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Prayer is Work

            Walking into the synagogue for the third day in a row of Rosh Hashanah services (one evening and then two mornings), I yawned and said to Mom, this prayer thing is work. I actually do work at my synagogue, as a teacher, so there’s a blurring of the lines for me between work and prayer on a regular basis. But I was specifically referring to the exhaustion of dressing up, and spending hours standing and sitting and standing, and dealing with my endless social anxiety so that there was no energy left to do much else. But when I was flipping through the prayer book later that morning (and our prayer book for the High Holidays requires a lot of flipping to get from one prayer to the next, because if we tried to say every prayer in the book we’d be there all week), I saw the word Avodah, which means both work and worship, and I had an aha moment.

“Aha!”

            In the back of my mind, I knew that the word Avodah was used to refer to the animal sacrifices in the ancient temple days, and that after the second temple was destroyed, in 70 CE, the sacrifices were replaced with prayer, and therefore the word Avodah came to refer to prayer. But more often than not, the word Avodah, in Modern Hebrew, refers to work: like a nine to five job or a chore that needs to get done. Sitting there in the sanctuary, praying that we would remain seated for a few more minutes, I wondered, were our ancestors so low on vocabulary that this one word, Avodah, had to have two meanings, or was there more poetry in the dual usage?

In our modern world we tend to think of prayer as transcendent, and spiritual, and somewhere above our regular lives, but in traditional Judaism, prayer and ritual are grounded in everyday life. You wake up and say the Shma, you go to the bathroom and say a blessing, you wash your hands and say a blessing, you pray three times a day, in community or alone, and then you continue to say blessings all day long; it’s not separate from your real life at all – it is your life.

But I’m not traditional in that way, and I tend to experience prayer as an oasis I can escape to on Friday nights, on Zoom or in the sanctuary, with my community. Except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The long standing/sitting/standing intervals and the hours and hours of prayer definitely feel like work; but, also, still, transcendent. The work of prayer isn’t, usually, physical labor, but it does require us to stretch our minds to find the wonder in our world, and to search our hearts in order to develop our relationships with God and community.

And this year’s High Holidays were, if anything, more work than usual.

Cricket was not happy.

When the world seemed to open up last spring, we had so many plans for things to “go back to normal,” including having our High Holiday services in person. We were so sure we’d be rushing back to shul that the clergy planned for two or three seatings for morning services, to accommodate all of the vaccinated congregants and still allow for social distancing. But then came Delta. We tried to ignore it at first. We had choir rehearsals week after week, gradually putting our masks back on and sitting further apart, and then our re-opening committee said that not only couldn’t the choir sing, but no one except the clergy could sing in the sanctuary, even masked and vaccinated. And then people started to call in to the synagogue to say they would be watching services online instead of coming in person, to be safe, and, ironically, we were able to plan longer services, since we’d only need one seating for each service to accommodate those still willing to come in person.

            Mom and I decided to go in person instead of watching online, partly because Mom was asked to put on a one woman show in the social hall, to share her photographs and quilting and fiber art, just in time for the High Holidays, and partly because I was going to read my pawpaw essay on the first evening of Rosh Hashanah services.

            I was, of course, anxious about how many people would show up, and how the essay would be received, and how my reading would go (would I pause in the right places? Read too fast? Mumble too much? Fumble over my words?), but most of my anxiety was about how I would look. I’ve gained weight from my attempts at Intuitive Eating, and even on my best days I feel unpresentable, so I was afraid of putting myself up on the Bima in full view.

            I know, I know. It doesn’t sound like the right mindset for such a solemn and spiritual occasion – the beginning of the new Jewish year, the time to atone and make amends and return to the true path yada yada yada – I should be wearing all white with flowers in my hair and smiling beatifically, la la la.

            I felt honored to be asked to read, truly, and hopeful that people would get to know me better from hearing my essay, but… I was afraid. I forced myself to practice my “for the most part thinking,” as in, I will do my best to read my essay with appropriate drama and clarity and humor, and try to look up once in a while, but I can’t expect to be perfect or look perfect. I will try instead to be grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts, and accept that I will be nervous and self-conscious and therefore imperfect.

            I worked on that a lot, but I wasn’t especially convinced.

Ellie wasn’t convinced either.

