It’s the night before Yom Kippur and I’m at the airport traveling back from Denver to New York. As I am walking through the airport, the escalators to security, getting through security, the shuttle, the autowalk, moving, walking, I vaguely notice people around me are smiling sweetly at me, making eye contact. I absently return the smiles, thinking how friendly Denver is.
Then a random guy asks me: “Hey, what song is that?”
Song? I think to myself.
Oh my goodness I’m singing!
As softly as you would sing a lullaby to a sleeping baby. But yes, apparently I was humming the beautiful High Holiday melody “Ohila la-Kel, I Shall Await.” I thought it was just the soundtrack in my head, but apparently after being steeped in these moving holiday melodies the song made it to my lips.
Never mind my theory of Denver friendliness; so that’s why everyone was smiling at me and looking at me. (I promise I am a normal person!)
So I sheepishly laugh and explain to this guy that I’m Jewish and I love the High Holiday melodies and thought the song was only in my head, but it’s Yom Kippur, the day of forgiveness, the next night, and so it’s on my mind. We chuckle and he says he’s Jewish too. I quickly tell him about Selichot, penitential prayers in Jerusalem; about the musicians Yitzchak Meir and Yonatan Razel, who sing many of these prayer-songs so beautifully, and explain to him in detail how to find the song “Ohila” online.
We’re about to part ways to our respective gates when he says, “I’ll check them out. So, it’s Yom Kippur tomorrow night?” “Yes! Shana Tova, it should be a sweet year,” I say as the distance grows between us. “L’Shana Tova” he smiles back before I make my final turn. I am quickly moving toward my gate. I had to make my flight. I never did have a chance even to ask him what city he was traveling to, as I think to myself, wow, the power of a melody . . . and I think how airports are crammed with thousands of random people whose paths cross and intersect en route all to their own destination and journey.
I was now on my return flight from a trip that began on erev Rosh Hashanah. I had booked an extremely early morning trip. The previous night I had stayed up baking plum kuchens, plum tortes, to bring to my parents for the holiday. While everyone else eats apple cake on Rosh Hashanah, plum cake was also a Rosh Hashanah flavor in my childhood home. I pulled the cinnamon scented cakes from the oven just over an hour before leaving the apartment. The pans were practically still warm in my hand as I waited at the airport gate with a friend who was joining my family as a guest. Suddenly she recognizes someone she knows sitting across from us. She’s traveling to Cleveland for Rosh Hashanah. Then we notice another identifiably Jewish couple. The gate is filled with Rosh Hashanah travelers. And I’m holding warm cake. I start slicing warm plum torte and giving it out at the gate. It feels like such a sweet and heimish private little Rosh Hashanah world even in a large New York airport.
Ten days later, as I await boarding for my return flight back to New York, I think to myself about how incredible and inspirational it is that Selichot prayers have gotten so popular in Jerusalem. It is the thing to do in the days bein kese le-asor, the ten intensified days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Tens of thousands (if not more) stream through the streets of Jerusalem until the wee hours of the morning seeking Selichot. The echoes of the prayers fill the air. At midnight during Selichot Jerusalem is awakened and alive, as though it were mid-day, but tinged by starlight. The Kotel, the Wailing Wall, is miraculous. As the thunderous sounds of thousands of prayers rise in unity, the sacred air is charged with a soft pre- Yom Kippur sense of forgiveness, kindness and compassion.
Forget Jerusalem, though, I mirthfully think to myself again. We should bring inspirational Selichot sing-alongs to Denver International Airport and every other airport in America. Just imagine Yitzchak Meir and Yonatan Razel’s “Ohila” penetrating all the people passing through an airport. I suppose for now they will have to make due with yours truly’s humble humming.
All I know is, with my little Rosh Hashanah plum cake adventure and now “Ohila,” I await my Sukkot travels with curiosity.
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