Monday, September 28, 2009

Mumbling the Words: A Note about Prayer

When I went to my friend's Christian wedding last year, one of the differences between their wedding service and Orthodox wedding services that I liked was the fact that I could understand everything that was going on because it was in English.

It's this way with almost all Christian services in contemporary times - they're conducted in the language that the majority of congregants speak. There's a great advantage to that - when congregants understand what they're saying, it opens the door for a greater reverance and meaning on their part. They feel like they're actually praying.

Contrary to what you might think, I'm not about to go onto a rant about how Judaism should follow suit. Oddly enough, I kind of like the fact that prayers are in Hebrew. When I've been to (non-Orthodox) Jewish services where parts of the prayers were said in English, it felt inauthentic and cheesy to me.

That said, when I was in (my parents') shul for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur davening, I couldn't help but get the feeling that 95% of the people in the room didn't understand what they were saying and were, in effect, just mumbling some words that they felt obligated to say. It didn't feel like there was a whole lot of feeling behind the prayer in the room.

Sure, every few minutes the congregation would burst out into song, but even that seemed more about the beauty of the tune than the words they were saying. After davening, in fact, an Israeli friend pointed out that the chazzan had picked a really upbeat, happy tune for a particularly ominous and depressing passage. Often, it feels like people are just as (or more?) enthused to sing the "nay nay nay"s after the words of the prayer are finished as they are the actual prayer.

I'm not sure I really see the point in this type of prayer. I suppose there's a certain amount of desire to be a good Jew involved in just being there (especially on Yom Kippur), but when the prayers themselves have little meaning for those who are praying, what exactly is being accomplished?

I don't know that I really have an answer to this. Maybe if prayers were shortened -- only the most powerful prayers chosen instead of 120+ pages of what seems like all the piyyutim written in the last 2,000 years? Maybe there needs to be more activity involved in the prayers -- people seem to get a lot more out of the "ashamnu, bagadnu," the Rosh Hashanah Aleinu where everyone bows down on the floor, or even Birkat Kohanim. Maybe day schools just need to put more effort into understanding Hebrew and the prayers themselves?

I'm not sure. All I know is that these prayers -- supposed to be the crux and most meaningful part of the holidays -- seem to have lost their resonance with the people saying them.

Case in point: I see way too many people in these minyanim who, like myself, flip to the end of the machzor to see how many pages are left (over and over again).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

(Some of) the People Who Go the Other Way

While I became less (read: not) Orthodox than I was raised to be, all of my siblings took the reverse course. I am the black sheep of my family.

That said, I am happy for my siblings. They seem happy, well-adjusted. And while, of course, the dictates of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism sometimes stress them out, overall they are mentally healthy, of sound mind. I really don't think they were pressured into Ultra-Orthodoxy; I think it made sense to them, that the customs were things that they enjoyed doing, and that they chose it willingly on their own - not because others were doing it. (This doesn't make me less concerned about the choices that my nieces and nephews will probably not have, but that's another story.)

Every once in a while though, I'll cross paths with someone who looks so miserable with the Ultra-Orthdoxy they've chosen, it just makes me want to cry for them.

I was once at a wedding where a girl I barely knew (she was probably about 22 at the time) literally cried to me for half an hour about how she hated wearing her sheitel (she said it pulled her hair out), how she felt like she'd thrown away her life, etc., etc..

More recently, though, on a trip back to my hometown, I bumped into a different girl two times. She didn't open up to me at all, but the misery was all over her face. She's about six years younger than me but looked years older. This was a girl who, in high school, was on every sports team the school offered, was full of energy and excitement about life, was always healthy, smart, tough and independently minded.

As she - I'll call her Rivky - stood before me in her snood, shlumpy clothing covering a slouching and unhealthy looking figure, telling me in a monotone voice about her kids and the yeshiva in which her husband is learning, I got this flashback I'd almost completely forgotten about.

About seven years ago, I was at my parents' house for Shabbat and Rivky's family came over for lunch. The topic inevitably turned to what Rivky would do after graduation.

"She's going to Israel, to [seminary renowned for turning out really, really frum girls]," said her sister, who (like my sisters) had attended said seminary.

"I'm not going to Israel," said Rivky, "I'm going to college! I don't want to get all frummy!"

Then she turned and looked at me.

"Actually, I want to turn out like you,*" she said, "Where'd you go to seminary?"

Well, my seminary no longer existed, but that was beside the point. In truth, my seminary had turned out as many frummy girls as [seminary x] of which her sister was so fond. It wasn't about what seminary you went to, I told her, it was about how much you understood what you wanted out of life and stuck to that. She looked at me doubtfully.

Well, in the end, Rivky went to [seminary x] like her sister said she should and she turned out exactly like her sister and my sisters, just with a lot less joy.

I don't know what will become of her and I hope she's able to feel fulfilled with the life she's chosen. I do hope she doesn't live the rest of her life out miserably because she thinks she has to.

And I do sometimes have a *little bit* of contempt for these seminaries / yeshivot that promote a singular path as the only authentic way to practice Judaism. I would never expect them to promote my version (or more liberal versions) of Judaism, but certainly there are other legitimate practices, there are ways to bend these traditions, so that people can be themselves and live there lives happily, instead of feeling forced into a mold.

*Note: At the time Rivky said this, I was more religious than I am now -- probably close to what would be called Modern Orthodox (but toward the more liberal side of that category).