Rethinking prayer: Ready to give services another try

I believe in God but not in prayer. At least, this is what I’ve used as an excuse to explain to friends and family why I never go to synagogue. I know I’m not the only Jew who, at the end of the week, discards the idea of removing her casual Friday attire and sashaying to synagogue in a skirt. Yes, I could go on Saturdays, but my Saturday mornings are sacred to me in ways that have nothing to do with a Torah scroll. I prefer one of two rituals: Sleeping in and savoring a mug of coffee, or meeting a friend for morning yoga followed by lunch.

When people ask me if I’m religious, I struggle to articulate a fitting answer. What does “religious” mean? Does it only connote prayer? If so, I’d have to answer “no,” I’m not religious.

However, this seems like an incomplete response. I love being Jewish; I embrace that part of myself. I often attend lectures, readings, plays, exhibits and classes about Judaism. I devour novels by Jewish authors.

But Shabbat services? Not for me. At least, that’s what I’ve long thought — until last week, when my experience during Yom Kippur services found me rethinking this philosophy.

After indulging in dinner at a cute French bistro in Berkeley, my friends and I went to Berkeley Hillel for Kol Nidre. Within minutes of arriving, my body decided to rebel against me, and my abdomen cramped so badly I couldn’t stand for Vidui.

Eventually, I had to excuse myself from the service and lie down on a bench outside the sanctuary. As I fought back tears and breathed through the pain, I realized I could hear people singing the Kol Nidre prayers accompanied by an acoustic guitar. I breathed with the rhythm of their song. I began to feel better. Why? I wondered.

The next day, we went back to Berkeley Hillel, this time choosing the Conservative service (sans guitar), but to my great joy, with Rabbi Dorothy Richman.

I had studied with her prior to the holidays, so I knew she could inspire me with her teaching. But I had no idea how much she would also inspire me with her prayer.

The woman can sing. Her voice is deep, rich and soulful. I would buy her album — and play it on repeat — if she ever cut one.

She didn’t simply sing during Yom Kippur services. She prayed with so much passion that instead of hearing her voice, I felt it. Her raw emotion brought me clarity and grounded me during the five-hour service. Sure, my mind wandered (as always). But this time it didn’t stray far.

When I got home from services, I burrowed under the covers, cat on my belly, book in hand, trying not to think about being hungry. But instead of reading, I stared out the window. Why did I feel so satisfied by the day’s prayer, when usually I feel discouraged — or worse, nothing at all?

The answer didn’t come until the following day at work, one week ago, when I read Dan Pine’s cover story about minyanites. These brave souls get up before dawn to pray in community with other Jews because, as Rabbi Yossi Marcus told Pine, “Our tradition teaches that prayer is best achieved in a group.”

I like this idea. Yet, few people are born with the innate ability to pray — to truly pray, not just to go through the motions — and those who feel enriched by prayer practice it.

The minyanites can clear their heads and open their hearts because they do it every day. Richman can conjure a tangible spirit while leading a service because she has done it for years. It should be no surprise to me, therefore, that my prayers usually feel plodding, boring, pointless. I’m rusty and out of practice.

I am not promising you, dear reader, that I will start spending every weekend in shul. Such a goal is unrealistic. But after being soothed by the balm of prayer this Yom Kippur, I would like to attend the occasional Shabbat service.

It will be good practice.

Stacey Palevsky lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected]

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.