I’m still figuring out who I am as a Jewish person. I love to celebrate Passover, Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah, and have spent countless hours in my kitchen perfecting matzo ball soup, latkes, kishka and kugel. But outside of the High Holidays, services aren’t really my thing, and there is a part of me still questioning, still wondering, especially at this time of year, if praying makes a difference.
Many young Jewish Angelenos who are gathering for services this Rosh Hashanah—myself included—will be doing so for the first time in a year. It’s a tradition; we feel compelled to celebrate the High Holy Days, to atone and to set a better tone for the New Year. As a child, High Holiday services meant braiding my Dad’s tallis for hours on end and zoning out as I stood up and sat down too many times to count. Today, High Holiday services are the shofar-fueled precursor to the much-anticipated Jewish deli meal my husband and I enjoy together afterward.
There was one Rosh Hashanah, however, that I felt truly present for the holiday, and for the first time, I really prayed. I was 14, a new freshman at my high school, and for a month or so, I’d been goofing off in Freshman Choir with my new friend David. He was everything I wasn’t: blonde-haired, blue-eyed, uninhibited, and, most importantly, a boy. Every day at 10 o’clock for several weeks we stood next to each other belting out songs, trying to make each other laugh. It was the highlight of my day.
The day before Rosh Hashanah, David was absent from class. Our choir director informed us all that he was having heart surgery because he was born with a hole in his heart, and asked us all to keep him our prayers. My heart sank. I was terrified. And that’s when I realized David and I had something in common—because now there was a hole in my heart too.
The next day, I sat with my family in Rosh Hashanah services, unable to keep my mind from racing, powerless to do anything to help. Was my new friend going to be okay? Was he scared? Would I ever see him again? I’d never really bothered to pray; I didn’t have a reason. But during the silent Amidah, I made sure to read every word. I’d never been so present in services, even if my heart was somewhere else.
It was weeks before David returned to class, and sometime during his absence, our choir director had switched our seats. The day David came back, we no longer stood next to one another, but the feeling of relief that washed over me when I saw his smiling face was incredible.
Maybe I had something to do with David’s recovery; maybe I didn’t. It’s more likely it was all in the hands of a medical team in the western suburbs of Illinois. Whether or not prayer can change a course of events is still unclear to me. However, praying gave me a sense of purpose that year.
The following year, I dropped out of choir and David and I lost touch. We weren’t really in the same crowd. But that didn’t stop my heart from perking up on the rare occasions I saw him in the halls. I wondered if he had any idea how many people were praying for him while he was in surgery. I wondered if he knew I was one of them.
I recently Googled David’s name, afraid of what I might find. And to my relief, a recent picture popped up. His hair is no longer as golden; his eyes darker and less playful. But his smile hasn’t changed. And he is still here. So even if I don’t understand the Torah portion on Rosh Hashanah, or connect with the rabbi’s sermon, this is a story I always think back on at the New Year, thanking whomever or whatever continues to make it possible for David to have another new year too.