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.
As if unleashed from some deep memory, a reservoir larger than my own knowing, my tears seem to flow down the deep river beds carved by generations of ancestors who came to pray these same plaintive New Year prayers. Like us they donned their special holiday attire—hamburgs, cutaways, and frocks of heavy wool. Each year they huddled and prayed, much as we do today. Only their gait was less proud, their lives less certain, for they lived under the boot of their host countries and fickle dynasties that almost invariably turned on them.
This summer I found their graves in a chestnut grove behind a stone wall and a locked gate in Central Europe. I read their names and imagined them seeing forward into my free, unhampered life in America. (My great great-granddaughter a rabbi? How would they suffer such a novelty?) Their lives ended in a long cowering line leaving town, I saw the photograph myself, bundles and babies in arms as Nazi guards looked on. A death march, no pageant, as they left their homes for the last time.
Their prayers—the same ones I slosh through today—may have anchored them into their faith, given them strength. Perhaps it is this faith, their tears rising up within me today, a spigot I unwittingly tap this fine Monday morning in New York City, at the start of the Jewish New Year.
Our heartfelt prayers activate ancient lay-lines, open doors to psychic spaces that go beyond time. While we stand on the balcony of our lives praying for our children, sick friends, and clarity about our next steps, the benevolent wishes of our ancestors join us, strengthen us, pray through us.
We are not taught these things in school. Our science-prone culture wants no truck with what it cannot see. But I have learned these things in my heart: We are surely not alone.