After dropping my daughter off at daycare yesterday, I drove into the city. I was asked to sit on an interview committee for a rabbinical school candidate and I happily obliged. I rarely get into the city these days but when I do, it’s chock full of memories of the six years when I lived there.
As I crossed over the GW Bridge, I was brought back to the time when I used to say “hello” to my leftover IVF embryos that lived in a Manhattan fertility clinic freezer – even when I had already moved to Long Island. I always found it fascinating that perhaps the genesis of a second child resided there in the city, without me. Those embryos never helped me conceive a child, but there’s something about crossing the GW that always brings me back to those thoughts.
As I sped down the Henry Hudson, Route 9A, I noticed that I had one hand on the steering wheel and one hand holding my travel tea mug, sipping my milk and Truvia-infused decaf tea (I like it the British way). I was instantly taken back to the first time I ever drove on this highway – it must have been about 15 or 16 years ago. Back then, I held onto the wheel for dear life – it was my 1996 bright blue Neon, I think. My how times change.
As I took my exit off the highway, more memories flashed through my mind. Memories of my days in school, of pushing a granny cart to Fairway to buy some overpriced, fresh produce. Memories of when I would move my Saturn from one side of the street to the next, just to avoid paying for parking.
I turned onto Riverside Drive and remembered all the Shabbat walks I took, visiting Riverside Church, running in Riverside Park. As I approached the seminary, I asked myself “should I just pull into the garage or should I make a loop and see if there is any street parking?” I did a loop. It didn’t help. Rarely does, but worth a try.
After parking my car, I realized I had about 35 minutes before my meeting. I’m never this early. What would I do for 35 minutes? Would the seminary’s Wi-fi password be the same, now five years later? How many emails can I respond to in 35 minutes? After a pit-stop to the restroom, I found myself magnetically-drawn towards the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue. It was empty but somehow when I walked in, it instantly filled me up.
I took a seat in what was my normal seat back then – in the back row, closest to the person leading services, on the right side of the aisle as I faced the ark. I sat down. The cushion on the chair was significantly more worn than the last time I sat there. I set my bag down on the chair next to me. I sighed and instantly, began to cry.
This was my sanctuary.
This was the place where I had said Kaddish for a year after my father died. This was the place I led a full version of the service for the very first time, where I delivered my Senior Sermon on “Letting Go.” This was the place where I had witnessed numerous friends welcome children into the covenant of the Jewish people, where my friends showed me their sparkling engagement rings in the beautiful lighting of the sun, where I prayed for a child for myself, day after day, month after month. This was my sanctuary. My, how I have missed you.
I looked around the room. That menorah on the right side – with the tilted candle holder on its far left – still there. That schtender – the podium where people stood to lead services – still there. Those antique-scalloped light fixtures that ironically looked like treif (unkosher) shellfish – still there.
What were not there were all the memories that I have created since then: the birth of two girls, two job relocations, new sorrows, new joys.
I said to myself: “So much is the same, but so much is different.”
So much is different because I am different. I was not tempted to daven (pray) the traditional prayers. Instead I closed my eyes, breathed in and then let out a deep sigh. This is where the past can help heal the present. My body became a sanctuary within a sanctuary.
Later that day I attended services. When it came time to say Kaddish, I said it for my father – not because it was his yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death), but because it just felt right. And then I heard the most powerful Senior Sermon from one of my soon-to-be colleagues who shared about his own struggles with infertility and how we find comfort in others during times of darkness.
His words echoed through me and gave me inspiration and groundedness. It was nice to be a Jew in the pew and allow someone’s spiritual message to penetrate through to my heart. I thanked him later. Sometimes people will never know how much their words mean to you.
This was my sanctuary. It was. It has been. And I suspect it will always be. But not because of the place that it is physically, but because of the place I allow myself to be there spiritually.