Technically, it was called Congregation Bais Ephraim, but we just called it “Steinwurzel’s”. In the very beginning, the women’s section was upstairs in the Steinwurzel’s living room, with a hole cut in the floor so we could hear the davening, but on the Yamim Noraim, some of the women had to sit outside the men’s section, on the porch, in the area called “The Tent”. No one wanted to sit in the tent. It was cold, it was hot, it was buggy and you couldn’t really hear the davening well. I don’t remember if you had to pay for a seat if you sat in the tent, but I do remember that it was in that tent that I learned how to daven.
In my first tent memory, I was ten, wearing a crisp white blouse with a navy plaid skirt and my brand new patent leather—and slightly pinchy—Shabbos shoes from Hammers in Boro Park. My mother was home with my four other siblings, and my father had left me in the care of the Rav’s many daughters, who were also out in the tent. In the pre-Artscroll universe, I learned where to stand and sit and stand again by paying close attention to the older girls. I had a good command of biur tefillah, thanks to a curriculum which spent the entire first few weeks of school on Tishrei prep, and that, combined with my not-so-subtle desire to impress the Steinwurzel sisters with my kavanah, set the groundwork for some serious davening. Also helpful was my beautiful brand new machzor, with its shiny faux mahogany cover and my name embossed in gold lettering. I felt like the coolest kid in the tent.
I had a lot to be thankful for that year. My father, who had spent the better half of the year before in the hospital, was home for good, I had a new adorable baby brother, and my mother’s honey cake was waiting for me at home.
A few years later, I outgrew my need to impress the older girls with my advanced shuckling skills, and my davening took on a more mature tone. However, I still davened with the purity of a child—a child whose only desires were to daven to Hashem, to love Hashem, and to be loved back. There were no ulterior motives, no desperate pleas, no secret bargaining. That—that would come years later.
The first Rosh Hashana after my marriage, my husband and I decided to stay home and daven in a shul close to our apartment. Although we lived within walking distance from both sets of parents, we wanted our independence. What can I say about that first Rosh Hashanah away from Steinwurzel’s? It was weird and I couldn’t concentrate; I was surrounded by strangers, and I was unfamiliar with and unmoved by the new nigunim. I missed the beautiful voice of Mr. Aryeh, the baal Mussaf, I missed bursting into tears while watching the older women cry during Nesaneh Tokef, I missed peering over the mechitza to check on my dad, who stood the entire davening.
A few years later, I was blessed with a baby girl, born ten days before Rosh Hashana. I brought her to my new out-of-town shul, in my new out-of-town community, and graciously accepted my mazel tovs, alongside the murmurs of why is this tiny baby in shul? I couldn’t, I wouldn’t keep her there for Mussaf, and I whispered Nesaneh Tokef to myself, leaning against my dining room wall. It was hard not being in shul for Mussaf. I loved Nesaneh Tokef. It had never failed to move me, and I looked forward to that spiritual high all year. I wondered if it was ever going to be possible to recapture the soul of the girl who davened in Steinwurzel’s.
I couldn’t believe I had a first grader. She was September-perfect in her tiny uniform, her sleek black bangs framing her heart-shaped face, her little feet cradled in her red Mary Jane shoes. I cried a little every time she got on the school bus and pressed her face up against the window to wave goodbye. Every night, we emptied her backpack, and another yontiff project tumbled out. The house was full of glitter and sequins, lumpy honey jars that needed to be toiveled and awkward little shofar shapes which took up permanent residence on the fridge. It was exciting to experience the anticipation of the chag through her eyes, and I looked forward to taking her to shul to hear shofar.
The first night of Rosh Hashanah, in the middle of the simanim, she announced that she had a song to sing. She started strong, with a voice unique to six-year-olds—pure, heartfelt, and achingly beautiful. My husband and I glanced at each other, startled. This was a song we had never heard before—lyrical, almost like a poem—and we wondered how she had remembered all the words, but also, since when did she have such perfect pitch? We clapped delightedly at the end and made her sing it again. The next day, as I davened Nesaneh Tokef at my favorite living room wall, I hummed her little song to myself, and my heart lifted.
Toot toot is the call of Tishrei
A nice little breeze in the month of Tishrei
It’s Rosh Hashanah, trees whisper and sway
Toot toot is the call of Tishrei
I didn’t get to daven Mussaf in shul again for another seven years. A lot of life had happened in the interim, and I now took any and every opportunity to turn my eyes upwards to G-d and beg that it would turn out okay this one more time. Kid #1 needed ear tubes. Kid #2 needed ear tubes. Please come down to the daycare office immediately because your daughter won’t stop crying. Oh my G-d—a tree fell on my car! And oh my G-d—no one was in it. Every day was Nesaneh Tokef, and I no longer needed just the right shul and just the right baal Mussaf for inspiration.
How is it possible that this is me; that I am sitting here in shul with these two grown-up girls? I watch the younger mothers with their little ones, shushing, bribing, plying them with snacks—anything to keep them quiet for another few seconds so they won’t miss shofar blowing. Maybe I should feel nostalgic, but I actually don’t. My mother still lives in the house I grew up in, but she is alone now, and davens in whichever shul her suitcase takes her to, as my father, a”h, is no longer in the men’s section at Steinwurzel’s.
I recently saw Mr. Aryeh at a family simcha. I thought about going over to him and telling him how much the memory of his Mussaf davening has sustained me over the years, but I was afraid I would get too emotional, so I settled for some superficial pleasantries.
The toddler in the seat in front of me spills her juice. The holocaust survivor who just had hip surgery painfully rises to her feet, as the baal Mussaf clears his throat. I close my eyes, and he begins the Nesaneh Tokef. One by one, other voices chime in, but no one else can hear them; they are only in my head. Mr. Aryeh is clearly the lead vocalist, but he graciously allows the others to shine as well, even the ones who were nameless and faceless to me—those chazanim who couldn’t sing, in shuls I didn’t want to be in—all of them blending together in a singular harmony. My daughter’s soprano pierces through the liturgy, her song paralleling without superseding theirs. Suddenly, all the voices, all the melodies, converge into one, and the only sound that remains is the voice of a thin silence, Kol Demama Daka, barely a whisper. But then, like a dream, in a wisp of smoke, Chachalom Yauf, it all disappears. I am standing in utter silence before the King, Melech Kel Chai V’kayam. Once again, I am ready to pray.