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With the exception of Kol Nidre, the Yom Kippur eve service, I’ve never gotten a lot out of the High Holiday services.  We go every year because it would seem bizarre not to go, but I’ve also never been a fan.  It’s not just that the Torah and Haftorah portions are all taken from infertility stories (seriously, it’s like the infertility galore service) — I never really liked to be in shul for the High Holidays even before we started trying to conceive.

At the same time, they are also the services I usually use to judge a shul.  We used to go to a fantastic shul downtown where there was no rabbi and no cantor and the service was peer-led.  I am really not a fan of having people say the prayers for me, and so many shuls bring in choirs and trot out new tunes for the High Holiday services.

A few years ago, we moved to a shul outside the city which had decent High Holiday services.  I still didn’t love them, but I could sit through them, mostly because there was this family that we called the Vampire Family (and later, after we encountered the Twilight series, we renamed them the Cullens) because they were impossibly young and never seemed to age.  We always sat near this family and I spent a chunk of the service ignoring the fact that the rabbi was talking about infertility and instead mused on the ages of the Cullens.

This year was our first time in a new shul yet again and the service was fine.  I missed the Cullens, missed having deep roots somewhere.  We know a lot of people at this shul, but they’re all new friends.  They haven’t known us for years and years, through various incarnations.  When I walked into this shul for the first time, I was a mother of two, and that’s the only Melissa they know.

The shul started using a new prayer book this year and like High Holiday services in general, I’m usually fairly unimpressed with newfangled prayer books.  I’m not a big fan of change, of making things — which weren’t broken in the first place — “better.”  I don’t need new translations in English or poetry down the sidebars or long commentaries from famous  rabbis.  Just give me the prayers that have been said for hundreds of years in their Old School form and let’s call it a day.

I had written this book off without even seeing it and hadn’t cracked the spine in services since we entered during the Torah service (and my usual way of getting through the infertility stories is to not open the book), when Josh passed the open pages to me and pointed meaningfully to the sidebar.

There, as a remark to people listening to the Torah service, it reminded the reader that not everyone conceives easily and there may be people in the congregation who have experienced infertility.  And better still, it went on to remind people that while these stories may bring some people hope, they will not be received that way by all listeners.  And it mentioned that people might want to be mindful of that.

You know.  In case they’re into that “mindful” and “thoughtful” sort of thing.


Where I do encounter deep spirituality (beyond Kol Nidre, which — if done well — has the ability to bring me to my knees) is within Tashlich.  On Friday, after regular services, we drove out to West Virginia to a favourite spot on the Shenandoah River.  We first let the twins kick off their shoes and play on the rocks for an hour.  They collected shells and watched the water bugs while I stood lookout for sharks (and, for the love, cleaned up the ChickieNob when she fell into the river, jeans and all, within the first few minutes).

And then we all sat down and thought about our year and what we didn’t want to bring with us into this next year.  We squeezed those thoughts into rocks and threw the rocks towards the middle of the river.

You may not think I’m there, but I’m the shadow on the river, above their heads in the photograph.

Fine, I relinquished my camera for a few shots.

Afterwards, we hiked up this hill to the remains of an old stone church and beyond it a graveyard.  Parts of all four walls remain from the church, though by now, the floor is grass and the inside has been gutted.

It was our first time taking the twins to the graveyard, an old pre-Civil War graveyard where I took Josh a few weeks into dating.  The twins have been to graveyards before — they’ve been to funerals before — so it wasn’t an enormous revelation, except that it was their first time walking into a sacred space where they knew no one and no one in the space could possibly know them.  And yet, they walked quietly.  They walked mindfully.


We went to the yearly NICU reunion at the hospital.  One of our favourite nurses died a few months ago and they spoke about her during the address.  They also had a scrapbook set up where families could share memories about her.  I got very weepy while I was there because she was this person who was there at the start and who remembered the twins year after year.  She usually greeted us at the sign-in table, and she obviously wasn’t there this time.  The ChickieNob saw me crying and asked why everyone was crying when they mentioned P–, so I told her that she had died and her response was the natural one: why is everyone upset if she wasn’t part of our family.

Because she was still a thread in the enormous blanket we’re weaving of our lives, Chickie.

Because through circumstances, our lives crossed and I learned all about hers in the late night hours that we stayed up in the NICU, and she was obviously a witness to ours.  She held the twins long before many of the people currently in their life touched the twins.  And that is a powerful thing — to lose someone who was there at the beginning.  There are so few left at the hospital that we still have contact with, that were there to thank face-to-face.

We connected with their old neonatologist and took our yearly pictures.  I love that she remembers them year after year, can still recite their stats from six years ago.  She has perfect recall of that time, and in that way, I consider her to be a little god-like.  A little Dumbledore; not quite person, not quite deity.

We went upstairs to the NICU where our favourite nurse was working.  She is never at the Reunion, but she is always working and up in the NICU during the festivities.  This year, she was putting in an I.V. and couldn’t leave the baby, so we passed along our hellos and thank yous.

Before we headed out to my parent’s house for dinner, we swung by the bathroom that I locked myself in the night they made me leave the hospital for the first time.  Again, we actually all had to pee, but it feels important to visit that space and retell the story, for many of the same reasons why people attend Rosh HaShanah services and say the same words, year after year after year.

