One of my jobs as a synagogue school teacher is to teach my students how to pray, but sometimes I worry that I’m the wrong person for the job. I grew up going to a Conservative Jewish day school, where half of each school day was spent on Hebrew language, and Jewish history and customs, and prayers. But I don’t remember actively learning the why behind the prayers. I learned how to sing the prayers, and which prayers and blessings to say when, but the Kavanah, the intention, was most often left for last, or for never.
The assumption, I think, was that little kids couldn’t understand the deeper meaning yet, but by seventh grade I’d switched over to an Orthodox school where there was a sudden descent into the mumble grumble form of prayer. We didn’t focus on the music of the prayers much anymore, instead we gave value to the words of the prayers, with a requirement to read or say every single word. The problem was that the girls were given very little time to say the morning prayers, and it was mumble grumble, or nothing. Even at my most fluent, I couldn’t have even skimmed the Hebrew of the prayers in the short time allotted to us, though many of my classmates were able to do it, and even seemed to feel something. In orthodoxy, our teachers told us, the belief was that if we did the right things, and read the right things, and said the right things, we would become good Jews, even if we never understood the why of any of it. But for me, that method didn’t work.
I’m only responsible for teaching the kids a few prayers each year in synagogue school, which gives us time to learn the tunes, and the words (often in transliteration), but most of all the intention behind each prayer, which meant that I needed to know what those were; and in some ways I had to start from scratch. I did my research and reading, but most of my learning came from going to services myself. At my synagogue we learn a lot of different versions of the prayers, to emphasize different ways of looking at the words and meaning, but even when we use the same version over and over, we often stop to read a poem or hear a story first, to shed new light on the purpose of the particular prayer. And that has given me a lot of material to share with the kids, but, more often than not, I ask the kids if they can explain it to me.
For example, the Mishaberach is a prayer for wishing someone healing from physical or emotional pain, so we spend some time talking about how a prayer might be able to comfort us, or give us strength, even if we don’t believe that God is answering our wishes directly. And when we look at the words of the Ve’shamru, a prayer we say on Friday nights to remind us of the obligation to celebrate Shabbat, I’ll ask them why we might need, or want, a reminder in the form of a prayer every week, especially one that we say after the Sabbath has already started. And then we can look at the Modeh Ani, one of the weekday morning prayers, in which we thank God for letting us wake up in the morning, returning our souls to us after a night in God’s safe keeping (go ahead, try to teach that concept to children without accidentally referencing zombies, I dare you).
A lot of this focus on creating meaning is due to the fact that most progressive Jews (Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Conservative, etc.) don’t feel obligated to pray. In orthodoxy, you are supposed to accept the burden of obligation, in rituals, and daily behaviors, long before you ever learn the why behind the what, which is what makes mumble grumble prayer a help to them. In progressive Judaism the why always comes first, because many of the obligations have been made voluntary, which has its own risks.
Sometimes I worry that my synagogue school students are missing out by spending so little time on their Jewish education each week. I wouldn’t have been able to fill my brain with so much of the how of Judaism, and the history of Judaism, without half of each day of my childhood being set aside for learning how to be Jewish. And I feel lucky to have the background I have, and the wealth of information to tap into. My hope is that, in the time my students and I have together, they will learn to see the obligations of their religious community as more than worth the gifts they will get in return, especially because there are so many fewer obligations in Progressive Jewish life. And maybe this lighter touch will keep them from falling into the mumble grumble form of religion, where the obligations drown out the inspirations.
In my ongoing search for ways help the kids to feel connected to the prayers, I went to a Zoom presentation by the founders of a musical group called the Nigunim Ensemble, based in Israel. They have created new versions of old prayers, incorporating chants and new rhythms from Arab, Persian, and popular Israeli music. Their message to our Zoom class was that the Jewish world can, and should, widen its ideas of prayer music, not only to include more people in our community, but to add more layers of emotion to the experience of prayer. And I was excited by all of the new sounds they were introducing to us, but for me, the message that came through most strongly was the sense of joy I heard in their voices. And I realized that not only singing good music, but singing in community, allows me to feel heard and accepted, as I am. And, when I feel heard by my community, I start to think that maybe God can hear me too.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?