10/15/2014 09:30 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

Alone in the Synagogue

This time of year is bustling for observant Jews. The High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, solemn days in September or early October, are followed with the happy harvest holiday, Sukkot, which lasts a week and concludes with Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the ending and beginning anew of reading the Torah. Religious Jews make treads on the sidewalk to the synagogue.

A high school student whom I tutor comes from an Orthodox family, and if any of those holidays falls on a day we meet, he will be absent from me and school. Doing no work on the Sabbath is the rule for him as well. I of course respect his family's values, though I sympathize with him being required to make up work he misses when he stays out but school is in session. I like him for soldiering through those times.

I'm far less observant than he or his family, since I fulfilled the expectations of Bar Mitzvah and Hebrew study as a kid and then withdrew as time went by. Today I fall into the unesteemed category of two- or three- or four- or five-service-attendances-a-year Jew who shows up for occasional Friday-night and High Holy Day services. Up on the bimah, the rabbi and the cantor throw me rather distantly friendly looks, the maximum I deserve.

This year Yom Kippur, a day of fast, fell on the Sabbath, Friday night and Saturday, making it even more holy than otherwise. I went Friday at sunset to the opening service, which begins with the chanting of Kol Nidrei, a prayer that beseeches the Lord to excuse one from vows made but not kept during the past year. It's sung to a haunting melody that stays in one's mind and heart no matter how many years have passed since first hearing it. It's beautiful.

Membership in the Manhattan synagogue I attend is made up mostly of families, parents and kids, and everyone shows up for Kol Nidrei. While many no doubt come for sincere prayer, I suspect that a good number like me show up hoping the Lord will look kindly on their selective attendance. The holiday draws so many that the rabbi and crew conduct two identical services, one early, one late. My sympathy goes out to them, since each evening service lasts two hours.

I wish the synagogue elders didn't use the large crowd for fundraising, but they do out of necessity. The synagogue runs some fine community programs aside from keeping up a building and staff, so this synagogue (like others) finds the High Holy Days ripe for asking congregants to dig into their wallets. This, I'm obligated to say, is in addition to requiring a yearly membership to gain tickets for the High Holy Day services. It's today's world.

Looking around the sanctuary, I seem to be the only single male present. There may be a few more, but they're not obvious. If I'm likely the sole bachelor around, I'm almost certainly the only gay man there. Should I not like that, I have the option of attending a flourishing gay synagogue downtown. I went there once for Yom Kippur, and the service felt practically endless. It seemed as if the rabbi (a lady) was out to show that if you want a serious religious service, a gay/lesbian group will give it in spades.

Though I nod to two or three people I recognize, for me being at High Holy Day services means usually being alone. This relieves me of needing to hug Mrs. Schwartz and ask about her children and allows me to focus on prayer. It's a time when I do so, eased on as familiar melodies pour forth from an exceptionally fine cantor and choir.

Invariably thoughts of people gone from the world fill my head -- my parents and brother and sister and a number of other relatives and close friends no longer here. Somehow the weeds that have grown around them seem to shrink a little, and the essence of who they were emerges more easily than at other times -- those people whom I valued too little and some I valued too much.

Though I might not subscribe to every prayer in the Siddur, I always use the synagogue time for my own prayer of thanks for being alive and the multitudes of blessings I enjoy. I want to let the Lord know I haven't forgotten them. Then, leaving the hall, the yarmulke still in place on my head, I head home feeling a little purer, grateful for the night and the long struggle of the Jews, even if I thought the outfit on the lady in front of me was all wrong.

Stanley Ely includes religion in his new book, Life Up Close, in paperback and ebook.