Monthly Archives: June 2012

Writing Personal Prayers

By Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

For several decades I’ve written what I call liturgical readings – sometimes called “additional readings” in a service — but I never penned a “real” prayer until recently when I was asked to lead a personal-prayer-writing workshop for a few hundred people at a local synagogue (Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), helping people write prayers for big and little personal events that don’t occur in the synagogue; sort of the next step after using the prayers that already exist for things like seeing a rainbow, wearing new clothes, etc.

With a quick deadline for teaching the class, I talked with one of Beth Sholom’s rabbis about the basics of writing a prayer, and read through Talking to God, Naomi Levy’s wonderful collection of personal prayers, the type I intended to teach.  In creating my class and writing my sample prayers,  I followed a few guidelines, only enough to ground myself: I could mention God by “name” or not, and I could use any of the varieties such as “Compassionate One,” “Rock,” etc.  Additionally, it was okay for me to pray for or about something “un-synagogue-like,” such as the already canonized prayers for wearing new clothes or using the bathroom.  In general, I felt the prayer should end with an “amen.”  I also believe that God doesn’t have supernatural powers, so while I couldn’t ask God to cure my friend’s cancer, I could pray for the strength and love to be a good friend for her.

Throughout it all, I kept reminding myself that writing a prayer is an active and personal way for me to talk with God.  It’s the opportunity to verbalize my core values.  Prayer is the voice of my heart and soul.  That was the bottom line.

I always experiment with creating a genre of writing before teaching it, so I tapped into what was on my mind; what came up was my 88-year-old mother, who had made a tremendous effort to come from another city to attend the first seder at my house.  So I wrote A Prayer for my Elderly Mother:

Fortify me, Compassionate One, as I help my elderly mother make life-altering changes.  Teach me patience as I support her in keeping true to herself.  Help me make my contact with her loving and clear in spite of complications we’ve had in the past.  Be there with me as I hold her hand as she moves forward, and given her age, support me in trying to make each communication with her end with loving words.  And please, help me balance the needs of my mother with the needs of my daughter, and nourish me with a bottomless well of courage and stamina. Amen.

A few days later, I had breakfast for a former boyfriend who I hadn’t had a real conversation in more than 25 years.  It was great to catch up, and it reminded me of what I had loved about him.  Simultaneously, I was reminded of what would have been the downfall of our relationship.  As we chatted I found myself thinking “Thank God I didn’t marry this man” – and I realized that I could take that thought a step further and actually thank God, directly, that I hadn’t married him.   I realized that anytime I thought or said “thank God,” or “oh my God,” or “God forbid” – or any phrase including a mention of God — there was an opportunity for me to actually connect with God.

So when I got home I wrote my Prayer About Meeting With an Old Boyfriend:

Thank you, God, for giving me the foresight to know that marriage to this man would not have been a happy one in the long run.  I am grateful to you for supporting me with enough self-awareness, and strength, to make a difficult choice in spite of all my longing to find my life partner.  Remind me of the important lessons I learned in my relationship with him.  Finally, please underscore my hope that he has a joyful, loving life with his partner of choice, as I have with mine.  Amen.

And a few days after that, my financial planner was asking my husband and me about medical conditions that might make it more difficult for us to qualify for long-term-care insurance.  He went through a long list of diseases and disabilities which, thankfully, we don’t have.  At the end, I thought, “I should write a prayer thanking God for our good middle-aged health” – which became the first in a growing list of personal prayers for me to write.  Frankly, even just recognizing the possibility of a prayer, even if I never write it, is a new way for me to enhance my spiritual life.

Tuning into “If I just ‘thanked God’ then I should go ahead and actually thank God” as the source of possible prayer-writing is a wonderful new mindset.  I’ve tuned into my own experiences with the awareness that many dimensions of my life, however seemingly trivial or mundane, could be appropriate sources of prayer.

I’ve also begun to play with with other formats for writing prayers, such as a haiku (a poem in which the first line has five syllables, the second has seven syllables, and the third has five syllables):

Lord, fill me up with courage
That doesn’t run out
To face what has to be done

I’ve also experimented with an acrostic (a poem in which you write a meaningful word vertically, and then each line of the poem opens with a word whose first letter is determined by the word you wrote vertically; in mine, I used “gratitude” as the key word.)

God, I never
Realized how important it is for
A person like myself
To grapple with the Torah
In search of meaning
Thank you for
Understanding and
Doing all you do, which
Enables me to stretch and grow

And I wrote a more traditional poem, too, which I called “Thank you for Fruit”:

We ate your apples at the seder, Adonai,
Their flesh off-white, like day-old ice
as if they’d never seen the sun
all covered by a blanket of thick skin
Stuff to keep the doctor away
softened by wine and walnuts

But now it’s time for your strawberries
the color of sunburn on a green-eyed girl
Heart-shaped, wearing green collars
that remind us where they came from
and as sweet as the honeysuckle smells.
Another gift from you, summer, is just beyond the bend.

You don’t have to be a “good writer” – however you define that term– to write a prayer.  You don’t have to be an observant Jew, or someone with great knowledge about Judaism.  All you need is to tune into yourself and be receptive to your own thoughts.  All you need is the desire to be in some sort of relationship, and to share yourself, with God.

