The column | Now I lay me down, once more with feeling

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

I used to be pretty good at praying. My grandfather on my mother’s side, appalled to learn that, at the grand age of 4, I’d never been taught my bedtime prayers, instructed me in the basics one long-ago December night.

“Now I lay me down to sleep,” he intoned, standing above me as I kneeled by the bed he shared with my grandmother. “I pray the Lord my soul to keep,” I repeated, awed at the magical words that were apparently my direct connection to the Almighty.

The last part of the prayer terrified me, as it must have tots before and since: “And if I die before I wake …” Say what? “I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Take where? Without my parents? What kind of scary stuff is that to teach a kid?

Back home, I tweaked the formula and came up with my own, loosely based on the original. OK, I accepted the possibility of dying in the middle of the night, but what if — and here, like Abraham before me, I argued mightily with my Creator — what if I offered up not just my soul, but those of the entire world? What if, I suggested night after night, it was God’s pleasure to bring the entire world to an end before I turned 13, while I was still a carefree child? And, if it wasn’t too much trouble, God might perhaps take me, my family and my pets all to heaven at the same time, so that we might dwell there forever at the exact age we were when the end of days arrived.

That was, I felt, a nice improvement on the original. And I prayed it with fervor for several years, until one night I stopped. And I never prayed again, not on my own. I no longer believed in a God who answered personal requests, and I didn’t see the point of engaging in one-way communication.

In the years since, I’ve studied prayer in yeshivas and in synagogues. I’ve been a regular at many shuls, and I try like heck, moving back and forth between the Hebrew and English in the prayerbook, seeing if one yields up its secrets more readily than the other.

But no. They’re just words on a page, written by someone else to a rhythm not my own.

That’s why I dread High Holy Day services. Oh, I go, but sometimes I can’t stay until the end. There’s too much praying going on.

“Make the words your own,” rabbis often exhort. “If the words on the page don’t speak to you, listen to the words of your own heart.”

I try. I try harder. Nothing but blankness.

Once I wrote an article about congregations that write their own High Holy Day prayerbooks. My favorite was a man in New Jersey who put together a new machzor every year that included all the births, deaths and weddings in his congregation over the past 12 months, along with news clippings of local events and poems written by the children. Worshippers were encouraged to thumb through it during the less scintillating parts of the service. Maybe I’d like that.

Last week there I was again, at Rosh Hashanah services, prayerbook in my lap. I arrived early and sat near the back, as I usually do. I opened the book and started reading through some of the additional material, the poems and essays printed along the side margins.

And then it happened. The book was Mahzor Lev Shalem, the 2010 Conservative movement High Holy Day prayerbook. One of the editors was Rabbi Stuart Kelman, former rabbi of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, where I was observing the holiday. Small wonder, then, that a fair number of the contributions in the margins were penned by Bay Area authors.

There on page 5, next to the opening Shema, was a short piece by the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, formerly of Beth Abraham in Oakland, a man I met several times and admired tremendously. It was about the difficulty of praying. I blinked.

I leafed through more. There was a piece by U.C. Berkeley Torah scholar Robert Alter. I looked up — he was sitting two rows in front of me. I found an essay by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, scholar at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, and another by Berkeley Zohar scholar Daniel Matt. These were people I knew, whose works spoke to me.

Suddenly, I heard Rabbi Menachem Creditor say that we were about to read aloud, together, a poem on page 6 by Marcia Falk, who was with us that evening.

As I recited her words, in unison with my community, I looked across the sanctuary at Marcia’s slightly smiling face. She didn’t see me, but I saw her — through the words of her poem. And the words became a prayer, for me.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J., and can be reached at [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].