Thoughts from a Reluctant Shul-Goer
How I found meaning at High Holiday services despite a short attention span.
By Nancy Kalikow Maxwell
As the New Year approaches, I am looking forward to enjoying two of my favorite Jewish High Holiday traditions. The first is mom’s honey cake, which is odd because I’m usually a chocolate-layer-cake girl. But as soon as September comes, I find myself craving a piece of the moist, dark-brown loaf she would slice, still warm, sprinkle with powdered sugar, and place lovingly before me. I guess the memory, as much as the taste, is what I savor.
My second seasonal favorite is also unexpected because it occurs at High Holiday services. For most of my life, I found services boring, lasting too long for my limited attention span. I would be one of those show-up-late and leave-early attendees, putting in an appearance, though I’m not sure for whose benefit—God, my conscience, my fellow congregants, all of the above?
But once I joined a Reconstructionist synagogue, I began arriving on time. I don’t want to miss my favorite part: the recitation of the Priestly Blessing.
Historically, this ancient prayer was offered by the High Priest with hands raised dramatically to bless the gathered minions. Now, to democratize the ritual, at my Reconstructionist and some other synagogues, members bless each other.
Upon reaching this portion of the liturgy, congregants are instructed to gather under an available tallis—prayer shawl. A moment of good-natured disorderliness ensues as people shuffle about forming “congregant clumps.” Tallis-wearers wave their arms, beckoning non-wearers beneath. Some choir members abandon their platform to join their spouses, leaving behind a discordant combination of sopranos, altos, and baritones. Family members hoist young children into their arms and pull older ones closer to Grandpa. Tall tallis-wearers stoop down for the benefit of the less-tall, while others rise on tiptoe.
Every year my scan of the sanctuary reveals a variety of family dynamics evoking different emotions. One year I spot a family with an older son who inadvertently knocks the younger one’s yarmulke off while they jostle into position. Laughter ripples through the family and they begin taking turns trying to send it sailing again. Their playfulness brings to mind giggling children bounding into their parents’ bed on a cold winter morning. How wonderful, I think, for a religious ritual to provide an opportunity for such joyful intimacy.
Poignancy, rather than playfulness, is on display in another gathering where a middle-aged man lowers his tallis to his frail, elderly mother seated next to him. She grabs the fringes of his tallis like a lifeline, and they exchange gazes of such tenderness I feel tears welling.
My own gathering elicits a sympathetic glance when a friend across the room spots us, two widows huddled together, both of us having lost our husbands to cancer. Making our grouping even more touching is the fact that the shawl enveloping us belonged to my late husband, presented to him by my mother the year he converted to Judaism. How proudly he draped it around me and our daughter. How protected we felt.
“This used to be Rod’s,” I whisper to my widowed friend, stroking the fabric. She squeezes me and smiled, telling me that she understands all the emotions wrapped up in that statement.
Once the groupings are formed and decorum returns to the sanctuary, the congregation is instructed to repeat in unison the words of the ancient Priestly Blessing:
“May the Lord Bless you and keep you.
May the Lord let His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord look fondly upon you and give you peace.”
Hugs, kisses, and exchanges of “Happy New Year” conclude the ritual.
As I return to my seat, I bask in the shared intimacy generated by the ritual. I continue to feel blessed as the service resumes. But soon the feeling dissipates as the service continues. And continues. And continues. Though services at my synagogue are vastly better than any I have attended elsewhere, they still outlast my attention span. I stick it out, though, and no longer leave early.
One of my motivations for staying is to see if any donor has come forward to treat congregants to a piece of honey cake on their way out. But then I remember that I generally am disappointed with the offering. Though the cake looks delicious, when I take that first bite it is never as good as the one my mother used to make.
Some traditions don’t change.
Nancy Kalikow Maxwell is a retired librarian and freelance writer living in the Fort Lauderdale area. She is the author of many articles and five books on religion and library topics.