Walking into the synagogue for the third day in a row of Rosh Hashanah services (one evening and then two mornings), I yawned and said to Mom, this prayer thing is work. I actually do work at my synagogue, as a teacher, so there’s a blurring of the lines for me between work and prayer on a regular basis. But I was specifically referring to the exhaustion of dressing up, and spending hours standing and sitting and standing, and dealing with my endless social anxiety so that there was no energy left to do much else. But when I was flipping through the prayer book later that morning (and our prayer book for the High Holidays requires a lot of flipping to get from one prayer to the next, because if we tried to say every prayer in the book we’d be there all week), I saw the word Avodah, which means both work and worship, and I had an aha moment.
In the back of my mind, I knew that the word Avodah was used to refer to the animal sacrifices in the ancient temple days, and that after the second temple was destroyed, in 70 CE, the sacrifices were replaced with prayer, and therefore the word Avodah came to refer to prayer. But more often than not, the word Avodah, in Modern Hebrew, refers to work: like a nine to five job or a chore that needs to get done. Sitting there in the sanctuary, praying that we would remain seated for a few more minutes, I wondered, were our ancestors so low on vocabulary that this one word, Avodah, had to have two meanings, or was there more poetry in the dual usage?
In our modern world we tend to think of prayer as transcendent, and spiritual, and somewhere above our regular lives, but in traditional Judaism, prayer and ritual are grounded in everyday life. You wake up and say the Shma, you go to the bathroom and say a blessing, you wash your hands and say a blessing, you pray three times a day, in community or alone, and then you continue to say blessings all day long; it’s not separate from your real life at all – it is your life.
But I’m not traditional in that way, and I tend to experience prayer as an oasis I can escape to on Friday nights, on Zoom or in the sanctuary, with my community. Except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The long standing/sitting/standing intervals and the hours and hours of prayer definitely feel like work; but, also, still, transcendent. The work of prayer isn’t, usually, physical labor, but it does require us to stretch our minds to find the wonder in our world, and to search our hearts in order to develop our relationships with God and community.
And this year’s High Holidays were, if anything, more work than usual.
When the world seemed to open up last spring, we had so many plans for things to “go back to normal,” including having our High Holiday services in person. We were so sure we’d be rushing back to shul that the clergy planned for two or three seatings for morning services, to accommodate all of the vaccinated congregants and still allow for social distancing. But then came Delta. We tried to ignore it at first. We had choir rehearsals week after week, gradually putting our masks back on and sitting further apart, and then our re-opening committee said that not only couldn’t the choir sing, but no one except the clergy could sing in the sanctuary, even masked and vaccinated. And then people started to call in to the synagogue to say they would be watching services online instead of coming in person, to be safe, and, ironically, we were able to plan longer services, since we’d only need one seating for each service to accommodate those still willing to come in person.
Mom and I decided to go in person instead of watching online, partly because Mom was asked to put on a one woman show in the social hall, to share her photographs and quilting and fiber art, just in time for the High Holidays, and partly because I was going to read my pawpaw essay on the first evening of Rosh Hashanah services.
I was, of course, anxious about how many people would show up, and how the essay would be received, and how my reading would go (would I pause in the right places? Read too fast? Mumble too much? Fumble over my words?), but most of my anxiety was about how I would look. I’ve gained weight from my attempts at Intuitive Eating, and even on my best days I feel unpresentable, so I was afraid of putting myself up on the Bima in full view.
I know, I know. It doesn’t sound like the right mindset for such a solemn and spiritual occasion – the beginning of the new Jewish year, the time to atone and make amends and return to the true path yada yada yada – I should be wearing all white with flowers in my hair and smiling beatifically, la la la.
I felt honored to be asked to read, truly, and hopeful that people would get to know me better from hearing my essay, but… I was afraid. I forced myself to practice my “for the most part thinking,” as in, I will do my best to read my essay with appropriate drama and clarity and humor, and try to look up once in a while, but I can’t expect to be perfect or look perfect. I will try instead to be grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts, and accept that I will be nervous and self-conscious and therefore imperfect.
I worked on that a lot, but I wasn’t especially convinced.
I was nervous all day before my reading, preparing my all back outfit and trying not to look in a mirror. That night, I wore a mask with pictures of dogs on it (over my KN95) to help me feel like the girls were with me, even though they couldn’t be in the sanctuary itself, and I planned to envision a crowd of dogs sitting in the first few rows of the sanctuary, heads tilted with interest as I read, though probably in the mistaken hope that I might say the word “chicken.”
I walked up to the Bima when it was time, and placed my pages on the lectern, and told the small in-person crowd about the significance of my doggy mask and my imagined crowd of doggy listeners, and they laughed. And then, it went really well. I forgot to think about how I looked, and instead read my essay as if I didn’t know the end of the story ahead of time. I even looked up every once in a while and made eye contact with people in the sanctuary. And I remembered to mention that there was a picture of the pawpaw tree in the social hall, along with the rest of Mom’s beautiful artwork (hint, hint).
And then I walked off the Bima and tried, and failed, to put my masks back on as I returned to my seat. It took me three tries to figure out that the reason the masks kept popping off my ear was because I had them upside down, with the nose clips at my chin.
But the response was lovely: lots of warm, kind comments. And then, we went on with the holiday. There was a two and a half hour service the next morning, and Tashlich at the water in the afternoon (the one service each year when congregational dogs are invited. Cricket had a great time sniffing other dogs, while Ellie hid behind my legs), and then there was another two and a half hour service the following morning. And when I finally got home on the afternoon of day three, knowing we wouldn’t have to go back until Yom Kippur, I felt like I could sleep through that whole week and still be exhausted from all of the emotional and physical work of prayer.
But saying that it felt like work doesn’t mean I regret it, or wish I’d just stayed home. Instead, it means that I put a lot of effort into something that is sacred to me. I pushed myself to be present, and I built more spiritual muscles in the process.
Yom Kippur, a week later, was, as usual, even harder. The services were longer and there were more of them in a shorter period of time. I didn’t fast, but I went to all of the services and did all of the standing/sitting/standing calisthenics. I switched to sneakers, not so much to avoid leather (one of the things traditional Jews avoid for Yom Kippur) but because my feet hurt, a lot. Yom Kippur requires more standing, and more chest beating and introspection, and repentance. The music was beautiful, and mournful, though, and we were told to hum along with the Cantor as he sang in full voice, standing even longer than the rest of us.
I was asked to do a reading at the concluding service on Yom Kippur, a poem by Yehuda Amichai this time, and I did my best to read it as if the words were my own, as if it were as much a part of me as the essay I read at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, ten days earlier.
By the end of everything I felt like I’d been hit by a truck, and I still felt guilty for all of the ways I’d cut corners (not fasting, avoiding some of the more penitent prayers in favor of my own thoughts), but overall I felt like I’d done my best. I’d made the most of the opportunity to be present with my community, and within myself, and I was grateful to be finished with the work, for a while, and to be able to rest and let it all settle in.
Did I come to any exciting revelations about my health, my body, my spirituality, or my future from all of that prayer? I’m not sure yet. But I put in the work, and I took a few small steps forward; and, really, every step is worth taking, even if it’s not clear, in the moment, where it will take me.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?