            I was nervous all day before my reading, preparing my all back outfit and trying not to look in a mirror. That night, I wore a mask with pictures of dogs on it (over my KN95) to help me feel like the girls were with me, even though they couldn’t be in the sanctuary itself, and I planned to envision a crowd of dogs sitting in the first few rows of the sanctuary, heads tilted with interest as I read, though probably in the mistaken hope that I might say the word “chicken.”

            I walked up to the Bima when it was time, and placed my pages on the lectern, and told the small in-person crowd about the significance of my doggy mask and my imagined crowd of doggy listeners, and they laughed. And then, it went really well. I forgot to think about how I looked, and instead read my essay as if I didn’t know the end of the story ahead of time. I even looked up every once in a while and made eye contact with people in the sanctuary. And I remembered to mention that there was a picture of the pawpaw tree in the social hall, along with the rest of Mom’s beautiful artwork (hint, hint).

Part of Mom’s exhibit – Pawpaw tree is second to last on the right.
The Magic Garden Quilt
Dahlia Art Quilt
Dandelion Thread Painting
Chestnut Leaf Sunprint, with stitching
Mom with her photos and fiber art!

            And then I walked off the Bima and tried, and failed, to put my masks back on as I returned to my seat. It took me three tries to figure out that the reason the masks kept popping off my ear was because I had them upside down, with the nose clips at my chin.

But the response was lovely: lots of warm, kind comments. And then, we went on with the holiday. There was a two and a half hour service the next morning, and Tashlich at the water in the afternoon (the one service each year when congregational dogs are invited. Cricket had a great time sniffing other dogs, while Ellie hid behind my legs), and then there was another two and a half hour service the following morning. And when I finally got home on the afternoon of day three, knowing we wouldn’t have to go back until Yom Kippur, I felt like I could sleep through that whole week and still be exhausted from all of the emotional and physical work of prayer.

Mom and the girls, exhausted.

But saying that it felt like work doesn’t mean I regret it, or wish I’d just stayed home. Instead, it means that I put a lot of effort into something that is sacred to me. I pushed myself to be present, and I built more spiritual muscles in the process.

Yom Kippur, a week later, was, as usual, even harder. The services were longer and there were more of them in a shorter period of time. I didn’t fast, but I went to all of the services and did all of the standing/sitting/standing calisthenics. I switched to sneakers, not so much to avoid leather (one of the things traditional Jews avoid for Yom Kippur) but because my feet hurt, a lot. Yom Kippur requires more standing, and more chest beating and introspection, and repentance. The music was beautiful, and mournful, though, and we were told to hum along with the Cantor as he sang in full voice, standing even longer than the rest of us.

I was asked to do a reading at the concluding service on Yom Kippur, a poem by Yehuda Amichai this time, and I did my best to read it as if the words were my own, as if it were as much a part of me as the essay I read at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, ten days earlier.

By the end of everything I felt like I’d been hit by a truck, and I still felt guilty for all of the ways I’d cut corners (not fasting, avoiding some of the more penitent prayers in favor of my own thoughts), but overall I felt like I’d done my best. I’d made the most of the opportunity to be present with my community, and within myself, and I was grateful to be finished with the work, for a while, and to be able to rest and let it all settle in.

Did I come to any exciting revelations about my health, my body, my spirituality, or my future from all of that prayer? I’m not sure yet. But I put in the work, and I took a few small steps forward; and, really, every step is worth taking, even if it’s not clear, in the moment, where it will take me.

The girls are ready for whatever comes next, as long as it’s a walk.

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.

107 responses »

  1. What a beautiful post about your commitment and work you put into these holy days. I feel like I took a few steps forward this year as well.

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  2. Rachel–it sounds like you did great!! If you can get your audience to laugh with you–they are yours! I was so happy reading this. And your mom’s show–wow! What talent! Now, rest and be proud of yourself.

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  3. So much important self-reflection, Rachel. Well done. And I love your mother’s quilts and fibre art.

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  4. What a beautiful meditation on the meaning of commitment to the solemnity and humanity of collective prayer. I am not Jewish but Quaker, and the work to focus on meditation rather than “how do I look” or “did anyone get what I was saying” or “ how long can I sit still” is the same. We just do our best as mere mortals. It sounds like despite your insecurities you found the strength from your faith to observe your holy days with humility, grace and attention. Blessings to you!

