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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.

“Harrumph.”

 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.

“Huh?”

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).

“Zombies?!”

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?

Shabbat Morning

 

Shabbat is the weekly Jewish holiday of rest. It starts at sundown on Friday and ends after sundown on Saturday. The theoretical, biblical, reason for a day of rest is, of course, that God created the world in six days and therefore took a well-earned break on day seven. But really we all need a day of rest each week, even if we didn’t create a whole world by ourselves. (I’m pretty sure I need more than one day of rest in seven, but this isn’t the time to quibble).

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Cricket believes in resting seven days out of seven.

I grew up going to synagogue every Saturday morning, first for junior congregation with the other kids, and later to the adult services, which lasted two and a half hours and ended with Slivovitz (plum brandy) and gefilte fish. But it’s been a long time since I went to synagogue regularly on Saturday mornings. Instead, I go on Friday nights, because my synagogue is more of a Friday night kind of place. We only have Saturday morning services when there’s a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to celebrate, or a holiday that falls on Shabbat. So, for a long time now, I’ve treated Saturday like, well, any other day. A day to do chores, make appointments, get my work done, etc. I took the time out for Friday night services as my weekly celebration of Shabbat and felt like that was enough.

I didn’t realize that I was really missing those Saturday mornings until I started to teach Synagogue school on Saturday mornings at my synagogue and was able to sit in on the children’s service. We all sat together in the first few rows in the sanctuary, with the Rabbi sitting right in front of us and leading us through the short service in a very relaxed, informal sort of way. When we read the morning blessings, the Rabbi asked everyone to share a recent accomplishment, or an exciting event coming up, or a difficult problem we needed support with, and the kids raised their hands. They shared about their new braces, and trips to Disneyworld, or New Jersey, and injured wrists, and newborn siblings. I didn’t have the nerve to speak up, but their openness inspired me. It was prayer as a chance to check in with our community and ourselves, and take a deep breath (or ten) and feel the natural holiness that we bring with us into the room.

And then we drank grape juice and tore through Challahs (really, these kids can do some real damage to a very large loaf of bread), and went to class. The mood of Saturday morning class is so different from the after-school rowdiness of synagogue school earlier in the week. We can meander through a discussion and hear from everyone more fully, and share our outside interests in music and Lego and animals and bring them into the discussion of the Torah lesson for the day, knitting together the ordinary and the holy.

Shabbat was hard for me growing up, because Shabbat was one of the battlegrounds my father chose to fight over. He made us walk six miles to the orthodox synagogue, and he stopped us from watching television or doing homework. The day became a wasteland, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, because we didn’t live in a Jewish community with other people in the same situation. And it wasn’t restful at all. It didn’t feel holy or sacred to replace the toilet paper in the bathroom with tissues, just to avoid ripping paper on Shabbat, or to cover the light switches with plastic to keep from turning the lights on and off; it felt more like prison.

For years now, I’ve had therapy on Saturday mornings – either group or individual – and I accepted that I couldn’t go to Saturday morning services at a synagogue, because I knew that therapy was more important. But I realized that I liked this Shabbat School version of Saturday morning prayers. I liked that it didn’t take hours, and we didn’t have to dress up, and we did get to talk, a lot, about our actual lives. This past week the cantor ran the children’s service, and we all sat in a circle-like clump on the floor to sing along with him and his guitar, and then to breathe together, and then dance together, and I thought, yeah, I could do this every week. If only my dogs could be invited.

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“I wanna go!”

Cricket and Ellie know all about rest and holy time, and they don’t need as many memory aides as humans do to help them get to that peaceful, connected place. They just need the birds singing to them in the morning, and the air filled with smells from near and far, and a few chicken treats and cuddles. Though I really would love to see Ellie dancing along with the kids at Shabbat school, and she would love to share their Challah. Cricket would probably steal the whole challah and hide it under the ark, where only she and the rabbi could find it. But they’d probably enjoy that too, hunkering down in the sanctuary to share bread.

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“Did you say Challah?!”

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“I could eat.”

What’s a community for, really, if not to take time out to share good food, and sing, and maybe even dance?

 

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?

 

 

100 Blessings a Day

 

Recently, apropos of something else, my Rabbi mentioned that there is a custom in Jewish life to try and say one hundred blessings a day. Of course, I had to look this up right away. Despite a childhood in Jewish day schools, I had never heard of this one – which means nothing, really, because there’s too much for any one person to learn in a lifetime, let alone in elementary or high school.

