The Praying Habit: Jewish Week!

I think I chose to attempt Jewish prayer my last week of this project because I subconsciously hoped it would be the most spiritually rewarding. I should have known better. I’ve found that anticipating or hoping for spiritual fireworks leads to the exact opposite: boredom and sometimes even frustration.

So why did I have these expectations? Judaism is the only faith out of the ones I’ve explored this Lent that I have a direct connection to. While my religious upbringing was Lutheran, I absorbed some components of Judaism (read: food and Hanukkah) through my father and his side of the family, the majority of whom are non-practicing. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t proud of my Jewish ancestry. When I was young this pride came from being a bit different from my close friends, many of whom were of Scandinavian, Irish, or German stock. As I grew older and learned about the religious persecution my ancestors faced before immigrating to the United States, I was in awe of their strength and bravery. And when I grew to learn more about Jewish beliefs and practice through a Jewish day camp, personal study, college classes, and attending services, I was impressed by the beauty of the faith’s rituals, its intellectual rigor and beautiful music.

So why was this week so tough? To start, it was difficult to find an English translation of the daily prayers that was easy to follow and had an appealing translation. I know some Hebrew, but felt that trying to work my way through it would turn the week into a language test rather than a prayer exercise. But then I ran into another issue with seeking out an English translation: how comfortable was I with some of the more modern or poetic interpretations of the prayers? I had no issues with this in other faith traditions (I’m planning on praying to Heavenly Mother this coming week), but with Judaism it gave me pause. I think this is a residual effect of the semester I spent in Jerusalem. The city is chock full of Jewish learning centers, and the centers that did the most effective outreach at the university I was attending were quite traditional. While denominations were rarely named, it was made clear that Jews whose beliefs or practice fell on the left side of the spectrum were just not doing it right. I unfortunately absorbed some of this thinking, despite my best attempts not to. I thought I’d gotten rid of this bias, but found it creeping back during my siddur-seeking process.

After attempting to pray from a more traditional website, I opted to switch to an online community’s siddur for my afternoon and evening prayers. The former featured clunky translation and assumed more familiarity with certain prayers than I had. The latter, while easier to follow and with an more inclusive and poetic translation, seemed almost too short, which made it difficult to connect fully to the ritual. Granted, the brevity was my fault—I was praying alone, when the ideal way to pray would have been in a minyan. I also missed the melodies that prayers and psalms were sung to when I attended services. Music (singing in particular) is a useful spiritual tool for me, even when the words are in a language other than English, and its absence was definitely felt in this exercise.

I also struggled with timing. I did not even attempt the full morning prayer service, though I tried to say the Modeh Ani when I woke. I really like the idea of being thankful and grateful upon waking, but not being a morning person I found it difficult to be particularly genuine when reciting it.

Thankfully, the Shema came through for me a few times. I would recite this as part of the afternoon and evening prayers and again before I went to sleep. I found that singing this quietly before falling asleep centered and relaxed me. Its frank statement of faith in the oneness of God is also appealing—this is one of the few beliefs of mine that has been nearly constant through phases of skepticism and questioning.

This was my last week of delving into other faith traditions. For the final week and a half of Lent I’ll be reverting to praying however I feel called to, and may dip back into some of the practices I want to explore further (after failing my first attempt, Quaker prayer is definitely back on the menu). As always, I welcome any tips or feedback on any of the traditions I’ve explored in the comments or on Twitter.

Carolyn Browender is an activist and seeker living in Washington, D.C. She was raised Lutheran by a practicing Christian mother and secular Jewish father. You can also find her on Twitter.