My Kind of Prayer
French toast frying in butter on the stove, as requested by my 14-year-old son?
Toy firetrucks, lights flashing and sirens wailing, racing across my dining room floor?
Benny Friedman’s “Ivri Anochi” blaring from the stereo on repeat and at its highest volume as my children dance giddily around me?
My day is going exactly as I might have expected.
I dare you.
Guess what day it is.
Nope, it’s not Sunday morning.
Nope, it’s not a school day, or a snow day, or a vacation day.
Fine – I’ll tell you.
Believe it or not, I’ve just described Rosh Hashanah morning in the Berkovic household.
Bet you weren’t expecting that.
Okay, so Rosh Hashanah in my house looks and sounds a little different than most. The French toast, the muktzeh toys, and the blaring music are more than a little incongruous with the Days of Awe.
So, let me explain.
I don’t spend my Rosh Hashanah mornings in shul – I spend them at home, with my 14-year-old son Naftali, who is autistic. Baruch Hashem, he knows it’s Rosh Hashanah. He loves dipping the apple in honey, he loves the ram’s head I put on the table (though he calls it a dinosaur), and he loves the festive mood and delicious aromas that permeate our house. I know – without any doubt – that deep in his neshamah, Naftali feels the holiness of the day – perhaps more profoundly than I can ever understand.
But his autism, and his need for structure and routine, doesn’t disappear because it’s the Yamim Nora’im.
He still needs his French toast. He still needs his battery-operated toys. He still needs his music.
He still needs his mother.
That’s why I haven’t been to shul on Rosh Hashanah in 15 years.
The last time I stood for Unesaneh Tokef, the last time I felt the somber, elevated stillness of the chazaras hashatz, was back when I was expecting my first child – Naftali. Back then, I thought the perfect tefillah was the one I whispered with my eyes closed tight, with my fists clenched tight, with my words carried on high, woven into the tefillos of those who stood beside me. Back then, I thought I knew what I was davening for when I davened for the child still inside me. I davened for my version of a perfect child, for the child who would stand beside my husband in shul with his eyes closed tight, his fists clenched tight, his words being carried on high.
I didn’t know then that Naftali would be different.
I didn’t know then that Naftali would make me so different.
I fought it for a while. I refused to accept that I would have to change because I was given a child (now a young adult!) with special needs. I smiled for the world – but inside, I felt resentful. I felt bitterness. I felt a desperate need to be just like everyone else.
And I felt that most acutely during the Yamim Nora’im.
There were years when my neighbors did rotations – babysitting for each other in shifts so they each could make it to shul just for Mussaf or just for Minchah or even just for Maariv. I longed to join in, but I couldn’t ask anyone to babysit for Naftali – he was just too challenging. But I felt like I was missing out – like I was slacking off. Like I was supposed to figure out a way to get to shul – somehow.
One year, on a crazy whim, I decided to take Naftali with me to hear the shofar blowing, hoping he could stay quiet long enough so I could hear the tekios at the same time as the rest of the women. I managed to dress Naftali, his younger siblings, and myself (no easy feat!) and I made it to shul on time for shofar. It felt like a miracle, and I was elated.
But the miracle didn’t last long.
As I jostled among the women in the crowded shul, I struggled to hold my baby in my arms while trying to convince Naftali to remain at my side. But there were too many things around the room that captured his attention. Before I could stop him, Naftali made a beeline to a table which held the remnants of the shul kiddush. There wasn’t much left – just some cake and cookies – but Naftali seized upon the loot with glee. Not to eat. That would have been fine. No, Naftali used the baked goods as weapons. And so, as the baal tokea blew tekiah, shevarim, teruah, Naftali pelted the room – and the people in it – with little pieces of sponge cake. As yellow cake balls rained down on the oblivious daveners, I couldn’t move. As the piercing kolos cried out in the hushed silence, I wanted to cry myself. After the last tekiah gedola, my cheeks burned as I went around the room and asked sweet, Hungarian grandmothers if I could remove little pellets of cake from their perfectly-coiffed sheitels.
In hindsight, it sounds almost funny. But in the moment, I was mortified.
I felt defeated. And then, oddly empowered.
Forget it, Yitti.
You can’t just pretend to be like everyone else.
Clearly, Hakadosh Baruch Hu expects something different from you.
Clearly, Hakadosh Baruch Hu does not expect you to do what all your neighbors are doing.
That was the last time I stepped into shul on Rosh Hashanah during regular davening.
Now, I go for the late shofar blowing, slipping away from home while my husband is around just long enough to be mekayem the mitzvah. The rest of the day, I am home with Naftali and my younger children, trying to imbue my house with the kedushah of Rosh Hashanah in an environment that feels strikingly different than the somber stillness of a shul. To do so, I need to see the day through a different paradigm, through a different lens.
Maybe making the perfect French toast is my avodah for the day.
Maybe finding simchah in my challenges (the upbeat music actually helps!) is my avodah for the day.
I may not be able to daven Mussaf in shul (or even at home), but I can infuse the Mussaf into my entire day.
For me, malchiyos, recognizing Hashem’s Kingship, is acknowledging – with an open, reverent heart – that Hashem has given me Naftali because He determined that being Naftali’s mother is my life’s work, my very purpose.
For me, zichronos, remembrances, is remembering that my duty is not to be doing what everyone else is doing. My role – even while making the perfect French toast for Naftali – is not any less valuable than the tefillah offered by another woman who has the opportunity to daven every tefillah in shul.And for me, shofros, is my one opportunity to stand perfectly still and listen. As the sounds strip away the trappings of the material world and the shofar’s penetrating cry enters my heart, I can thank Hashem for giving me Naftali, my kind of child, and for accepting my tefillah on Rosh Hashanah – my kind of prayer.