We had to take a personality test in the beginning of freshman year. I still remember one question. It was the first, but not the last, time I had to answer it – “I feel alone in a crowd.” True, false. Guess my answer.
Flash forward many years from my 17 year old self and I’ve learned how to pretend feeling comfortable in crowds. Baseball games, lectures, movie theaters, parties, religious services.
The cosmic joke is now, when I want to retreat into myself to get something out of the hours I have to spend in shul (synagogue) during this year’s High Holiday season, I can’t.
My mind bounces through a series of words, problems, goals for the upcoming year. Yesterday I even tried thinking ‘Om’, as in a 70s meditation chant, hopping around searching for something to get me to stop hopping around. Like a PowerPoint show, I clicked through images as my breathing grew shallower.
I’d lost the center, I needed coffee, I was entering into the mid-afternoon slump early and we were only a few pages into the Siddur (prayer book). This was not going to be easy.
Maybe that was the way it was supposed to be. Maybe it’s supposed to take days of working on reviewing sins and asking, praying, beseeching the Universe for absolution. Maybe I wasn’t the only one in the congregation fighting my own brain. Maybe we were all alone together.
Wanting to center myself in prayer, I brought my own coping mechanism, a book by Herman Hesse, “Siddhartha”. Short, fits right inside the Siddur, better than surfing my cell phone from the confines of my purse during the Torah (bible) reading segment. And it’s rabbi-approved.
The rabbi who gave Wednesday night’s sermon (we have several clergy at our shul) began with how “Siddhartha” was his favorite book and how he’d read it at least 15 times since he was a teenager … in high school. I had a copy at home but had never read it.
On Thursday I hid it in my tallit (prayer shawl) bag and showed the rabbi as we walked into the hall on Thursday afternoon. He said he’d be happy to discuss it with me and to give it a chance, and him a call. Commitment, and a Call from on High, as it were.
So with rabbinic sanction, I have reading material for my time spent alone in a congregation for the rest of this holy day season. I’ll struggle with the book’s text, surrounded by fellow seekers. What was a liability in high school has now become one of my strengths.