andrea Cleghorn – Click this link to read her interview.