Sitting in Hebrew school as a gangly pre-teen, I thought I knew exactly how to pray. Swaying my body left and right with its awkward limbs, mouthing the words that I was taught from the pages, reading each and every Hebrew letter with its vowel to guide me to say the words. This is how I was taught to talk to G-d.
I would praise the Lord of the patriarchs in the words I couldn’t always understand, raise my heels off the ground when I would hear the word “kadosh” (holy), bow in every appropriate place I was told to as a child standing in our temple. My eyes would see the words, hearing the tunes in the back of my head that would keep me focused, switch to the English when my Hebrew skills had run out, focused on the worlds that were laid out for me to say.
I knew prayer, or so I thought. When were told to offer our personal prayers between the Hebrew ones by some random rabbi, I would beg for changes in my life. Yet every time when I held a strong desire in my heart and asked it of the Holy One, surrounded by other people swaying in prayer, it would not come to me. From asking for romantic love as a lonely dreaming child to seeking a job as an adult trapped in the cycle of poverty looking to break out, my prayers kept coming forward in different ways with various words. Yet they never getting answered. In turn, prayer made me feel like my life was stuck in quicksand.
What was I doing wrong? Wasn’t I a good Jew, a person of value, who deserved nice things? Why should I pray if it doesn’t do anything?
The surly teenager in me began to reject G-d as G-d seemed to reject me. In my desperate tears, I cried into the wind hoping to find the deity that I was supposed to place my hopes and dreams in, that was supposed to help me in my darkest hours, yet not seeing that ever-powerful force. I questioned every Sunday in front of my religious school teachers, scoffed at my faith-blinded classmates standing in prayer circles on the grass around the flagpole before class, fought my choir teacher as he made us sing Jesus songs while reducing my culture to a token song and mispronunciations. If G-d was really on my side, if G-d wanted me happy, it wouldn’t be like this. I wouldn’t be so angry.
Yet through the clouds of angst, I also saw miracles. Falling into a rapidly rushing river and hearing voices that calmed me and led me to safety, which to this day I can’t explain by practical means. My arrival in Jerusalem for the first time after a harrowing day where I thought I would never see it. Having my breath stolen from me, almost dying, yet somehow living on for years despite it. Studying science in college and great Talmudic scholars and feeling like, with such intricacies existing in every creature and being throughout the world, that I felt like I believed in an almighty being, yet at the same time could respect those who didn’t.
Despite my religious intellectualism, prayer still mystified me. I swayed and bowed in all the places I was told to, and yet didn’t feel its power or understand it at all. I became a more observant Jew, feeling I was following G-d’s will by keeping kosher, being a good wife, try to pray at my in-laws’ Orthodox synagogue through the gossiping women and screaming children behind the barrier that separated men from women. But those dreams that I mouthed as my personal prayers were uttered in my mind didn’t seem to come to pass, and left me stuck in that quagmire once more.
Then came the prayer I would never forget. Under fluorescent orange lights on a freeway at 1 a.m., stalled in construction traffic desperate from the night, I opened up a prayer book and read the traveler’s prayer. Speaking slowly and carefully, my lips said the words of my ancestors who might as well have been heading down to the docks of Spain in 1492 as they sailed to Istanbul, never to return to the place they once called home. I had only one hope in mind as I abandoned mine: G-d, please, keep me safe. Keep me safe, because I don’t know where I’m going right now.
Perhaps that moment should have made prayer clear, but in turning away from my observant past, my hands felt too slick to grasp onto it. Standing and receiving my Jewish divorce in front of Orthodox rabbis who could care less about my pain because of my gender, because it was obviously me who caused the destruction of my marriage as a woman, my soul wanted to desperately deny my faith. Obviously G-d didn’t care about me enough about me to let me have a good marriage, and neither did the children of those who are said to follow the teachings that were laid out in the Torah.
For years I wandered. There were moments where I would pray because it was instinctual, but it wasn’t getting any real results. My mind became more rational, and so my heart turned away from the idea that prayer was going to do anything for me. As the circumstances of my life became direr, it became more in habit rather than an act of love and devotion.
There were baby steps here and there. Finding beauty in celebrating the matriarchs in my words to indulge my feminism. Returning to Israel, lighting candles for healing. Running my fingers along the smooth brick of the Western Wall in Jerusalem and crawling into blue-painted tombs of tzaddiks (holy men/women) in Tzfat. Chasing after subway trains and looking longingly out the windows of buses while Bob Dylan played in my ears. Then there were the people: The friends who sat and listened and who I listened to. Where we confided our secrets in one another. The laughter we made, the songs we sang — it was all a part of just being, and felt purer than prayer somehow.
I would sing often, but would not go to synagogue. I would eat well, but not eat kosher. I would meditate and find beauty and love in each of my interactions, with both my friends and by myself, and in every moment I breathed. But those Hebrew words didn’t do much for me anymore.
Rarely would I attach to anything in faith, but I’ll never forget listening to my spiritual leader as he would speak the words of the sages between his songs. Danny’s eyes would close and his hands rested on his guitar, welcoming everyone into the prayer he created no matter their beliefs. When I told him the truth about my past, as other clergy ran from me, he held me tightly. I wanted to sob in his arms, because even though he was my spiritual guide in prayer, this was more healing.
Meanwhile, my spirituality was tied up on some unusual universal plane that I valued deeply, but my years of rationality got in the way of observance. We could pray, but in my mind there needed to be more action. Prayers didn’t actually fix things, nor did they heal. They didn’t get us what we needed; only working hard and getting out there to hit the ground running would do that. So that’s what I did, and what I’ve done. Prayer became a backburner idea, the thing that blind believers do when they don’t know any better and don’t want to fix the problems themselves.
Then came my mother lying in a hospital bed, weak and unable to open her eyes, sitting in the dark because the light was making her sick. Staring at her helplessly, I was left wondering if this was the moment that the world was finally going to take her away from me. In cases like these, she’s usually very insistent that we don’t tell anyone about what was going on, but my fear left me shaking. Sitting there, I felt like that girl under those orange fluorescent lights all those years ago, desperate and alone. I couldn’t do this by myself anymore. So I did something that isn’t like me at all: I Facebooked and asked for prayers. Now, of all times, prayers were needed.
And before I knew it, there they were. The phone calls, the messages, the people who tried their best to reassure me that I wasn’t alone. It gave me strength, and in turn, it somehow passed on to her. She got better. I got better. And for the first time in my life, I truly understood prayer. It was the world around us that made prayer, the community that loves us. In fact, in Judaism, you can’t say certain prayers unless you’re in a group of 10 people, or a minyan. I never understood it until I was sitting at my mother’s bedside.
To pray doesn’t necessarily mean the words that were given to us and the motions we were told to do. It wasn’t what the world told me all those years ago sitting in religious school Prayer means to shift, to fall into the wind and hope that someone will catch you. It’s not even about G-d; rather, prayer is about us as humans on this earth. We expect some random act of the universe, when in truth it is the people around us who will catch us. Prayer is the reminder that. It’s not miracles and desperation that define prayers; it’s the hope that does. It’s the people who love us that do.
I may not know exactly how to pray. But I do know a thing or two about love, and that’s where it begins to grow.