New to Jewish Prayer? 9 Tips for Beginners

Image: Rabbi carrying the Torah during a service. Photo by Linda Burnett.

So, you’ve been to Shabbat services once or twice, and found them mystifying. Or perhaps you have been invited to a bar mitzvah service and you have no idea what to do.

Some questions that may have crossed your mind: What are people getting out of this? Does everyone here understand the Hebrew? What’s with all the bowing and stuff? What if I do something wrong?  Here are  some ways to get something out of the experience as a beginner.  There is no wrong way to be in a service as long as you are respectful.  So turn off your cell phone and experiment with these. Some work for one person, some for another. Your experience will be unique to you.

1. RELAX.  You are not the only person:

  • Who doesn’t understand Hebrew.
  • Who wonders what the prayers mean.
  • Who feels funny about all the choreography (bowing, etc.)
  • Who doesn’t sing very well.
  • Who has feelings that make it difficult for you to relax in a strange prayer service.

Jewish communal prayer is not something Jews are born knowing how to do.  It’s a learned art.  You may or may not want to learn the classical approaches to it, but there are ways to have a very satisfying experience as a beginner.

2. ASK FOR HELP.  It is OK to ask for help.  The first thing you may want to ask for is a prayer book with translations in it, if the one you get is all in Hebrew. In a Reform synagogue, all of the books will have translations, and that is true for many Conservative synagogues, too.

If you get lost and don’t know what page you should be looking at, it’s OK to quietly ask a neighbor for help.

3. DON’T WORRY.  If there are English responses, and you are in the right place in the book, mazal tov!  But if you are lost, it is OK to let the rest of the congregation take care of responses. If you become a regular you will learn them, but remember, no one is born knowing this stuff.  One nice thing: if you say Amen [ah-MAYN] at the end of a blessing, you get credit for saying the whole blessing.

You may not know any of the music.  You may know some of it. Sing what you know, sit back and listen to the new things. Let the music wash over you. Sometimes the song-leader or cantor will teach a new tune. When that happens, you are in luck: no one knows what they are doing!  You get to begin with the congregation.

As for standing, sitting, bowing, etc., if you stand and sit with everyone else, you’ll be OK.  If you are disabled or injured, take care of yourself and do what works for you. To learn more about choreography, check out my earlier blog entry, Dancing with the Rabbis.

If an usher offers you an aliyah (a-li-AH or a-LEE-yah) say, “No, thank you.” (That means, “offer you a chance to go up and sing or say the Torah blessings all by yourself.” If you are truly a beginner, you almost certainly don’t want to do that. If you are not officially Jewish, you shouldn’t do it, out of respect. Either way, “no thank you” covers the subject. Don’t worry, they’ll find someone else.

4. LET THE PRAYERS AND MUSIC FLOW. Let the words and the music flow over you. If something is interesting or sticks in your mind, let your mind play with it. Words and music may bring up emotions for you: let those flow, also.  If the book is in your way, put it down (on the bench or in a rack or in your lap – do not put a prayer book on the floor.)

5. LISTEN TO THE MUSIC OF THE HEBREW LANGUAGE. When prayers are in Hebrew, often they are prayers that have been said in just that way for hundred or thousands of years. Some people are moved to listen to the Hebrew and simply reflect upon how many generations have said those prayers in that way. Think of the people who have listened to those sounds at some point in their lives: Maimonides, Jesus,  Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Albert Einstein, Hank Greenberg, Alan GreenspanAnn Landers

6. SIT QUIETLY AND LET YOUR OWN THOUGHTS FLOW. For some people, the prayers are a framework within which their minds are set free, almost a kind of meditation. It is fine to let that happen. Your mind may open in unexpected ways.

7. PRAY. If there is a way you are accustomed to praying, you are welcome to pray in your own mode: have a conversation with God, say familiar prayers quietly, etc.  However, kneeling or making the sign of the cross would be very distracting to others, and is disrespectful in this context even if that is not your intent.

The words of Jewish prayer may also lead you into a dialogue with or a meditation about the Holy.

Jewish prayer has fixed words, words we say every time, but they are there as a framework, so that our spirits can be free to find the Holy. Some of the prayers may even be troubling in their wording, but that’s part of it, too: those prayers push us into thinking deeply about what we believe and the choices we make.