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  5. Your mom is such a talented artist! You’re such a talented writer, I bet you’re a wonderful speaker and that no one picks up on your nerves! (I always feel like I’m shaking violently and stammering but a friend took a video once and I wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought.)

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  6. I think you did very well. Having to stand up and speak in front of even a small crowd is not easy. Your Mothers art work is lovely thanks for sharing the photos of it. And finally…the idea that life is a life of prayers and blessings is a wonderful one.

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  7. I’ve learned plenty from your blogs about Judaism and what it takes to be fully committed to its practice. Thanks again for staying informed about my blogs. Our next road-trip starts 9/30.

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  8. First of all, I’m happy for you that your doggy masks broke the ice and that you had more confidence in yourself as you went through your presentation. Second, I adore your lovely dogs! Third, your mom’s quilts are amazing!

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  9. You did great!! Your mom’s work is lovely and your dogs are so very cute.

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  10. Loved this post! Your mom’s art was amazing, and she looks to be as fun as her lovely work! You are lucky to have her as not only your mom but also your friend.
    But my most favorite words in your post tonight were High Holidays because I had a dear older Jewish friend 20 years ago who told me about her going to Florida every year for the High Holidays when she was younger. She stayed in the same hotel in Miami, and apparently many other friends of hers stayed there as well. They attended synagogue together – anyway, thank you for the High Holidays. They brought back wonderful memories of a really special person in my life: Libby Levinson.
    Our granddaughter has several school holidays this month during the High Holidays – I’m not sure if she knows why she isn’t going but she’s disappointed. She asks for “school? school?”

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  11. A wonderful post. Delighted that your readings and your mother’s exhibit were such great successes. You really knocked yourselves out. Bravo!

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  12. I loved seeing your mother’s beautiful handiwork!

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  13. Having read your blog for months, I had no doubt that your writing would be enthusiastically received, but performing well in spite of anxiety–that is a completely different matter all together. Well done!

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  14. Well the girls certainly look very cute in these pictures and the quilts are lovely. I’m so glad you put yourself out there. Eye contact very important. Proud of you, Rachel!

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  15. Sounds as if you made real progress and those holy days sound tough, interesting but tough.

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  16. I should also add that the art work was amazing.

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  17. A powerful post with a real insight into your special time of year, but also what it takes to open up oneself in front of others. Your mother’s art looks beautiful.

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  18. Your mother is a skilled artisan–her creations are lovely. You have inherited those abilities and manifest them in words and work.

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  19. The quilts are gorgeous!! Too bad they don’t sell here! I would buy one.

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  20. You have my respect for putting in the hard work necessary to feel genuinely connected to your religion and its community. I’m sure many don’t bother. Congratulations to your mum on her excellent craft work. The tree is wonderful.
    Best wishes to you both, and the dogs, from England
    Pete.

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  21. A good word; congratulations on the reading; splendid art work.

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  22. Your mom’s artwork looks magical! ◟(◔ั₀◔ั )◞ ༘❤️

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  23. The High Holidays are a lot of work and they are exhausting. I’ll admit that for me, I’ve allowed Rosh Hashanah to become a holiday of family shenanigans and while I go to synagogue in my hometown, the focus of the holiday is on spending time with family; I feel that I direct little mental energy to the personal prayers. Yom Kippur, spent at the congregation I joined as an adult where I live now, felt like work in a different sense. I was giving a d’var Torah, reading Jonah, cognizant of all the logistics running smoothly as I am on the congregation board, etc., such that I also devoted relatively little energy to the prayer itself. I don’t have a resolution, but I do think that the work of introspection and prayer is a lot of work, more work than people give it credit for.
    That’s awesome about your pawpaw essay and your mom’s artwork!

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  24. Thanks for sharing. It was such an interesting read. Your perspective and experiences on prayer and how you reconcile all that ritual into something truly important to you is so relatable🙂

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  25. When I started reading this, St. Benedict came to mind and his ideas of Ora and Labora (Prayer and work), the foundation of Benedictine community life. I loved seeing your mom’s art work–she is very talented. And so are you, Rachel. Well done on reading your essay in spite of anxiety. When I am public speaking, I start by telling myself that people want me to succeed, that they are cheering for me to do well.

