Every Elul, as I review the melodies of the high holidays, I am reminded that I first learned to lead Rosh Hashanah davening while traversing the streets and avenues of Manhattan. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college, and I had a job writing about psycho-pharmacological drugs for a large pharmaceutical company in midtown. Each morning, I would commute by train from my parents’ house on Long Island to Penn Station. I would follow the crowds up the escalator out of the station, and as soon as I exited onto 34th street, I’d hit the Play button on my walkman. As I walked to work, I’d listen to a tape prepared by (now Rabbi Dr.) Ethan Tucker. The tape (which has since become an object of veneration and parody in certain very limited circles) started with “HaMelech,” the first word of Rosh Hashanah shacharit, and went all the way to the final kaddish at the end of Musaf. It lasted 42 minutes (with a lot of “and so on and so forth”), which was exactly how long it took me to walk the four avenues and twenty-five blocks between Penn Station and my office on the East side. I walked the same route each day, and so I remember vividly where I stood for each part of the davening: at Barchu I passed Macy’s; at Avinu Malkenu I crossed Times Square; by the U’netaneh Tokef, I was at the Korean grocery near Bryant Park, observing which flowers still looked appealing and which had wilted.
I have led davening on Rosh Hashanah for nearly ten years now. Every Elul I work hard to improve my Kavana, trying to focus my attention on repentance, on righteousness, and on channeling the prayers of the congregation upwards to heaven. But when the new year dawns and I stand at the Amud turning pages in the Machzor, I am inevitably thinking not just of the sweet taste of apples and honey that I’ll enjoy at Kiddish, but also of the cross streets and landmarks of the Big Apple.
I like to think that perhaps this association is not as inappropriate as it might seem. After all, the high holidays are about marking our path as we journey through life. Each year, we are called upon to look back on where we have traveled, take stock of our lives, and resolve to be more mindful of our ways in the future. When I stand before God and before the Kahal on Rosh Hashanah, I remember that I have much for which to be grateful — for the paths I have traversed, the turns my life has taken, and the opportunities that await me around the next corner.