Meryl’s Guide to High Holiday Services

Say you only go to synagogue (you call it “Temple”) twice a year. You barely remember your Hebrew, or you don’t read it, and your kids don’t know it, and they’re bored, but you’ve told them that at least two days a year, they have to go to Temple. Because they’re Jews.

The service doesn’t have to be so boring, not for you, and not for them. Even if you can’t read Hebrew, many American synagogues have English transliteration in the prayer books—the English version of the Hebrew prayers and songs. It’s not too hard to follow along. Here’s a little secret about Hebrew prayers and songs: We sing them fairly slowly, and the tunes are repetitive, so even if you don’t read Hebrew very well, you can generally pick up the tunes and follow along. Here’s another nifty little secret: We sing them so slowly that you can listen to us start the word, and you can jump in and finish it with us.

If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. I stopped going to synagogue for about twenty years, except for High Holy Day services, and even then, I didn’t necessarily go every year, and never for the full service. I got more involved with my religious life about six or seven years ago. I tried, when I lived in NJ, to get more involved in a synagogue in Montclair, but found it cliquish and unwelcoming to newcomers. So after a couple of months, I gave up. When I moved to Richmond, I knew only one family in town. My plan was to get involved with the Richmond Jewish community and make friends that way. The synagogue I chose was not cliquish, and went out of their way to welcome newcomers. But I was at a disadvantage. I hadn’t been to services regularly since I was a child, and the tunes had changed. Not all of them, but enough so that I didn’t know my way around the prayer book. And after all those years of not reading Hebrew except on Passover, my reading skills had atrophied. But I figured out a way to get myself up to speed until I could get myself up to speed. I used the transliteration until I knew the prayers well enough to read along in Hebrew.

Seriously. Use the transliteration while you’re learning the tunes. Once you’ve got that down, start reading the Hebrew. It works.

But back to the High Holy Day services.

If you can’t read Hebrew at all, there are still many pages of English with translations, poems, and other holiday readings. These pages explain why you’re sitting in synagogue, and why there’s a cantor or a choir or an extra bunch of people on the bimah, and why services are in the Social Hall instead of the Sanctuary (if you’re like us) or why the synagogue is filled to the balcony (if you’re like some other synagogues I’ve seen). There are often children’s services—try to make sure you’re there at those times, and your children will be far more involved and may even find that they like the service.

I wish I could tell you personally how moving it is to me to hear the Shema from a thousand throats at once. I wish I could show you how full my heart gets when I hear the congregation sing “Avinu Malkeinu,” and how I deliberately try to position myself near the best singers in the synagogue for that specific moment. I wish I could somehow take the joy I feel when the room is filled to the brim with Jews worshipping together, praying together, singing together, united in a single purpose—to be Jews.

I know it’s not so easy for non-religious Jews to go to services regularly. Maybe you weren’t brought up to like religion. I wasn’t either. The holidays were presented as chores to be gotten through, especially the High Holy Days. Passover was a burden that brought extra cleaning, cooking, and menu problems. My grandfather was fairly good about answering a specific question about Judaism, but he had no skill whatsoever in explaining to his children and grandchildren that there is joy and happiness in it, as well as hard work and obligations.

So I worked against my upbringing and discovered that there are wonderful things to be found in Judaism. I found that I really liked a lot of things about Shabbat services. There are many prayers and songs that I find moving and enjoyable. I like the tunes, I like the words, I like singing them, and I especially like singing them with a hundred other people (unfortunately, that’s pretty rare unless there’s a Bar or Bat Mitzvah going on). Now that I teach fourth grade in my synagogue’s religious school, and know most of the children in the school, I get a huge kick out of watching the kids learn their prayers and get up in front of the congregation to lead us in parts of the service. We’re very big on our children’s participation. Every week, the kids at the bimah give me something to smile about, whether or not they’re my students or my former students, or children that I’ve never taught. To see these children enjoying being Jews is something to smile about.

So would seeing their parents having the same enjoyment.

So while you’re sitting in services this weekend and again next Sunday and Monday, try to do a little more than wonder how long you have to stay before you can make your exit. Try reading along with the cantor and the rabbi. Give a new song a shot. I’m telling you, we sing so slowly a gentile could pick up our songs by the end of services. And if you find you like it, so much the better. If you like it enough to try coming to services on a Friday night—well, that would be a simcha. A joy. And not just for me.

Shana Tovah, everyone. May you have a sweet and wonderful year.

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9 Responses to Meryl’s Guide to High Holiday Services

  1. Rahel says:

    Oh, Meryl, that was beautiful. Thank you.

    Some synagogues here have begun to hold special evenings where they teach and explain the prayers and songs that will be sung during the High Holy Days so that those who want to learn them before services have the chance to do so.

    I hope that one day soon I will be able to take you shul-hopping here. Jerusalem has an incredible variety of synagogues of all types, including egalitarian ones.

    Shana tova u-metuka.

  2. Chairwoman says:

    Ah Meryl, you absolutely captured the essence of shul.

    Chag Sameach

  3. chsw says:

    Chag sameach, and a happy, healthy and prosperous year for you and your family.


  4. Eric J says:

    Another thing, if you can manage the book-juggling, you can bring your own Siddur to the services, and follow along in both books. My wife has often used the Artscroll linear transliterated Machzor, and I enjoy the extensive commentaries available in the standard Artscrol Machzor.

    Until the Conservative Movement manages to produce an updated Machzor that’s up the the standards of the latest Sim Shalom siddurim, at least.

    Chag Sameach.

  5. velvel of atlanta says:

    and we carry one of the “survivor’s guides” with interlineation and reflections so that I can read if the d’var torah is not a great one…
    and enjoy the apples and honey

  6. Ben F says:

    L’Shana Tovah, Meryl.

  7. Oceanguy says:

    Meryl… I’m printing this out. I know some who would make good use of it.
    L’shanah Tovah. May your new year be happy and sweet.

  8. Elisson says:

    Beautiful post, Meryl.

    Our Men’s Club put out a transliterated machzor that contains the entire Hebrew liturgy for all of our High Holiday services, neatly transliterated using easy-to-read English letters. It really makes a difference when you’re able to daven in Hebrew, even if you can’t read the Hebrew letters.

    With enough years of shul under my belt, I now understand most of the Hebrew as I read it (but don’t ask me to converse in Hebrew!).

    To me, a regular shul-goer, the best thing about the High Holidays is seeing that other 80% of the congregation that shows up two or three times a year. They don’t know what they’re missing.

    May you and yours have a sweet, healthy New Year in 5767.

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