Skip To Content

Leading High Holiday Services – And Catching A Break From Motherhood’s Demands

When I was a little girl, my father always led the shacharit (morning service) on the High Holidays. The tunes permeated our house, beginning whenever he decided the season should. Sometimes he started ‘practicing’ as early as Purim. He knew it all nearly by heart, and even as a young child, I sensed that he didn’t really need the practice, except as a way to begin to focus his mind on the task ahead.

I also remember watching as the cantor would prepare himself in the days and weeks before Rosh Hashanah. He would be careful only to speak when absolutely necessary so as to save his voice. And the morning of that first day, he would don that funny looking crown, and his whole demeanor would change. He would sit, ramrod straight in his oversized clergy throne, and you could feel the gravity of the day radiating from his face.

And then there’s me. For the past eighteen years I’ve led Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services nearly every year. But, in contrast with my mentors, during those years I have had a hard time finding the space to direct my mind, to center my soul for the task ahead. As a mother of four with a husband who’s a congregational rabbi, I had no such luxury. In the period leading up to the holidays, there were meals to plan and shop for and cook, school supplies to buy, along with new clothes and shoes for ever lengthening limbs.

And on the day itself, their Abba already long gone, I would hastily shove snacks and drinks and sandwiches and diapers and whatever else I could think of into bags and wait until the babysitter showed up, late if I was lucky, sometimes not at all. I would hand off the children and speed-walk to shul, warming up my voice on the way.

One year, so pregnant that my lungs ached from gulping enough air to sing, I cursed myself for not buying more comfortable shoes. Another year, fresh on the heels of my first trimester, I said a silent little personal prayer that I not be sick right there in front of a thousand people.

If one of my children spotted me, they wasted no time telling me of the latest crisis or battle with a sibling. They complained that I had packed the wrong pretzels, or told me they were pretty sure the baby had a slight fever. My eldest daughter would shoot me the evil eye as I walked away, guilt ridden, but duty bound.

Walking from the back of the sanctuary to the bima I would try in vain to clear my mind for such a serious undertaking. I would sit down in one of those oversized chairs, and look out at the faces. Expectant. No cracker crumbs on my kittel, no bag of books and toys at my feet. My prayer, the quickest of meditations, a thank you for the expansiveness of my freedom.

I got to pray, unencumbered, on these holiest of days. For a couple of precious hours, someone else would have to change the diaper, wipe the nose, say hello to the nosy neighbor.

This year, as I prepare to lead once again, my children are older, less in need of my constant focus and attention. They can find their own way to shul, and sometimes I even see them looking back at me from the pews. Their resentment is no longer there, or, at least, they hide it much better now.

No longer in the stage of midnight rockings and kisses on scrapes making it all better, I’m more aware of how my parenting is about the scaffolding I have built for them; the structure in which they can figure out how to be adults, always knowing that I am underneath, ready to catch them if they fall. My job as prayer leader is not dissimilar. I help to reveal a structure onto which, if I do it right, people can pin their hopes, their fears, their supplications. And the melodies, the new and the unchanging, are an omnipresent net, ready to catch and envelop them when words fail.

So I stand up, and turn away from the congregation. They cannot see my hastily applied makeup or my accidentally mismatched earrings. My focus may not be as clean as my father’s. My voice may never be as sweet and pure as the cantor’s. But my gratitude, for those moments of solitude with only a thousand or so of my closest friends joining in behind me – if I can convey some of that when I help them find their voices – it will have to be enough for another year.

Leah Bieler is a writer with an M.A. in Talmud. She lives in Massachusetts.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.