There are text-based reasons for the choice of one hundred as the magical number of blessings, but that’s not what interested me. I tend to think you can find text based excuses for anything if you try hard enough. But the idea of one hundred blessings sounds whole and beautiful and challenging enough to encourage the kind of gratitude Oprah used to talk about with her gratitude journals. Saying a blessing is more than just gratitude, it’s a way to make yourself aware of the world around you.

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“Only a hundred blessings? Not a problem.”

The more Orthodox websites said that you could meet your hundred blessings a day quota simply by saying the three set prayer services (morning, afternoon, and evening prayers), plus blessings over meals and handwashing, and you’re golden. But, what if you are a liberal Jew and not up to praying three times a day? Can you still reach an adequate blessing count?

I feel too resentful saying many of the blessings in Hebrew, especially in the formal language of the prayer book, but what if I could make up my own blessings, about the many things that really do jar me from the mundane into the extraordinary every day?

If you are somewhat compulsive in the handwashing arena, you could knock off dozens of blessings a day on that. You could get a lot of blessings in by hanging out with a friend who has allergies and saying Gezuntheit (God Bless You) every time she sneezes. You could eat many small meals a day, to have the chance to say blessings over food over and over again: Thank you God for this Jelly bean that I am about to eat; Thank you God for this piece of chocolate that has saved me from yelling at strangers in the parking lot.

How about: Thank you God for this medication that lowers my blood pressure and keeps my heart pumping; or, Thank you God for this crossword puzzle that allows me to not think about Donald Trump for ten whole minutes; or, Thank you God for the smile on my puppy dog’s face when I say the word “chicken.”

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“Chicken?”

Trying to come up with one hundred blessings a day forces you to think about what you really feel grateful for on a daily basis. There are formal Hebrew blessings for tons of things: for fruit, bread, wine, and cake; for thunder and rainbows; and for the ability to go to the bathroom (Blessed are you, Lord, Our God, King of the universe who created man with many openings…if one of them were to be ruptured or blocked it would be impossible to survive).

Here’s one of mine:

Thank you God, the Universe, and Mother Nature, for the water I drink, the food I eat, the bed I sleep in, and the puppies who make me laugh every single day.

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Amen.

A Prayer for Healing

 

I have been very anxious lately, about the start of my social work internship and my research class, both of which I’ve been dreading since before I applied to graduate school. I haven’t found much that helps with the anxiety. Anti-anxiety meds like Xanax and Valium just wipe me out, meditation makes me more anxious, exercise is good, but leaves me exhausted. I’ve gotten better at asking for help from the people around me, but there’s just so much they can do. When you have no control, what can you do but pray?

Part of me really does believe that prayers sent out to God do reach some energy in the universe. It’s an imperfect system, like tweeting out to the world at large and hoping that the right person, who may not even be on twitter, hears you. But there’s a chance, and it’s better than not sending the message at all. I don’t believe that God puts my request on a list and then decides whether or not I deserve the help I want. I believe that somehow my message ping pongs around the universe, and if I’m lucky, it snowballs and connects with other energies and comes back to me in some form, hopefully something helpful.

I pray for my dogs all the time. I used to pray for Cricket to find comfort and calm. I would put my prayers into her scratching sessions, hoping that the practical behaviors I could do for her would be transformed into something more. And I am always praying for Butterfly – that she will have a good life, that her heart will last a bit longer – and I believe that my prayers work for her. Butterfly is a very good vessel for prayer, because she absorbs energy into her body and spirit without much of a defense system, whereas Cricket is more circumspect and “rational.” It is harder for Cricket to hear the prayers said for her, and to absorb the love sent her way, because there is so much interference – so much static in her system. But she still needs the good energy to be sent her way, even if only one prayer out of a thousand gets through her tough hide.

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“Do prayers come with chicken treats?”

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“I refuse to be healed. Deal with it.”

The cantor at my synagogue was ill this summer (don’t worry, he’s better now) and had to take months off from work. He spent a great deal of time alone, but, he said, because of all of the people in the congregation who reached out to him, and all of the people he knew were thinking of him and praying for him, he never felt like he was alone. This is what prayer can do. Just knowing that someone is praying for you on a regular basis can be healing, and make you feel cared for and safe.