8. LISTEN TO THE VOICES AROUND YOU. Jewish communal prayer happens in community, with a minimum of ten participants, a minyan. Some voices will be sweet and clear; others may be out of tune or mumbled. Some may be rather loud, some soft. Some clearly know all the responses; some stumble. This is what a Jewish community is: a group of disparate voices, all united by the activity of saying the prayers and singing the songs. Likely they will disagree if you do a poll about what they prayers mean, but they unite in Doing.

9. SIMPLY BE. If all of this is overwhelming, try simply being where you are. Feel the weight of your body sitting in the pew or chair. Feel your feet on the floor. Feel the air moving in and out of your lungs, feel your heart beating. Feel the emotions that come through, including boredom, if that is what you feel. Judaism teaches that all of creation is good, and that our bodies are good.  This, too, is legitimate Jewish prayer.

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When Queer Moms Come Out

A sense of humor is essential for good activists.

 

This is an updated version of a post I originally published on Open Salon in September of 2010.  In thinking about the things I’m grateful for this LGBTQ Pride Month, it occurred to me it was still very timely.

___________

I came out in 1988, just after a rancorous divorce became final.  A very nice woman asked if I’d ever tried kissing another woman, and a few minutes later it was clear to me that I’d been barking up the wrong tree all my life.  It was a moment of great joy, followed by sheer panic.

I had two little boys, ages 4 and 6, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was more important to me than the two of them.

Was I going to mess them up for life?   Was I going to lose them?  Should I just declare celibacy and give it up?  I wrote to  an acquaintence who had been “out” many years, with two daughters from a previous marriage, and poured out my fears.  She wrote me back with the phone number for the National Center for Lesbian Rights saying, “Call them.  Do whatever they tell you.”  Then she said my kids were going to be fine.

I did, and they are.  But there’s much, much more to it than that.

The attorney to whom NCLR referred me informed me that for the umpteenth time in my life, I was the Queen of Dumb Luck.  My divorce had become final in one of the very few counties in the United States where my orientation alone was not grounds for taking my kids from me in 1988.  My best bet was to come out of the closet completely, so I did.  On March 17, 1988, I phoned my ex and told him.  To his credit, it has never been an issue.

I told the boys that I had fallen in love with a girl.  They liked her.  Unlike their boring mom, she was good at catch and knew everything about baseball.  Sure, fine, and what’s for dinner?

The kids were in kindergarten and first grade, and there I wavered.  Surely this was my private business.   Surely it wasn’t appropriate to phone up the principal and say, “Hi, I’m a lesbian.”  So I waffled along for a while, hoping for the best.  And that’s where I went wrong.

Aaron began getting into fights at school.  The teacher called.  I went in to chat, and it turned out that he was out there defending my honor.  The words “gay” and “fag” were favorite schoolyard epithets (in first grade!) and whenever someone used them, he took it personally on my behalf.  He told them to take it back, and then two little boys would roll on the ground, fighting.

I outed myself immediately to the teacher, explained that this was a young man defending his mother — and please, could we just ban those words on the playground?

“You are what?” she gasped,  and when I repeated it, she said she’d have to take it up with the principal.  Over the next few weeks it became clear that the words “fag” and “gay” were a lot more acceptable than a lesbian mom and her spawn, and we needed to find a new school if my kids were going to feel remotely safe in class.

Finding a new school where we could be out as a queer family turned out to be quite the project in 1988, even in the liberal East Bay of the liberal San Francisco Bay Area.  I went from school to school, asking directly if “diversity” included “lesbian parented children.”  I was privileged to have the means to check out every private school in town, and I was hustled out of most of their admissions offices like an unwanted peddler.  [All those places now trumpet the fact that they love queer families, and all I can say is, hallelujah.  I am not naming names, because the guilty parties have mended their ways.]

God bless St. Paul’s Episcopal School.  When I asked the admissions director, Laroilyn Davis, if a lesbian family would be welcome at St. Paul’s, she said, “It’s time we included a family like yours.”    In the years to come, the administration there always had our backs:  individuals might find our presence distasteful, but there was never any question that we belonged.