Janet Ruth Falon is a Philadelphia-based award-winning writer and writing teacher.  She is eager to teach workshops about how to write personal prayers; please contact her at jfalon@english.upenn.edu.  She is also the author of The Jewish Journaling Book, and is writing liturgy for all the Jewish holidays, hoping to compile it into a book entitled In the Spirit of the Holidays.

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Writing Midrash: A Writer’s Workshop for Two

by Pamela Jay Gottfried & Jonah Gottfried (Atlanta, GA)

My ten year old son and I study Torah together.  Once or twice a week, we sit together and read the narrative of Genesis. Then we discuss its deeper meaning and our interpretations of the text.

It is both a responsibility and a privilege to teach my son Torah.  It is also, at times, a burden. But the burden feels lighter, now that we have discovered a common interest: writing.

The progressive school he attends introduces Writer’s Workshop in 1st grade and the teachers help the students develop their critical thinking skills beginning in Preschool.  This year it all came together for Jonah: improved motor skills, increased facility with words, and a Language Arts teacher who inspired him to work to his potential.

I realized earlier this year that I could hitch a ride on this teacher’s coat tails, and I suggested to my son that we form our own Writer’s Workshop.

Some weeks—as often as our time permits and the text demands—we write our own midrashim (interpretations/legends) and we critique each other’s work.  Recently, we decided to attempt a co-authored piece. We left the file in a shared folder on the desktop and worked on revisions independently, using Word’s “track changes” tool.

Jonah started the midrash, an imagined conversation among the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Our goal was to illustrate how Isaac’s parenting skills affected Jacob’s decisions in his adult life.  The biblical text is sparse and often merely implies the inner thoughts and feelings of the heroes.  We thought it would be fun and instructive to give voice to these biblical figures.  We are also open to your feedback and ideas, so please share them!

 Interesting Interviews

by Jonah & Pamela Gottfried

Isaac: “Hello, I am your ghost-host, Isaac. Today I will be interviewing my son, Jacob, about whether he learned anything from the mistakes that I made while raising him.  What do you want to say about your childhood, Jacob?”

Jacob: “I don’t have many memories of my life as a little boy…except that you ruined my childhood because you loved Esau more than me!”

Isaac: “How did that ruin your childhood?”

Jacob: “Well, the story began when Esau came back from a hunting trip. He was very hungry and I was making soup. He told me that he would give me his birthright in exchange for some soup. If you ask me, that was a pretty stupid trade on his part, but I was happy to agree.”

Isaac: “Some soup for a birthright sounds like a pretty good deal for you, but why would Esau do that?”

Jacob: “He did it because he was so hungry that he was willing to give up anything for food.”

Isaac: “That didn’t stop you, though, did it?”

Jacob: “Nope, not really. But then you decided to give the blessing of the firstborn to Esau. I still had his birthright, so I deserved the blessing, too. And when you actually gave me the blessing, boy, was Esau mad. I had to run away just to survive!”

Isaac: “Wait a minute. I gave you the blessing for the firstborn?”

Jacob: “Yep.”

Isaac: “Hmm, I certainly don’t remember that happening.”

Jacob: “Anyway, Esau still resents me to this day for what I did, but I think he had it coming because of the way he treated me.

Isaac: “Wait, what’s the connection between this story and my question?”

Jacob: “Well, you ruined my life because my brother despises me and then later, when I became a parent—Hold on. I think I should let my father explain this part.

Isaac: “What? Father? I’m your father!”

Abraham: “No, Isaac, I’m your father. And I’m also the Father of Monotheism, making me Jacob’s spiritual father along with being his grandfather. Besides, everyone knows that grandparents have a special bond with their grandchildren. It helps that we have a common enemy.”

Jacob: “No kidding, Saba Abe.”

Abraham: “Yes, son. Now, let’s enlighten your father.  Isaac, your eyes may have grown dim with age, but your thinking was cloudy from the moment Esau brought you fresh meat.  Did you forget what God told Rebekah?”

Isaac: “I remember: ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ But as Esau grew, I wasn’t sure that God got it right. Esau wasn’t the servile type.”

Abraham: “What?! You thought God was wrong?”

Isaac: “Not really. I just didn’t know how to parent those unruly kids. They were always disagreeing and bickering with each other.  And your mother coddled you, Jacob. She loved you more than she loved Esau, and she didn’t hide her favoritism.

Jacob: “Really, Abba?! She was fulfilling God’s prophecy and you wrecked everything!”

Abraham: “Well, folks. There you have it. Rebekah and Jacob may have staged the deception, but it was the Almighty who wrote the script.”

Isaac: “I still don’t see how this ruined your life, Jacob. I mean, now you have everything—a house full of wives and kids, sheep, worldly possessions…”

Jacob: “Is that what you see?! Look more carefully and you’ll understand. My beloved wife, Rachel, died in childbirth, leaving me with only Joseph and Benjamin to console me. The other ten brothers hate Joseph because he wears a special coat and describes his dreams of the entire family bowing before him.”

Isaac: “Didn’t you give him that special coat? You showed favoritism to the younger…”

Jacob & Abraham: “Exactly!”

Pamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher and author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom.  Jonah A. Gottfried is an aspiring author and rising 5th grader whose teachers are trained in the Writing Workshop curriculum. You can read more of Gottfried’s work at her website:  http://www.pamelagottfried.com/ 

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