Religion & Beliefs

The Perfect Jew: Say a Little Prayer

In my short story “There is No Other,” a child dressed up as Mohammed for a school Purim party sings the Aleinu with otherworldly precision as the class gapes at the live dynamite strapped to his chest. It is a … Read More

By / October 8, 2007

In my short story “There is No Other,” a child dressed up as Mohammed for a school Purim party sings the Aleinu with otherworldly precision as the class gapes at the live dynamite strapped to his chest. It is a provocative story, and I think one of my best, but I'm ashamed to say that even as this seventh grader upbraids his classmates for not knowing the words to this central prayer, I had to search the book Judaism For Dummies to find the its meaning. The fact is, my fictional doppelgängers know how to pray, but I do not. But I’ve decided to change that, if not for the sake of my soul, then at least to satisfy my intellectual curiosity.

Going to synagogue has always felt vaguely punitive to me, like being sent to after-school detention and forced to wear a dunce cap at the same time; I knew I was being punished in my confinement, and especially on those rare times that I wore the silly rummage-bin nylon kippa noting so-and-so's bar mitzvah, I felt that everyone knew I was a fraudulent Jew. I didn't know the prayers, I didn't know the music, I didn't know when to sit or when to stand. I was lost among my own people.

In all seven stories in my first collection, characters engage in prayer; the title of my novel Who by Fire, Who by Blood, references the unetanah tokef, a prayer central to the High Holiday liturgy; even my recently completed second collection of short stories borrows the last line of the Aleinu for its title. The old aphorism says you should write what you know, but some deep-seated yearning within myself, it seems, has had me write what I want to know.

I sought the counsel of Rabbi Jeffrey Foust (pronounced like the literary Faust who made a deal with the devil), part-time rabbi at Waltham's traditional egalitarian Temple Beth Israel, and asked him how I might benefit from praying. He responded that "prayer helps us become more fully actualized human beings; it's about opening ourselves to the wisdom of the universe."

I wondered how something so abstract could help one realize such a lofty goal. By praying, Rabbi Foust added, “you are linking into the prayers and yearnings of the Jewish people going back millennia,” becoming part of the historical continuum. You can visit a synagogue anywhere in the world and the prayers are the same; you are part of a larger family.

Some prayers are about "thanksgiving and taking stock," continued Rabbi Foust, who serves as spiritual advisor to Jewish students at Bentley College. "Others are about yearnings of the soul and hopes for ourselves and our loved ones, about linking with our community, sensing the holiness and awesomeness of life, asking for healing and about connecting with the Divine and carrying that with us in our daily lives. So we are doing our work with a sense of being a partner with God.”

Now that he had laid out the conceptual basis for prayer, he added that I needed to come services and try it out for myself to make it meaningful in the practical sense.

I arrived at the small chapel at Temple Beth Israel for morning minyan with my 13-month-old cradled in one arm, a borrowed tallit and tefillin set in the other. It was five minutes before seven in the morning and his daycare didn't begin until 8:30, so he was going to join me in synagogue, like it or not. The three or four faithful already gathered smiled at the presence of a child nearly an entire lifetime younger than they were, and I realized immediately that our attendance at this small gathering was somehow life-affirming and an acknowledgment that their little prayer group could continue beyond their lives.

The leather straps of the tefillin had always reminded me of outré bondage wear, or a junkie tying off his next fix. I had only worn them a few times in my life, when I had been waylaid by mitzvah-counting Lubavitchers in the streets of New York and Jerusalem. But now, as I tried to wind the straps around my arm I could not recall Rabbi Foust's instruction as to how to do it correctly.

I was assisted by Morris Hollender, a grandfatherly Old World elder who led services most days with his thick Yiddish accent. As he wound the straps around my left arm, I noticed the faintly blurred blue tattoo on his own left arm, and I was reminded of Rabbi Foust's words about how the tightly wrapped tefillin leaves an afterglow on the skin, a reminder for an hour or two after prayer of connection with the Divine, and how Morris Hollender's afterglow of horror would forever be a reminder of the concentration camps he had survived as a youth.

I read Hebrew at a strictly remedial level, and I found that by the time I had worked my way to the second line of each prayer, the others had moved on to the next page. But I wasn't disturbed by this; the tefillin served as a concrete reminder to remain present, and I focused as best I could, interchanging between reading the Hebrew and English texts.

As each day went by, I realized that I was picking up just a little bit more, and that the tunes became familiar and that I missed going to services on the Tuesday when minyan wasn't held. At the back of my coat closet I found my long forgotten tallit that I had not worn since my bar mitzvah, and I draped it over my shoulders with a sense of pride that I could not have imagined even a year ago.

I don't know if I felt any sort of spiritual connection as I struggled through the prayers, but I did feel a connection on a deeply human level as my son and I were greeted each morning by Morris and the others, and when I was asked whether I would come the next day to mark the yahrzeit of Morris' wife's family. My presence counted in a way that it never had at larger synagogues. Most days we didn't even have a minyan, and others I served as the 10th man, allowing us to open the ark and remove the Torah. And yes, I did return the next morning and I stumbled through the kaddish as best I could as Mrs. Hollender wiped away tears.

But it was the presence of my son, who wouldn't count as part of the minyan for another twelve years, who brought smiles to the face of Morris and the others as he quietly played beside the bima.

As Morris downed a shot of slivovitz at the kiddush after services one morning, and my son spilled grape juice down the front of his shirt, Morris told me that he had survived the tortures of Auschwitz, paralysis and tuberculosis. He and his wife had never had children. I was reminded of the words from Deuteronomy found inside the tefillin box, "and you shall teach [these words] to your children," and I realized that in some way, every Jewish child who carried on the traditions would honor Morris Hollender's past, and that my son Zev, little “Velveleh” was his hope.

One morning during services, Morris Hollender knelt down in the nearly empty chapel next to my son, found a tefillin case on the seat behind him and placed it on Zev's forehead between his eyes. "It looks good," Morris smiled sadly. "Too bad he isn't thirteen."

I had only intended to attend morning services for a week or two as an experiment, but I found that as time went on, and as I learned just a little bit more, that I felt a deep connection, if not with God or some divine spirit up beyond the stars, then with the people that had kept this little minyan alive from generation to generation.

Jon Papernick’s earlier installments in the path to perfection: The Quest Begins Can wearing a kippah for two weeks make you a better Jew? Is the Mikvah For Me? Our secular guinea pig tries two ritual baths in search of a good dunk. Let's Make a Deal How to negotiate like a true macher Hardly Working And on the seventh day, our Jewish guinea pig rested