But the damage was done.  My children spent far too long in a situation where they knew we were a second-class family, where we were the objects of open disgust.  I am well aware that my younger son is a social worker partly because he has a special affinity for children who don’t feel safe.   His big brother will still offer to punch you out if you use the word “fag.”

And as for me, I am torn between gratitude for being the Queen of Dumb Luck, who came out in the most liberal area in the country, who had the means to seek out a safe place for her children, who had legal support and moral support and two courageous sons — and fury that any of that was necessary.

Yes, things are better now than they were in 1988.  They need to be better still.  Our opponents don’t seem to understand that anti-gay policies hurt the whole society:  the collateral damage is horrendous.  The lack of same sex marriage rights means that the children of queer families  grow up knowing that they, the children, are less in the eyes of the law. The courts are just now figuring out that the federal Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA] means that lesbian and gay couples can lose their home to the IRS when one of them dies, unlike straight couples, who are defended against death taxes.

When we discriminate against any group of people, we are all the less for it.  When are we going to figure that simple fact out?

Just Shabbat

Dawn

Have you ever had a perfect day?

I think I came as close as I ever have this past Shabbat.  Linda and I went to the children’s service at Temple Sinai on Friday night, sat with friends and met some people who may be new friends. Went home tired, and slept the sleep of the worn out.  Rose Saturday morning, had breakfast, went back to shul for services: a bar mitzvah of a young man I didn’t know, with an aliyah honoring the 30th wedding anniversary of our close friends, Dawn and Mark.  Afterwards, lunch with more friends, and a long slow June afternoon at home. Heaven!

A bar mitzvah, you say? Of a young man you didn’t know?  Yes: for those of you who avoid bnei mitzvah services, a point to ponder: sometimes the 13 year olds approach a Torah portion in new and exciting ways, precisely because they haven’t been reading the same words over and over for 50 years.   And yes, sometimes they don’t.  But Torah is always good, and my mind is free to pursue the portion wherever it is led.

But more than anything, it was the slow time of the whole 24 hour period, the songs at night, the long service in the morning when my brain was set loose to freewheel through prayer and inspiration, the affection of friends, the sense of there being “enough” in this moment, that made the day for me.

This is Shabbat.  This is my treasure as a Jew.

New Program? Or Old Mitzvah?

Many of the established Jewish institutions are in a panic right now:  “Where are the young people? We must find the young people! In fact, where are the people? Why is enrollment so low?”  Synagogues want “programs” that will attract people and will engage them in Jewish life.  Membership in many organizations is dropping, and there is a constant drumbeat for new programs, for new ways of doing religious school, for a new Something to Keep Judaism Alive.

Grumpy old Kohelet tells us in Ecclesiastes that “There is nothing new under the sun.” I tend to think he’s mostly right about that. The Internet is a new tool, yes, but most of what we do with it is not really new. We use it to buy and sell, to tell stories (true and false), and to connect with other people.

That leads me to think that the “new program” so many of us are seeking is probably right under our noses: something already in the Jewish tradition.  We just need to update it, or tweak it — or maybe dust it off and start doing it again. You see, I think that the “program” we seek might be a mitzvah we are neglecting.

Recently I invited my Intro students over for a Shabbat dinner at my apartment. I am not a great cook, or even a particularly good cook, so I made a dependable main dish and the rest was potluck. I specified a dairy meal, but told them not to worry about kashrut beyond “no meat or shellfish please.” I cleared my books and computer off the table, spread a nice tablecloth, got out the candlesticks, bought a challah, opened some wine, and voilá: Shabbat dinner! We had fun, they stayed later than I expected, and afterwards I noticed that things had shifted in the group.  Our relationships had changed: we, all of us, were closer.  And all we did was have dinner together, in my home!

These nice students, some of them Jews, some not, were blown away that I invited them into my home.  Then it hit me: the mitzvah we are neglecting is hachnasat orchim, the mitzvah of hospitality.

Right then, I resolved that the doors of my tent needed to be a lot wider.  It was true: when had I last invited guests for Shabbat, or for dinner any other time? When had I opened my home?

