a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

To Pray Like a Jew

Posted on: February 13, 2011

“Bless us, oh Lord, for these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive through thy bounty through Christ, our lord, Amen”

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, mother of god, pray for us sinners.  Now, and at the hour of our death, Amen”

“Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat”

I can say those three blessings without looking them up or reading them.  They just roll off of my tongue the first two, clearly Christian, overtly Catholic.  I remember my first time attending Mass in 6th grade.  I’d been enrolled in Catholic schools for two years by then but at St. Angela Hall we never attended Mass.  Ladyfield was a large, moneyed school connected with a large convent of nuns.  The school was situated on acres of land, the NDA campus that housed at that time a large main convent, 2 grade schools, a nursery school my nephews currently go to, and the high school. 

When I walked into the convent’s chapel which we used for Friday Mass (kinda Jewish, eh?) I was in awe at the beautiful building.  Baptist churches are usually, in my experience, void of any iconography.  In retrospect, after being in dozens of cathedrals the chapel was modest with only a few statues of Mary rather than dozens of impressions of her image, always fair-skinned, always blue-eyed, always with a blue schmatta, clearly she was from Jerusalem.

Let me not get off of the question of the fair-skinned Arab Jew who gave birth to another Jew and back to the matter at hand.  I walked into my first Mass scared, confused, and absolutely lost.  If memory serves me correctly, there weren’t any books that we read from or followed (maybe there were) you just did.  My classmates knew when to respond to the priest, when to sit down, when to stand up.  When to genuflect when getting out from your pew and returning to your pew.  When to make the sign of the cross.  Even the non-Catholics, the scattered Lutherans, the two Indian girls, and the others mimicked the movements, most likely because they’d been doing it since they were in kindergarten.  It took a few Fridays before I got the hang of it and before I knew it I knew when to respond with “Lord hear our prayer” and to this day I can recite the entire prayer for eucharist.  It doesn’t mean I was Catholic, I was pretending to be one so as to fit into my school.

On Sundays I would still have to go to church (again) with my mother.  The church I’d been brought up with that seemed to have no order, by contrast to the Catholic Masses I had to attend.  I began to resent them both, for the same reason, I had no clue what I was doing.  Maybe it’s because I missed my First Communion.  Perhaps as a first grader they teach you why you stand, why you sit, what you’re saying…although that seems silly to try go get a 7-year-old to understand all of that.  Perhaps it’s because I didn’t have Confirmation.  When confirmation came around the non-Catholics had our religion class and the Catholics all got to go into another room to prepare for confirmation.   I remember being envious, some of my best friends, well, all of my best friends were Catholic and I felt even more like an outsider being separated for a less-than religion class.  Maybe at Confirmation you learn all of those reasons behind what and why we do things in Mass.  Again, a 13 years old would probably be less interested in why and more interested in the big step they are taking in their lives-much like a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

So here I am, months into attending synagogue and like my 6th grade self after a few month of “practice” I pretty much know when to stand, when to sit, when to bow (although not how to bow) and the tunes of most of the songs and chants.  I can follow along in the siddur and sometimes, people will look at my siddur to figure out where we are.  Thing is, I sort of feel like I did when I was in 6th grade.  I can say the prayers but I want to know what I’m saying and why we say them.  The siddur can only answer so many questions.  I don’t want to just regurgitate things, I want to know what they mean, where they come from and why they were chosen for us to say, out of all of the other passages in the Torah, etc.

I’ve missed a few mornings and evenings of Shema, mostly when I’m with Mirs because I don’t carry my siddur around with me.  Some mornings while I’m commuting I’ll see an Orthodox man in a kippah with a small black prayer book (I presume) with his head slightly bowed and his lips moving and I am inspired to pray, too.  Here’s a confession (lots of Catholic sacraments in this one)  I don’t think I know how to pray.  I’ve read one book on Jewish prayer and after reading the Tiger Mom book I’m going to get back into How to Pray like a Jew, but I’m wondering and hoping that I’m not just going through the motions.  I’m not, I don’t feel like I am because I’m asking questions and I want to know more.  I just don’t want to get to a place, and I don’t want to watch my son or daughter go into their Bar/Bat Mitzvah not knowing or being inspired by their faith. 

One of the reasons Mirs didn’t have her Bat Mitzvah was for that reason.  She didn’t feel a connection and therefore didn’t feel like it was something she wanted to do.  On one hand I commend her parents for agreeing to her 13-year-old whim and on the other I think it’s tragic that her rabbi, her faith didn’t inspire her more.

The reason I know that I’m not just reciting empty words is because I made this choice to become a Jew.  For years I was Christian because it’s how I was raised.  I wasn’t inspired by it and like, Mirs when I was a certain age I put my foot down and decided I didn’t want to go any longer.  Had my parents, my pastor on Sunday or the nuns of my every day lief inspired me more would I be writing about my love of Jesus.  I don’t know but I’m glad that  I’m not there and that I’m here.

2 Responses to "To Pray Like a Jew"

I’m taking B’nai Mitzvah classes where we go over the prayers. I’m sure you could find something in your area (you can find anything in your area!). Are you meeting with your Rabbi one on one now? That’s something you could work on during that time.

Also, I was told this set is awesome. http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/PEOPLS

I have my first meeting with my rabbi tomorrow at 2:30!! I’m really excited about it, too. I will probably annoy her with my zillions of questions about everything. Thanks for the link!

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