The Many Faces of Jewish Prayer


Prayer is the most difficult thing I do all day.

Why? I have so much heavy, ugly baggage from growing up in the rural south at the highest (or maybe lowest) point of the Reagan years. My family wasn’t religious, but it didn’t matter much. Fundamentalist Christianity was in the air we breathed and the water we drank, and in my young, deeply insecure eyes, people seemed to approach prayer as a means of controlling the events and people around them. It seemed like a sanitized form of voodoo.

It’s no accident, then, that I built an adult life that has been rigorously secular, intellectual, and let’s face it, pretty cynical a lot of the time. Prayer was something for weak-minded, superstitious people with unprocessed childhood conditioning.

Even now, except for our small but growing circle of observant Jewish friends, I don’t live in a world where people talk about prayer, and I still can’t speak the word aloud without a gnawing sense of unease.

Weekly services are a refuge, because at least there, I feel the security of knowing that I’m approaching prayer as part of a group, a tradition. Everybody’s doing it. The words and sentiments are there for me to struggle with, but I’m shoulder to shoulder with dozens of other strugglers, each of us with millenia of tradition to support us.

But alone? Don’t even try to get me to talk about what I do when I do pray. Parts of it are Hebrew, parts of it just breathing and trying to focus for more than ten seconds, but I wouldn’t dream of letting anyone see me do it. And making it into a habit is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do.

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