I didn't know what was going on, even though I had been though this once a year every year at the High Holidays. There was the standing prayer, the Amidah, which we called the Shemonah Esrei back in Hebrew school. Then the Torah reading, where everyone would get an aliyah--an honor, an ascent. The last time I thought about this word was as a kid watching families go up to the Ark during Rosh Hashonah services. My mother explained that they had given money to the synagogue, and I wondered if they had to move to Israel now, as well--isn't that what "make aliyah" meant? I decided I never wanted an aliyah, because I liked living in New York. (I wisely kept the concern to myself on this particular morning.)
The rabbi invited all those on the retreat for the first time to come up and recite the blessing. As a not very good Jew for a very long time, I wondered if my presence would somehow diminish the validity of the moment. But almost everyone was walking to the front, so I joined them. A woman put the edge of her tallit around my shoulder; I had never touched one before, even though I watched my father, until I was ten, wrap it around himself like a cape every morning. We read from a card and then stood behind a man who chanted from the open scroll, which I was afraid to come near for fear of inadvertently tampering with its holiness. Then we said another blessing, and I understood that the words in the scroll had been read on my behalf, to commemorate my appearance in this place.