If you ever find yourself in a sea of black hats and varying shades of faded suits worn by men with beards of all shapes and sizes, you’ll know that if you squint your eyes and tilt your head, they all start to look alike. When I was still young enough to make my way through a maze of swaying legs to get to my father’s seat on the men’s side of my synagogue, I would often confuse someone else’s father for my own. Pulling on the wrong suit-pant leg, whispering “Tatty” in another man’s ear, I would turn a vibrant shade of red when I realized my mistake.

My childhood was scene after scene I would often confuse someone else’s father for my ownof these kinds of seas: wise-looking men who tugged on their beards, studying the dynastic teachings they so strongly believed in. Synagogues, kosher restaurants, Chutes and Ladders–like streets leading from the rabbi’s house, to the school and back. My childhood held symbolism with every action, meaning behind every word of the Torah that we studied, traditions that I was taught to treasure. We thrived on tradition, and every time my family drove through New York on a long and extended road trip, we stopped at the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s grave to pray.

It’s a strange concept, small children knowing the cracks in the path of a cemetery as well as they do in the one leading up to their grandmother’s house. Young men finding the girl they’re going to marry, and taking her to a graveyard to propose with the Rebbe’s blessing. Men with shapeless beards, faded black coats and intentionally non-leather shoes coming to cry real tears over handwritten letters. Sometimes we were there in January, with blue-tinted lips and icy patches of snow, and I would sit on my father’s lap, whispering in his ear what I wanted the Rebbe to pray for. In later years it was August, and the walls of the room sweated with us; I could barely hold on to the slippery pen in my hands. I was old enough to write my own letter then.

Somewhere between ages ten and twenty, this tradition faded. My parents divorced, and the only letters written were to judges and mediators; the only car trips were to downtown Chicago for court dates. My letters to the Rebbe stopped almost as soon as they began, and I turned my back on the kind and intense eyes staring down at me from the photos of him on the wall. I no longer found beauty in the hours spent writing, steps out into a silent cemetery, prayers and tears near two headstones. I found it eerie and lifeless, sad and depressing. On annual trips to New York with school, I would try and force myself to feel something. I would write about . . . the only letters written were to judges and mediatorsvisitation schedules and my wishes that I would make it to high school graduation. I would hastily scrawl down the names of my family, close my eyes, pray, and enter into the icy February air. I would try to picture the lively man from the videos I had grown up on—white beard and twinkling eyes, a strong voice and strange accent. I would try to picture him beneath scraps of paper and a headstone; I tried to imagine him underneath the ground. I never could.

Last month I went back. I brought my own prayerbook: worn, stained, used and familiar. I entered with confidence, washed each hand three times per tradition, and sat down at a table, curling my legs up beneath me. I wrote a letter to the Rebbe, asking him to pray with me. I wrote like I’m writing now: freely and with emotion. As I walked down the path that leads to his grave, I watched my warm breath curl out in front of me, concentrating on the echo of my footsteps in the empty night. I stayed as long my prayers allowed, focusing on familiar things: the stars above the open ceiling, the ink-stained scraps of paper in front of me. I allowed the eerie to be beautiful, the lifeless to be cause for prayer. I left thinking that I may not let years go by before I return.