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  26. Your home shelters artists and dogs!

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  27. Rachel, thanks for this thoughtful post. I think prayer is also a way for the person praying to just talk about their troubles, which is therapeutic, in and of itself. There is actually data per Charles DuHigg’s book “Habit,” that AA participants who are religious tend to have better results with AA than those who are not. DuHigg’s claims it is more due to people believing in something more than themselves helps them deal with their alcoholic demons. Keith

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    • There’s this idea of “a canopy of peace” that comes up a lot in our prayers and it really refers to the way we are connected to each other and offer protection to each other. I think that’s what prayer and belief in God and time spent consistently in community, in whatever way works for us, can create.

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  28. Your Mom is an incredible artist! I know you are very proud of her and you have every right to be.

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  29. Prayer is work but well worth it. Keep praying

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  30. Wonderful artwork Rachel. Your Mum is a very talented lady.

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  31. Over the last four months, I’ve been reading/listening to a lot of books on prayer and enjoying much more time in prayer. Praying through the Word of God and writing prayers has been helpful

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  32. Your mom’s work is so beautiful! Talent runs in the family…

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  33. It’s evident that you worked very hard. Congratulations on two busy, productive high holidays.

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  34. Yes, “every step is worth taking.”
    A beautiful account of prayer as work.
    Your mom’s fiber art is beautiful as well.

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  35. Prayer, and all the practice involved with religion is indeed work. It would be nice to be able to take a time machine back to the past to know the original translations of religious text. I really like your mom’s artwork.
    Art

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  36. knowledgeosinachi

    Prayer is more worth then every other things

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  37. Good for you for doing the readings. We had planned to go to in-person services, but switched last minute to virtual. They weren’t recommending elderly come and my father-in-law is almost 91.

    You’re mom’s work is beautiful. Is she going to do a paw paw quilt?

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  38. Love the link between prayer and work. I like to think about the words “pray without ceasing.”

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  39. I am so glad that you overcame all those nasty voices inside and went ahead with reading, not once but twice. I hope you read Anne Lamott and realize how common all of your thoughts are. She gives us all permission to know what we know and feel what we feel, abilities unavailable when living under constant threat growing up.

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  40. I love the quilt work! Looks so fantastic👀💕✨

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  41. Well done, Rachel! And your Mom’s artwork is lovely. ❤

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  42. I was asked to work at a couple of the earlier services this year, and I got to actually see and experience much of what you wrote — the long services, the up and down in the seat, and the other “mechanics.” What suprised me, though, was that people would get up and move around (having nothing to do with the service) and talk to each other, come late, leave early, etc. It’s a Conservative synagogue. Do people do that at your synagogue’s services? No one at my church would dream of doing those things, but maybe it’s because of the length of the service…

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    • We didn’t have much of that this year, but there’s usually a group of people hanging out in the lobby rather than the sanctuary. A lot of people come to high holiday services to see friends they haven’t seen in a year rather than to pray. As long as they’re not disrupting the services it’s kind of in the spirit of being with community, however works best for each person. I used to go to an orthodox synagogue where the women are separated from the men, and the talking and arriving late were much more pronounced there.

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  43. I’m glad your readings went well. I appreciate how you change things a bit here and there, in how you live your faith beliefs. I very much enjoyed the pics of all the artwork, and seeing your mom is a treat!

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  44. Gorgeous quilt art! As for prayer, it can be as simple and easy as saying, “Thank You, Jesus,” during the day. God hears with or without all the standing, sitting, tradition, and “work.” That’s good to know and a great comfort. God bless you.

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  45. But saying that it felt like work doesn’t mean I regret it, or wish I’d just stayed home. Instead, it means that I put a lot of effort into something that is sacred to me. I pushed myself to be present, and I built more spiritual muscles in the process.—I love that so much and want to have that kind of commitment too!

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  46. One can only ever do their best. 🙂

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  47. Your mom’s artwork looks so beautiful.

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  48. A very beautiful post! As are your mom’s quilts and fiber art! You’re both very creative! I was off social media, due to health issues, and missed your blog! Sending hugs and love to all of you!❤️

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  49. This is a beautiful piece Rachel, both the words and the images. High Art! Thank you for posting it.

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