There is a certain pageantry about Jewish holidays in New York City. It is Monday morning, the first day of the Jewish New Year, and teems of well-attired families make their way down the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The city looks on as its Jews stride unabashedly in yarmelkas and hats, holding hands with their children or pushing strollers. On the way, friends shake hands or embrace; the air is filled with purposeful celebration as the Jews spread out to their various places of worship.
By ten o’clock I am inside the cavernous synagogue, looking down on the dais from a 100-foot balcony, feeling practically giddy. This year I am not leading Rosh Hashana services, but have the incredible luxury of sitting in the pews, weightlessly carried by the expertise of others. Thrilled, I wrap myself in my holiday prayer shawl, and observe. (This may be the closest I ever come to being an observant Jew.)
With a kind of dual consciousness, I pray intently while also noticing waves of emotion surging and falling away within myself. Elation, boredom, moments of gratitude, and then, suddenly, like tripping into a fierce and unpredicted weather pattern, gales of tears. They sneak up on me as our voices join to sing the oldest, most classical prayers.