Like a lot of other people, I’m not a fancy cook.  I’m not a very good housekeeper, either, and my dinner table doubles as my desk. I have a nice little apartment but it is indeed little. And so I have gotten into the habit of meeting folks elsewhere, because I’m ashamed of my housekeeping and my cooking and all that, and often in my off hours I’m just tired.  And reviewing all that, all I can think to say to myself is “What kind of Jew am I?”  Abraham and Sarah had a tent open on all four sides! Hachnasat orchim is an important mitzvah!

So: here’s my  resolution, my teshuvah for neglecting this important mitzvah: I’m going to start inviting folks over. The place isn’t fancy, but I can keep it tidy. (Really.) The food won’t be fancy (it may be takeout).  The welcome is the thing. I will invite them into my Jewish life, and that of my family, and we’ll have fun. Our relationships will become closer.  It will be good for the Jews.

And that, my friends, is nothing new under the sun. But it’s one heck of a “program.”

Memorial Day

Memorial Day Commemoration 2008

Today is Memorial Day.  For many Americans, it’s “the official beginning of summer,” with backyard barbeques and   sports on TV.  For other Americans, it’s a much heavier day:  it’s a day for visiting cemeteries, for laying wreaths, for remembering fallen brothers and sisters in arms. Public America straddles the gap between those two, ostentatiously paying lip service in front of the cameras: bits for the evening news, to prove that we “support our troops.”

It is high time we stopped accepting the lip-service of politicians about “support for the troops” when actual men and women who have served this country in war are hungry or homeless.

I am no lover of war.  I wish that no American ever again had to go to war.  But once we accept an oath from a person volunteering to serve in our military, to give up their freedom in order to defend ours, we as a nation have responsibilities to them. And should they serve in a theater of war, and suffer the emotional and physical damage that war inflicts on everyone in combat, our debt to them and to their families soars.  These are debts that nothing can cancel out.

This Memorial Day, I am conscious that I have two sons, both of whom are alive and near to me. I am also conscious that there are parents all over America who sent children off to war who never returned, or who returned broken and hurt.  I am grateful for what I have, and I want to be properly appreciative of the staggering contributions others have made to our national life.

Their contributions — their lives, the lives of their loved ones — are a continual reminder that while we may see ourselves as a nation of “rugged individualists” we are in fact a society interconnected to the core. The freedom of my life is possible because others have given theirs.  Their sacrifices must not be forgotten, and must not simply be an excuse for a politician — or anyone else! —  to make a cheap sentimental point: we must remember them in the way we treat their families, and in the way we treat their fellows who are still living, and in the way we choose to exercise the precious freedoms we have been given.

Ready to Receive the Torah?

A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Heb...

“Today is forty-seven days, which is six weeks and five days of the Omer.”

Almost there!  Shavuot will be here in just a few days – am I ready?  What does it mean, to be ready to receive the Torah?

Memory: my first Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, when I finally felt a part of the Torah Study group at my synagogue.  I think it had something to do with studying so late and so long around the table that we all got giggly.  At any rate, I finally relaxed and felt like “one of the gang,” which was good, since momentous things were to follow.  Soon after, it was time for me to go to the beit din and the mikveh to complete my conversion to Judaism.  And then, on the same day many years later, I got on the plane to go to Jerusalem to begin rabbinical school.  Lots of memories, indeed!

The question remains: what does it mean to be ready to receive the Torah?  That magical night when I felt I truly belonged to the group, that was part of it.  The Torah is given to Am Yisrael, not to any individual on his or her own.

A little later, when the beit din questioned me, they were looking to see: was I there for the right reasons? Was I truly free to make this decision?  Was I holding back some piece of my old life?  And all of that, too, is part of being ready to receive the Torah.  Sinai wasn’t possible until Passover was done: only a free People could make a covenant with the Divine.  They didn’t quiz me on the fine points, because after all at the original deal, at Sinai, the People said, “Na’aseh v’nishmah” [We will do and we will hear]. Both the Jews and this individual Jew had to make the leap without knowing every detail:  this covenant requires risk.  It takes heart. One must have heart to be ready to receive the Torah.

