High Holiday Liturgy Viewed Through the Lens of Depression

By Miriam A.G. Baumgartner

Imagine for a moment you live with depression. It is not a family member or loved one who has depression — you are the patient. You are suffering. You are in so much pain and your brain is so ill, you have thoughts of suicide. Next, consider the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: We are commanded to “choose life.” Teshuva, Tefilla and Tzedakah, repentance, prayer and charity, are your ticket to the Book of Life for another year.

What I have asked you to imagine, if that is even possible, was, yes that is past tense, my life. It is the life of so many who struggle with depression and other mental illnesses, especially during the holidays.

For 10 years or so, while my doctors struggled to find the right combination of treatments, I suffered terribly with depression and anxiety. My (Jewish) psychologist pointed out my illness generally got worse during the holidays.

It’s no wonder. Praying, asking for life, praying to be written and sealed in the book of life for another year, and forced to read “choose life” while I was so tempted to kill myself was beyond difficult. Nearly impossible is more accurate. My brain was too ill to see the liturgy as anything other than the words on the pages. I was not able to interpret, comprehend allegory or read anything in the spaces between the words.

My questions were silent. Why am I asking for another year of life? Is this really what I want? What’s the point? And choose life … do I have to? Why? Mine were the thoughts depression with suicidal ideation can cause.

Untaneh Tokef, the litany of how people will die, is still my least favorite prayer. I used to read the long list as a source of suicide plans. All I saw was ways to die. Now, with my illness controlled, I am able to appreciate its basic assumption that people will die during the year, and it’s not because they missed too many marks or didn’t repent, pray or give enough tzedakah during those 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe has written about prayer, “It means looking into yourself, determining the meaning of your life, finding out what really is of value.” That was not possible for me during the worst years of my uncontrolled depression. It is not possible for many people.

I have educated clergy regarding my personal history with this liturgy. One rabbi believed love, community, family, determination, medical treatments and counseling can restore life, meaning and laughter. I had all of that, and it was not enough.  We both learned liturgy, traditional words on paper, is stronger.

My doctors and I have since found the “secret sauce” that allows me to once again participate in society. I am now stable, thriving even. My life is not what it was before mental illness. I take my medications daily (Gabapentin), see my psychologist weekly and am no longer able to work professionally. I find joy in my volunteer work in the Jewish community. I find comfort in sharing my story and hope others will not suffer as I did. I am reminded of my past struggles daily and especially at this time every year. I am also reminded of how far I have come.

Miriam Baumgartner is a (New) Jersey girl living in Lancaster, Penn. Prior to her illness, Miriam worked at AT&T for many years, was vice president of her congregation and co-chaired, with her husband, several Federation Super Sunday events. Then she got sick and was not able to function in any capacity. Ten years later, she moved to Lancaster, and nobody knew what to expect. Since then, she has chaired congregational committees, was vice president of her congregation’s Sisterhood and served as president of Jewish Family Service of Lancaster. She is currently the board president of the Jewish Community Alliance of Lancaster, a JFNA Network Community. She, along with her husband, James, is a member of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster.

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