Susan Naomi Bernstein is a writer and educator living in Queens, NY. Her blog is called: “Beyond the Basics” (for Bedford Bits)
My first memory of transformative spiritual experience endures as a moment of a prayer. I was not more than five, or perhaps younger, and I was sitting in the synagogue among the elders. It was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year. On this day, we are instructed to become supplicants and to appeal to the Divine Presence to inscribe us in the Book of Life for another year.
I remember that I could barely read in English and could not read Hebrew at all, though I was intrigued by the shapes of its unfamiliar alphabet on the pages of the prayer book. Still more I admired the melancholy chants of the elders that seemed to lift the words off the page in the most beautiful music I had ever heard. If I could not understand those words, I would hum along with the song of their voices. I could not hope to replicate the sound of aching in their throats, the unfathomable expressions on their faces accentuated by the wrinkles around their mouths and eyes. Yet I would commit this moment to a memory that has lasted until this day, almost fifty years later.
The elders, ancient as they seemed, were probably not much older than I am now and I feel a lingering if fragile connection to their histories. I can barely imagine their experiences of survival in the first half of the twentieth century: pogroms, emigration over stormy seas, Third Reich concentration camps, influenza and polio epidemics, everyday dislocations as immigrants and children of immigrants, and war upon endless war.
Even more fragile are my connections to the religion of the elders with whom I prayed on that Yom Kippur so long ago. Yet two generations later I remember the weary faces and resonant voices deep in prayer and that memory transforms itself before my eyes. Our appeals to the Divine Presence offer us the promise that a better world is indeed possible. We are challenged—and we are held responsible— to enact this promise all the days of our lives.