Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Like a Prayer for Slichot in New Jersey and NYC

by Chana Rothman
Saturday, September 12th, 2009

Do we need to cry out like Hagar, or can we simply whisper like Chana? Is either one OK? You can decide for yourself.

In Springfield, New Jersey at Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, we all – audience, performers, clergy - seemed transfixed by the idea of prayer and abundance. Why have we only been taught one way to pray, as if that was the only option? What happens when we open up other options, other ways to connect?

Until Sarah Sokolic and I began the talkback, I hadn’t fully realized the power and possibility of this question. The idea that there is more than one way to pray can (and did) truly transform a person – even a group of people!

Sarah and I have been performing this Slichot show for three years now, under the brilliant vision/direction of Annie Levy, and the meaning seems to shift and deepen as we go along. Somewhere along the way we decided I would sing my song “More Than One Way” as a punctuation point to the stretch, in which we asked the question that began this blog (ie, how do we pray?)

The rabbi revealed, during our talkback, that there was a Baptist preacher inside him just straining to get out, but what would the public say? He bravely acknowledged the pressures of the kahal, the community expectations which stood between him and the kind of prayer he knows he can lead. Later we spoke one-on-one about this and he shared that sometimes he does get into preacher mode, and someone from the choir might call out, “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!”

Let me also paint a visual from earlier in the day: small children sitting on the gym mats in front of the large, dark 14th Street Y stage. As I knelt before them to ask my question, they looked up at me, wide-eyed. “Remember how Hagar called out her prayer? Do we need to call out like that?” Some nods, some shakes of the head. “How about Chana’s prayer? Do we need to whisper like Chana?” More nods, more shakes of the head. “Is either one OK?” Everyone nods. “You see, the beautiful thing is,” I wind down, “YOU get to choose. You can decide.”

Sarah Sokolic tailored this script to young people, and while it succeeded in simplifying and getting across the bulls-eye to a young audience, perhaps what was even more moving and impressive about her writing is that it also reached an older audience when we performed it a second time in New Jersey later that day.

We all – children of all ages - need and crave the reminders that we can, are allowed and even encouraged to pray and connect in a way that feels meaningful to us.

As Elul begins to hone in on the Ten Holy Days from Rosh Hashanah to the closing gates of Yom Kippur, I wish all of us the strength to reach for a prayer; whether we cry out like Hagar, whisper like Chana, or find different way to pray, may we have the strength to connect with some form of prayer, and may the prayer give us strength to continue to pray.

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