I find spirituality there — in the hospital bathroom, smelling the hospital soap, and sitting on the dirty tiles.  It’s a ritual just as much as High Holiday services.  It’s revisiting a core space, a place that changed me.  It is just as much a truth — for me — as anything I learned at Hebrew School.


1 Lori Lavender Luz { 09.13.10 at 12:40 pm }

I feel as if I were with you, at the shul remarking on the Cullens, on the Shenandoah releasing thoughts I no longer need into the rocks, and on the floor of that bathroom where a transformation of you once took place.

Beautiful collection of stories from this weekend, Mel. Really hit my heart.

2 PaleMother { 09.13.10 at 1:08 pm }

Wonderful post, Mel.

I lived in your area for five years (and had to leave against my will). Places like hat church and graveyard … and some of the other places you write about … were a big part of why I loved it. It seems you can pick any direction on the compass and make a little escape, a little getaway within hours of home, that takes you some place special in one way or another.


3 Kir { 09.13.10 at 1:08 pm }

Oh Mel, wow…..I am just at a loss for words, that’s a lot for me..huh?
This post just opened my heart and has me happy for your really beautiful weekend…thanks for sharing all those feelings & Memories with us.

BIG HUGS my friend.

4 Tara { 09.13.10 at 1:32 pm }

Wow…that’s all I can say. This post really moved me. Thanks for sharing.

5 HereWeGoAJen { 09.13.10 at 2:08 pm }

Beautiful post, Mel.

6 Journeywoman { 09.13.10 at 2:18 pm }

L’shana Tovah!

7 Kristin { 09.13.10 at 2:29 pm }

Thank you for sharing all these stories Mel. The emotion and truth behind them really touched me.

8 a { 09.13.10 at 3:16 pm }

Nice job, whoever did those prayer books! Are you sure they didn’t consult you?

I’m sorry to hear that one of your major connections to the trauma of the twins’ early days is gone. There are probably only a few people who can understand that experience. You do make me wonder what that other nurse’s story is…why she always works instead of attending the celebration.

9 Dora { 09.13.10 at 4:24 pm }

So impressed by that sidebar in the prayer book. For so many people IF is just not on the radar.

All around beautiful post. A sweet new year to your family.

10 Quiet Dreams { 09.13.10 at 6:09 pm }

Gorgeous post.
The high holidays are growing on me. Slowly. But I do like tashlich.

11 LJ { 09.13.10 at 6:33 pm }

That’s unreal. I’m trying to imagine my old prayerbooks having that in them – so cool. And as always, made all the more real by hearing it from you.

12 VA Blondie { 09.13.10 at 8:07 pm }

Great post. Thank you for those stories.

13 loribeth { 09.13.10 at 8:54 pm }

Loved, loved, loved this post, Mel. : )

14 Annacyclopedia { 09.13.10 at 11:04 pm }

This is one of the many posts of yours that will stay with me for a long time, Mel. Just beautiful.

15 Kristen { 09.13.10 at 11:42 pm }

so touching and lovely, thank you for sharing.

16 Mrs. Spit { 09.14.10 at 12:07 am }

Just lovely. I’m sorry this is hard for you, a time when you are leaving old paths and old connections and making new ones. The new paths are never quite as comfortable as the old.

17 luna { 09.14.10 at 1:48 am }

this is really powerful, mel. I love tapping in to the spirituality you find in rocks thoughtfully tossed into the river, in imbuing respect in your children for the old graves of the unknown, and on the cold hard tile of the bathroom floor that forever transformed you into the mother you would become. and I love that you found some peace at your new shul.

18 Shana { 09.14.10 at 12:01 pm }

I’ve never been to Tashlich. I don’t know why, it was just not something my family did growing up. It sounds lovely, like something even my atheist husband might appreciate, and that we could really use this year.

19 Keiko { 09.15.10 at 9:33 pm }

Mel, I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes as I read this post. After spending 10 years of loving every beautiful aspect of Judaism, of choosing to accept it as a faith of a my own, I nearly lost that faith the very first Shabbat after I was diagnosed. I went to a shul I had never been to before (b/c Larry and I hadn’t settled on one yet; still new to town) b/c that seemed like the right thing to do, and while I zoned out during the Torah portion, I flipped to the back of the siddur and read something to the effect of how couples who are infertile have basically received a punishment from G-d. Yes, I read this in a siddur, in a modern Reform synagogue. I almost walked out of the service. I had a legitimate crisis of faith for almost 3 months following.

I have only started going to Rosh HaShanah services last year- Kol Nidrei & Yom Kippur Day for over a decade- and I remember how shocked I was last year as I realized the Haftorah portion was the story of Hannah. It was uncomfortable again to read and hear this year. But reading your post about such a progressive Mahzor has been inspiring. This has been a very weird, very disjointed Days of Awe for me and my husband this year, and so I take a lot of comfort in what you’ve shared in your post.

Thank you, Mel. Shana tovah to you and your family, and may you each be Sealed for another year.

20 Bea { 10.01.10 at 8:15 am }

This is a beautiful post.

I love the ritual of the stones and the river.

I wonder how those words got into that book – who wrote them, and what motivated them.

And yes, finding meaning in the NICU gathering, as if it was a prayer-filled religious service. Well put.


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