This article was sent to newsletter subscribers as part of our weekly newsletter, Personal Space. Sign up to start getting it — along with more weekly recommendations — here.
Like many Jewish Americans, I grew up attending a Hebrew school in which I was taught how to read and recite Hebrew for the purpose of learning prayers. As someone who loves both memorizing things and karaoke, I took this challenge in stride — and I still love the way my brain can unlock the words to the Aleinu decades later.
But I don’t know what the words of those prayers actually mean. And even when I look up the translations, I don’t exactly feel them deep in my soul.
I’m hesitant to call myself “not religious” because I think religiosity can take on many forms, just like I’m hesitant to say “I don’t believe in God” when I think God can be defined in so many different ways. But I think it’s safe to say that I am not traditionally religious. I don’t observe the Sabbath or the laws of kashrut; I don’t always fast on Yom Kippur; I don’t pray.
Yet these days, I find the language of prayer rolling off my tongue with increasing frequency. I am praying for the victims of the vicious Hamas attack that rattled Israel earlier this month. I am praying for the innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians that are now at the center of a grueling war. I am praying for my friends and colleagues living in the area who may be physically safe for now but emotionally scarred in ways beyond my comprehension. I am praying for the swift return of hostages. I am praying for the end of violence. I am praying for peace.
But am I, really?
What does it mean to pray when you don’t pray?
Part of me feels like it is disingenuous to say that I am praying when I’m not opening up a siddur and davening throughout the day. I don’t know if thinking a lot about something really counts as prayer, if hope is the same as a blessing, if a wish can be a benediction.
What I do know is that what I love about Judaism, at least the kind that I have come to embrace as an adult, is that it’s there for you when you need it, in the way that you need it. That a Jew is a Jew is a Jew no matter what practices you may or may not maintain, and that those practices can shift and morph throughout your life, as you change, and as the world around you does, too. And that, like those Hebrew words buried deep in the back of my brain, Judaism is yours to access, especially during moments of despair.
Last week, looking for some comfort in community, I attended an impromptu solidarity program at a local synagogue after putting my daughter to bed. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, just that I wanted to be in a room with other Jews who might be feeling the way I feel. As local politicians and community leaders made passionate, rightfully angry screeds from the bimah, I realized that it was not actually the vibe I was hoping for. I wanted to sit and stew in my sadness. I wanted to let my emotions run through my body. I wanted to cry.
Back in my car afterwards, I plugged my phone into the sound system, and after a comical attempt to use the voice recognition button on the steering wheel while I maneuvered my way out of the busy parking lot, I successfully got Spotify to play a version of “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” one of my favorite Hebrew songs from my Jewish summer camp days.
As I drove home through the quiet, dark streets of my suburban town, I sang along. I cried. And I prayed.