And reaching out to God ourselves can make us feel less alone, even when we are physically alone. It reminds us of the human beings who wrote the prayers, of the people who taught us those prayers, of the times we have prayed together, and of all of the people who may be saying those same prayers at the same time all around the world. There’s a humility to prayer, a recognition that we can’t solve everything on our own, and are not expected to. Reminding ourselves of that on a regular basis can be healing in itself.

I think dogs pray too. First they ask directly for what they want: a walk, a treat, attention. But when the request is denied, or when they are left alone – when they feel powerless – I think they must pray the way we do. Like Butterfly picking up one of my socks when I was a way at the hospital, and carrying it in her mouth. The sock could be seen as a transitional object, as a way for her to hold onto me and feel close to me – or it could be seen as a prayer, that she would soon see me again.

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“Where’s Mommy?”

Cricket talks to God all the time with her barking. She isn’t so much telling me, or Mom, that danger is at the door, she is calling on God to protect her family. And most of the time, God seems to come through for her, so, it works!

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“Of course God listens to me. I am Cricket, and I am always right.”

Music is the best delivery system for prayer, because it reaches our hearts so much more quickly than words alone. It works especially well when we pray in groups, because it brings all of those heartbeats into the same rhythm, the same space, so that not only can you hear the words being spoken to you, you can feel everyone in the room coming together.

Ever since the cantor’s illness this summer, and the string of national and international disasters that have been overwhelming everyone, my synagogue has returned to the practice of singing a healing prayer at the end of Friday night services. People have found great comfort in singing it together, and saying the names of loved ones in need of healing, out loud or silently. I want it to work for me, but it doesn’t. Maybe the problem is that I don’t believe that my anxiety is worthy of a healing prayer, or maybe my hide is just as tough as Cricket’s and it will take a lot more prayer to get through. We are related, after all.

 

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“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”

Mourner’s Kaddish

I have felt, for a long time now, that I have mourning to do, without the rituals with which to do it. My grandfather died when I was eight years old and I was not required, or even allowed, to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for him. I have lost dogs, but there is no ritual of Jewish mourning for a dog. There is also no mourning ritual after a betrayal or divorce. There are rituals for birth, coming of age, marriage, and death, but there are more events in life than that.

Delilah at the beach.

Delilah at the beach.

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Dina loved peanut butter.

The Mourners Kaddish is not actually about death, it is about reiterating faith in God. The prayer is mostly in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew. I never studied ancient Aramaic, so I only really understand this prayer because of the English translation. But the sound of the words, sung or spoken, has power, maybe because it sounds different from the largely Hebrew prayers in the rest of the service. It’s almost like the words have magic because of their otherness, as if secrets are hidden within them.

My favorite line of the prayer is a long list of the types of praise we offer. From the Artscroll Siddur: “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed is He beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation that are uttered in the world.”

It sounds better in the Aramaic, but it’s this long list of the ways we express love. And yes, we say them about God, but I think of them as being about us, about each other. These are all of the ways we experience and express our love for each other – with glory or comfort, with praise or song, and yet we can never capture all of that love in words because it is beyond the words we have available to describe it. So, yes, we are being reminded to have faith in God at our lowest moment, when we might feel as if God has forsaken us, but for me, it is a moment to acknowledge the love we still feel for the person we have lost, and for the people we still have.

Cricket, giving thanks for a leaf.

Cricket, giving thanks for a leaf.

Butterfly, in silent prayer, for chicken.

Butterfly, in silent prayer, for chicken.

The Mourner’s Kaddish can only be said with a quorum (ten Jews, some congregations still count only men) as part of the service. People who would otherwise say a hasty version of their morning prayers at home before work, will, for the year of mourning, make a point of finding an early service at their own or another synagogue, and hope that at least ten people will show up in time.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is said at the end of the service, not at the beginning, and I can think of a couple of reasons for this: one, so that the mourners will stay for the whole service in order to maintain the quorum and allow for all of the communal prayers to be said; and two, because there is healing energy in being there for the regular daily prayers, with your community, and in deep mourning you may not be able to believe that and choose it for yourself if it were not required.

