And the rest of the essay (continued from here):
The cantor's phone call inaugurated a summer that evoked the old Reagan campaign commercial: it was always morning in my apartment. Day and night, hour after hour, I practiced Shaharit from a pile of CDs and tried to crack myself open. And when I finally stood in front of the congregation that September and did my best fake cantor impression, we volleyed music back and forth just like the times I chanted Torah. I let the sensation soak into my pores and spent the following year wringing out little bits to keep me company whenever I needed a boost of spirit.
The Days of Awe rolled around once again, along with too much hubris. Maybe I sounded a little like a cantor, but certainly could not match the stamina of one. As I tried in vain that morning to coat my throat with steam and reclaim a voice to share, I wondered how it would feel to let down a thousand people. I would have to find a new synagogue, or religion. I finally eked out a few notes at the bottom of my range and kept humming all the way to the sanctuary, afraid to stop and lose my tentative grip on sound. "I can't speak, but I can sing almost everything," I croaked to the rabbi the second he walked in.
"Hello," he answered. "Don't worry. It will be fine!"
"But... I can't sing," I said.
"Just tell me what you want me to do, and I'll do it," he said, calmly folding his tallit over his shoulder.
I thought he was nuts. I was about to kill the holiday in front of an innocent congregation; he should have yelled, or at least wagged a finger. Another rabbi walked over, a young intern I barely knew. She took my hands in hers.
"Breathe," she said. "Look for me in the first row. It'll be fine!'
With that they walked out to the front of the cavernous sanctuary, pushing me to go first like a fledgling from a nest. I opened my mouth, and prepared to die. I listened for footsteps of a horrified stampede through the back doors. But all I heard was a strangled whisper.
This time my sound did not bounce back, but sank like a dead limb in a shallow pool. Whenever it went completely under, the rabbi sang my part. I no longer imagined God filling the gaps between my words; there was only vapor, tenuous and vacant. I looked up from the prayer book, wanting to capture one final snapshot in my mind's eye of this marvelous point of view before retreating forever to the back row.
Instead I saw the young rabbi sitting front and center, as promised. Her face was open and peaceful, lit with a smile, her eyes steady and solid with trust. Her gaze was like a rock I could latch onto and begin to scale, knowing my foot wouldn't slip. With each step I took a deeper breath, and was able to make a little more sound. I still wasn't really singing, but noticed that everyone else was. They beckoned me to join, and held me up and kept me safe as their voices washed over mine.