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The Mumble Grumble Prayers

            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.

“We can hear you, Mommy.”

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?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

68 responses »

  1. I believe He hears us, even when we don’t or can’t put our hearts into words. What a wonderful thing to help a child learn.

  2. Asking your students to explain it to you is an excellent teaching technique. This was a really interesting post to me, because prayer tends not to be as structured in the Catholic church (which I don’t really belong to any more). When I was a little girl we knelt with Dad and said the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, then we could add “our own prayer.” Dad told me that “God help us to get a dog” was not a good prayer.

  3. I love the description “mumble grumble”. We Aussies make fun of ourselves because on any given public occasion, our national anthem is distinctly mumble-grumble (oh, what a great oxymoron!). 🙂

  4. You are indeed lucky to have that background. I love the opportunity to give meaning to the next generation. You are obviously a very dedicated, caring, teacher.

  5. I can relate a little bit. I was raised in a religion that follows some of the Jewish beliefs, like sabbath and dietary restrictions. I was also taught that you must have the “correct beliefs, which of course, only they think they have. I no longer consider myself that religion. I spent some time searching for a “new” church”, and still thought I needed to find a church that had the “correct beliefs”. I stumbled onto “messianic judaism” at one point. I read that most Jews don’t consider it to be Jewish. Care to share thoughts on that?
    (I ended up going to a Baptist church, one that gave me a “good feeling” of God’s presence I hadn’t really experienced. But I fell away from attending church, again.)

    • I think the most important thing is to find people who offer you comfort and understanding, if it’s within a specific religion, great, if not, great. Life is hard and we need all the help we can get.

  6. A terrific post!
    As a Congregational minister, I struggle with the same issue, but with grown ups. BTW, I have two “go to” prayers each morning. The first is Psalm 25:1 – O LORD, I give my life to you. I trust in you, my God!
    The second, I borrowed from Nadia Bolz-Weber: Dear God, don’t let me be an asshole today.
    They both work well.

  7. It looks to me like the dogs are wondering when you’re going to stop with all this mumble grumble and start paying attention to the.

  8. Angela@eatlivehappy

    I believe God sees and hears all. You are doing great works teaching these children.

  9. I am so excited to learn about the Nigunim Ensemble! Thank you!

  10. Being seriously involved in religion seems to be to be a complicated affair indeed. So much of it appears to be based on ‘guilt’. Perhaps another reason why I have never been religious.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  11. When I was a child I recited this prayer every night: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I don’t remember thinking about the dying part at the time (I was probably just mouthing words), but now I think that’s a scary thing to put in a little kid’s head!

  12. Giving one the why of a thing, is to give the big picture. Yes, as harrumph doggie knows, it does require the capability to grasp, often age dependent. But if it is bought into, it liberates and exhilarates, making the desired package easier to attain.

  13. You make such an important point. So many people who believe they are “religious” do not realize that it is the meaning of prayer that matters (not the verbiage).

    • Honestly, I think we all find meaning in different ways. Music is the avenue that works best for me, but some people find it more through movement, or math, or visual arts. The hope is that we all get to find our way instead of being stuck in the wrong place.

  14. I am partial to Anne Lamott’s three prayers: Help, Thanks, Wow. I also like Joan Baez singing “I believe in God and God ain’t us!” Great thoughts about prayer and obligation. I find prayer a necessity rather than an obligation so am grateful that people like Lamott can boil it down to simple words which is sometimes all I can get out.

  15. I think sometimes when it seems God is not listening, his/her answer has been either “no” or “not yet.”

  16. Great post. I wish my Hebrew school teachers had spent more time on what the prayers meant.

  17. Curious…on a scale of 1 to Klingon, how difficult is it to learn Hebrew? Assume 1 is learning Spanish for speakers of other romance languages.

  18. An interesting article… Love your sweet puppy dogs!!

  19. Hmm, zombie prayer. I guess everyone needs prayer (though I know it’s a doctrinal point being made). Prayer should be meaningful, but there’s something to be said for ritual, too. It’s the communal point you’re making, I believe. If we know the liturgy, then we can all take part, which is good.

    I think a few generations ago, a generation of young people, educated and curious (and not wanting to go to Vietnam), asked their parents and other oldsters why we did certain things. Why are we patriotic? Why do we go to church? Why is civil authority important? And there were deeper questions, such as why does one race treat another abysmally? And the parent generation, not as well-educated and tired from enduring two World Wars and a secret war in Korea (and another in Vietnam), didn’t know exactly what to say beyond, We do these things because we’re supposed to and because they have been done for a long time. Now enjoy all the safety and the prosperity we have. Which did not satisfy the inquiring youth. And an age of protest began.

    And with that, many traditional things became undone. And a new dichotomy was made between traditionalists on one side, hanging onto things, and progressives on the other, wanting reason and purpose to influence what we have and do, old or new. With a preference for the new. And here we are. Shall we dismantle traditions that don’t make sense or are unexplainable? Maybe. Shall we keep traditions because they define us and give the community direction? Maybe. Are ages-old values worth it anymore? Or should we re-create the world and what’s important in it every day?

    I’m happy you appreciate traditional forms and also finding the meaning in them. And you want your learners to have these, too (forms plus their meanings). I’m sorry your own learning was cut short or compressed, especially because you were one of the girls. See, that’s a tradition that should change. Well, should end and be over-written by a directive that appreciates human value with absolute equanimity.

    Sorry, I’ve gone on. I hope you and the puppies and all your family are well. I hope your week is off to a good start.

  20. Your last sentence is a particularly beautiful one.

  21. Beautiful ❤️ post !!

  22. 🙂 Church lady prayer tend to be pretty free form. “Help, Lord!” is one of my favorites! Blessings, Rachel.

  23. Rachel…I nominated you for the Liebster Award.

  24. You seem the perfect teacher for the little ones. Growing up conservative, I always say that I can pray for hours but don’t know what I am saying. It was not until after I was BatMitzvah and went to the Rabbi’s class did we even start to explore deeper meaning. Helping people of any age find meaning behind words and action is an excellent pursuit. I don’t believe that obligation and sacrifice was really the greater plan. I think that is the patrearchical interpretation. Stay well.

  25. A good insight into prayer in your faith and I guess there are some reflections in other faiths. Christians listening to services and prayers in Latin when they had no understanding of the language, then of course along came the reformation and singing and praying in their own languages. But of course even in your own language you can utter the words by rote while thinking what you will have for Sunday dinner. The many breakaways and new churches started over the years reflect a desire to pray in ‘your own words’ and really mean it! Perhaps the ultimate in the Christian tradition would be the Quakers, Society of Friends, where there is no need to speak at all, just silent contemplation. Of course eastern religions of various kinds have long been practising meditation.

  26. What an interesting post! Not only was I shaking my head in agreement, but you taught me a few things about prayers in Judaism. Thanks so much.


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