At my current congregation the custom is, basically, for mourners to stand and the rest of us to sit, for the Mourner’s Kaddish. But over the years the instructions have become more convoluted and the rabbi has had to come up with a paragraph-long list of instructions: if you are in a period of mourning, or have a yahrzeit (the anniversary of the death of a loved one), or are supporting a friend who is in mourning, or think this is a good time to stand and remember…

Earlier in the service, a shortened version of the same prayer is sung, rather than spoken (as it is for the Mourner’s Kaddish) and the feeling is more joyful and light, with the same exact words. It seems to me that using the same prayer for both purposes is a way to gently remind mourners that they used to sing this song, and some day they will again. Until then, they will speak the words with the community, be part of and apart from them, and know that they are seen and that they are not alone.

Most of Jewish ritual is meant to be practical. When it’s not practical, it is either out of date for its original purpose, or the practical purpose is a little more hidden and requires some time and repetition to discover. So I wonder what the ancient rabbis meant by leaving other losses unritualized and unmourned. Maybe some of the prayers just didn’t make it into the canon, or were lost along the way. Maybe one day there will be an excavation of a little town outside of Jerusalem, and inside of an ancient stone dog house they will find the lost book of prayers for how to mourn a beloved dog. I think a lot of people would appreciate that.

I found this stone dog house online. I especially like the potted plant in the window.

I found this stone dog house online. I especially like the potted plant in the window.

Synagogue Dogs

            I wish that my dogs could participate at my synagogue. Yes, Cricket is obstreperous and barky and disruptive, but I’d like to believe that there is something in the music of prayer and the solemnity of the service that would help calm her and give her some relief, the way it does for me. The Rabbi and Cantor at my synagogue like to sing harmonies. I think that was the clincher for me when we visited the synagogue last year and decided to join, the way the music was like a conversation between the two of them.

            It would be nice to have an acknowledgment that dogs are members of our families, especially for people like me who don’t have children, or husbands or wives. We get left out of community rituals that would allow us to feel more whole and welcome.

And sometimes, I just feel like I want Butterfly to be sitting on my lap, so I won’t feel so strange to myself in this strange place that isn’t home. She would be my therapy dog, for when I start to twitch and shake and feel self conscious about being in public.

Butterfly, in silent prayer.

Butterfly, in silent prayer.

 Butterfly’s presence would calm and relax the people around her, except for the occasional stress peeing. And then there would be one less place my dogs would be barred from going. It’s already painful for them that they can’t go to the supermarket.

            My synagogue is Reconstructionist and one of their prime directives is to be inclusive of all kinds of people. People, but not dogs? They’ve broken down barriers for intermarried couples and gay couples and women in leadership. Shouldn’t there be some way to break the prejudice against my dogs?

At Friday night services, people wear casual clothes. I started out wearing black dress pants and high heeled boots, because I thought I should, but now I wear jeans and sneakers. There is an aging population at services and they are very accepting of each other’s limitations. They understand the need to be there instead of alone. This is the kind of place that could welcome dogs.

            I would have loved there to be a service to welcome Butterfly into our family. I picture something like the Lion King scene where Simba is introduced to the community, raised up high. I would have liked the Rabbi to hold Butterfly up on the pulpit and say a blessing over her and announce her name to the congregation.

Butterfly's naming pose

Butterfly’s naming pose

When Cricket is sick, it would be nice to be able to go to synagogue and say a public prayer for her recovery. There’s something powerful about putting aside privacy to ask for help from the community, as if we are tapping into an electrical system where everyone’s energy is pooled together.

Cricket is less amenable to being raised in the air

Cricket is less amenable to being raised in the air

On Purim, when we read the story of Esther and use a noise maker, called a grogger, to blot out the name of the bad guy in the story, Haman, the dogs could participate. My dogs, especially Cricket, could be living noisemakers. There could be a whole Hebrew school class for the dogs, to train them for their big day, when they can stand up as a barking choir, and blot out the name of the enemy who tried to harm their humans.

But most of all, I think dogs could bring something unique to a house of worship, because they are not of any particular religious or ethnic persuasion. A Golden Retriever could just as easily, and happily, live with Jews or Muslims or Christians or Buddhists. Dogs are not biased towards one religious group or another. A dog’s presence in the synagogue could be a reminder of the basic spirituality we all share, the God-sense we are all trying to tap into, rather than the specific religion we use to get us there.

My synagogue-ready dogs

My synagogue-ready dogs