Who Shall Live And Who Shall Die … In Midtown


Every fall, as I review the melodies of the High Holidays, I am reminded that I first learned to lead Rosh HaShanah prayers while traversing the streets and avenues of Manhattan. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college, and I had a job writing about psycho-pharmacological drugs for a large pharmaceutical company in Midtown. Each morning, I would commute by train from my parents’ house on Long Island to Penn Station. I would follow the crowds up the escalator out of the station, and as soon as I exited onto 34th Street, I’d hit the “play” button on my Walkman. (Yes, this was before smartphones.)

As I walked to work, I’d listen to a tape prepared by my rabbi. The tape started with the beginning of the morning service, where we coronate God as “Hamelech,” the king of the universe, and went all the way to the final Kaddish prayer at the end of the morning service. It lasted 42 minutes, which was exactly how long it took me to walk the four avenues and 25 blocks between Penn Station and my office on the East Side.

I walked the same route each day, and so I remember vividly where I stood for each part of the prayer service: at Shema Yisrael, I passed Macy’s; at Avinu Malkenu I crossed Times Square; by the U’netdaneh Tokef, I was at the Korean grocery near Bryant Park, listening to “who shall live and who shall die” while observing which flowers still looked appealing and which had wilted.

I have led the Rosh HaShanah prayers for over a decade. Every fall I work hard to improve my fluency with the liturgy, trying to focus my attention on repentance, on righteousness and on channeling the prayers of the congregation upwards to heaven. But when the New Year dawns and I stand at the pulpit turning pages in the High Holiday prayer book, I am inevitably thinking not just of the sweet taste of apples and honey that I’ll enjoy after synagogue is over, but also of the cross streets and landmarks of the Big Apple.

I like to think that perhaps this association is not as inappropriate as it might seem. After all, the High Holidays are about marking our paths as we journey through life. Each year, we are called upon to look back on where we have traveled, take stock of our lives and resolve to be more mindful of our ways in the future. When I stand before God and before the congregation on Rosh HaShanah, I remember that I have much for which to be grateful — for the paths I have traversed, the turns my life has taken and the opportunities that await me around the next corner.

Ilana Kurshan is the author of *If All the Seas Were Ink,* just published by St. Martin’s Press.