Then, the mikveh:  I had heard about warm and lovely mikveh experiences, but mine was more like, well, a dash of cold water.  A whole mikveh full of cold water, actually, because they’d forgotten to turn on the heat.  I took a deep breath, and walked down into what felt like the Arctic Ocean until all but my head was submerged in the water.  I called to my mikveh attendant, our cantor, and when she came in, she saw me cringing  and said, “Are you OK?” “I’m freezing!” I said.  “Let’s get this over with!”  So we said the blessings in between dunks, she made sure it was all kosher, and I came flying back out of that icewater as soon as modesty permitted.

And that, too, was appropriate, even if it wasn’t the usual way.  We motored through those blessings, but nothing was skipped.  Sometimes, in Jewish prayer, you just do what you have to do.   I dressed hurriedly and went out to the mazal tovs of family and friends with my hair still wet.  Na’aseh v’nishma: we will do and we will hear.  And sometimes we will “do” in a hurry.  The sages tell us to run to do a mitzvah: and so sometimes run we must!

And then, in a later June, but still in that same week of Shelach L’cha, my friend Fred drove me to the airport with three enormous bags for my flight to Jerusalem.  I had no inkling of what lay ahead.  Na’aseh v’nishma:  Doing before understanding.  Had I any idea how hard the next six years would be, I’d never have gotten on that plane, and I’m so glad now that I was ignorant, because being a rabbi has filled my heart and my life beyond all my dreams.   I suspect that had the Hebrews at Sinai been shown all that lay ahead, they’d have said, “No thanks:”  no thanks to the years of wilderness, no thanks to the lawless age of the Judges, no thanks to Babylon, no thanks to Rome, no thanks to the Inquisition, no thanks to the Nazis.  But they didn’t know.  I am so glad we didn’t know.

And now we are about to stand at Sinai yet again.  And yet again we will say, “Na’aseh v’nishma,”  And now, unlike the first time, when we trembled at the fire and the thunder, we know to tremble at the wild abandon of this promise: We will do it, whatever it is!  We will understand it later.

And then we will be ready to receive the Torah.

Lag B’Omer and Marriage Equality

Rainbow flag flapping in the wind with blue sk...
Rainbow flag flapping in the wind with blue skies and the sun. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s Lag B’Omer, a brief moment of lightness during the intense count of the Omer from Passover to Shavuot.  Tonight there are bonfires, tomorrow tykes will get their first haircuts.

After the vote for the hideous Amendment One in North Carolina this week, I was braced for a glum Lag B’Omer.  I hate feeling like a second-class citizen, and it’s pretty clear that’s exactly what I and other LGBTQ folk are in the Tar Heel State.

Then the news came over the car radio that President Obama had finally spoken in favor of marriage equality.  I honestly never thought I’d see the day when a sitting American President would speak up for us, much less one in the midst of a campaign.  The news made me feel light-headed: I actually pulled off the road and sat for a bit, until I settled down a bit.  I’m happy, and surprised, and grateful.

As for the folks in NC:  I wish I could talk to them.  I wish I could say to the Christians of North Carolina who fought so hard to pass Amendment One, do you remember your forebears?  Many of your spiritual ancestors fled Europe because the lived in places where Baptists, or Methodists, or Catholics were not free to worship as they wished. They came to this country, and eventually set up a government where they carefully separated religion and state.  They understood that that meant that this country would never enshrine their religious beliefs in law, and they wanted it that way.  They did not want to risk ever again being a persecuted minority, nor did they want anyone else in that position for their religious beliefs.

I am a Reform Jew.  Reform Judaism affirms the sacredness of marriage between two individuals regardless of gender.  My sweetheart and I have a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) on our wall.  We are married in the eyes of God and our congregation and the Reform Movement.  Unfortunately our state and our federal government has chosen not to honor our marriage, because the religious majority in our country holds that homosexuality is a sin.  Reform Judaism is not the only religion that recognizes as sacred the union between two men or two women who vow to be responsible for one another for life:  the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalists, and the Alliance of Baptists also recognize same-sex marriage.

I am beginning to hope that I may see the day when this unfairness is no longer with us, when the intention of the founders of our government is honored.  I hope I will see the day when religion and state are truly separate.  In the meantime, I am glad that President Obama spoke up.

In the meantime, I will celebrate this moment of lightness in a long journey, this Lag B’Omer.