Finding My Spiritual Safety Net in Synagogue
I led Rosh Hashanah services while awaiting my mom’s diagnosis and was reborn before the congregation
“I don’t want you to worry,” my dad said in the car one year ago as he drove me to the synagogue where I would prepare for Rosh Hashanah services, which I’d be leading as a lay cantor in just two days. “But I’m a little worried about your mother.”
This was a funny trick that life had played. My dad was the one with the chronic illness, the one whose stomach had been paralyzed since my junior year of college, when he called me during finals to tell me he might die. But Mom was always fine. They’d balanced each other: one parent sick, one well, for my whole childhood.
“I told her to go to the doctor a long time ago,” he said, looking at the road. “It’s been five years. Maybe 10.”
I was angry at her. Why hadn’t she gone to the doctor years ago? Hadn’t she thought about me? Hadn’t she thought about Dad and the boys?
“It might be a lab error,” he said. “But she’s been so tired.”
On the couch, the night before, she looked like a cat; her eyes kept closing. And she’d been in so much pain, from her back—first lower, then upper. Spinal stenosis, the doctors said. Then something else. Then something else, too. There never seemed to be consensus.
“It could be a lot of things,” my dad said.
I knew he’d already researched all of the possibilities.
After he dropped me off, I couldn’t think at all. I walked into the synagogue. I stood on the bimah alone, in the wide open stillness of the sanctuary. The walls were freshly painted, an indeterminate shade somewhere between eggshell and wheat. It was warm and dim, and the wooden roof high, high above shifted and creaked, adjusting itself comfortably.
In the quiet of the time before everything began, I felt poised on the edge of something huge—a cliff that dropped off into a world I had no compass for. I had led services before, many times, but I had never felt like this, so unsure of myself.
I turned my microphone on.
“Ha-melech,” I sang, testing out my voice. Ha-melech, the king. I don’t think that God is a king, I said to myself, I haven’t believed in God for years. I was jealous of the people who believe. It must feel so much safer, I thought, the uncharted spaces must make so much more sense.
When I was a little kid in synagogue, I started asking God to cure my dad, during the silent Amidah, and during the misheberach, the prayer for the sick. His illness—Type 1 diabetes—was the hinge upon which our lives swung. If he could get better, then life would slide into the sun and stay there. Instead, it went back and forth. He had been sick since before I was born; that’s why they waited so long, 10 years, to have me. It was never a simple matter of taking the shots for him, because he developed certain allergies to synthetic insulin. He was always trying something new, some experiment involving two hours of weightlifting every day, or a broth diet for three months. He was always reading medical journals and reports of ambitious new surgeries and trying to crack his body’s impossible code.
He had strong emotional reactions. If his blood sugar went too low, he could grow menacing and furious, like a chained, ferocious beast. If his blood sugar stayed too high too long, he could grow tight-lipped and pale with fierce paranoia. In the normal range, he was boisterous and fun and loving, a brilliant jazz pianist who could play anything he’d heard once. But his mind was not always his own.
I had to remind myself over and over: It’s not him, it’s the sickness. Mom explained that. She was always there to step in front of him and put a soothing hand on his arm and quiet the beast, like a lion tamer. She was the only one who could do it, as though something primitive in him recognized her, even then. He didn’t even remember what had happened the next day. He was like a werewolf.
I asked God over and over to make him better. I wanted to get closer to God so that God would listen more closely.
When I was 14, I got my chance. The synagogue board picked me to lead High Holiday services with the rabbi. Someone had heard me at my bat mitzvah and thought that I’d be better than the cantors who were coming in for interviews. They offered me $1,000, which was the largest sum of money I had ever heard of anyone being paid, and of course I said yes.
The first time I led services, I stood behind a narrow, wobbly maple podium with a wooden Star of David carved into the front, and I shook so badly that the lucky thumb ring my dad had let me borrow knocked against the wooden lip, just below my machzor. My voice came out high and thin. In the congregation, my grandfather looked up at me and smiled. He sang along, and he knew all of the words; the men in my family have always been musical and valued musical talent. My dad had tears in his eyes, watching me sing.
Leading services, I was so close to the ark I could reach out and touch it. I was the voice of the people. My words were going directly to God. And I began to grow more comfortable. I caught myself leaning back into the music. I loved how sad the Hebrew sounded. There was a history of hurt and fierce devotion here. I caught myself swaying, praying fluidly to a God I needed to mend the broken things, the dead organs, in my life.
It took me years to realize how completely I didn’t believe. How for the longest time, I hadn’t believed, I had just wanted my dad to be better.
By the time I had already graduated college and gone to grad school in the city and grown cynical and come home again last year to prepare for the High Holidays only to learn how sick my mother was, I was embarrassed for the girl who had naively prayed so hard, who had tried so hard to believe that there was a God who listened.
Standing alone on the bimah in the empty sanctuary two days before Rosh Hashanah, after my father dropped me off, I felt blank. I wasn’t a part of something bigger; I was a tiny, bobbing thing in a cold, senseless ocean. It was Mom who had always been there for Dad. Who had always remembered, at every moment, that he should be testing his blood sugar. Who always noticed immediately that his lips were pale, that something was wrong. She was his guardian, his protector. Her role couldn’t be adjusted to allow for her own illness. There was no room. And I was a helpless bystander.
I turned slowly to face the ark. It stared back at me, expressionless wood. I went forward and tugged the doors open. There was the Torah, dressed in pristine white, ready. It was just an old scroll. I could see cobwebs in the corner of the chamber, where someone had forgotten to clean. I could feel the empty seats behind me, as if they were watching me. How am I going to do this? I thought.
But time moves ahead without anyone’s permission, and two days later, there I was, dressed like the Torah, standing behind my podium, looking out over hundreds of faces that were looking back expectantly. I took a big breath, and I dove under the shock-cold surface of Rosh Hashanah. I was shaky, starting out, the way I’d been that first time, when I was a teenager, before I got cocky and self-important and briefly certain of God. I felt like I’d never done this before.
Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men says women now outperform men. Is that true in Jewish communal life?