Tag Archives: gratitude

Modeh Ani: I Am Grateful

by Laura Greene (Whitefish Bay, WI)

In 1957 I boarded the SS United States and sailed from New York to Germany to marry a “nice Jewish boy from New Jersey.” Neither of our parents attended our wedding, although they both approved of the marriage. The Army Chaplin provided the men for the minyan, and they held the chupah. I didn’t know any of the guests or what a minyan or a chupah were. At the end of the ceremony the rabbi folded my hands around a sheet of paper. I thought it rather strange to be handed a marriage license at the end of my wedding. The rabbi looked directly into my eyes and his last words to me before releasing my hands were, “The responsibility of having a Jewish home is yours.”

I was dumbfounded. This wasn’t fair. I had no knowledge of such things. Why was this my responsibility? Why hadn’t he warned me that he was going to say this in front of God! I would have argued, protested, refused. But now it was too late.

I am the daughter of two American-born, secular Jewish parents. I grew up in New Jersey which Jewishly is a suburb of New York. My Jewish grandparents on both sides went back to Moscow and Constantinople. They and my parents spoke Yiddish and attended Yiddish theatre. Yet none of them celebrated a Jewish holiday.

My mother never lit a Shabbat candle. Our so-called Seders meant bread on one plate and matzah on another. Hagaddah?  I never heard of it. I stayed home from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because it didn’t look nice for me to be in school. My parents usually had an argument on Yom Kippur because my father, who stayed home from work, insisted on eating. To him religion was superstitious nonsense. Sometimes he referred to it as black magic and he mocked the religious. Yet, I always knew I was Jewish. My brother had a bar mitzvah by memorizing his portion. My mother made chicken soup, chopped liver, kugel, bacon and shrimp.

In college a sorority sister invited me to her family Seder. Her brother was studying to be a cantor and he sang the liturgy. The family explained the proceedings as the family read from the Hagaddah and sang the traditional melodies. How kind and gentle the family were. How non-judgmental. I felt cheated at how much I had missed. If I married a Jewish boy, maybe I could catch up. My parents wanted me to marry Jewish. They were pleased when I found Victor.

Victor and I met in college. Like me, Victor was Jewish all the way back. In fact his father lay t’fillin every morning. I found out much later that his father never told him why or taught him how. Victor’s Hebrew and religious school experiences were fraught with unhappy memories. He entered the army after college graduation and was sent to Germany. We decided not to wait to get married, and instead, took the opportunity to visit Europe during his leave time.

When we returned home, we both enrolled in school. He earned a Ph. D degree and I earned an MA degree. Our friends were academics. We hosted Seders and invited our non-Jewish friends. Victor knew how to lead a Seder and I knew how to cook. I lit my grandmother’s brass candlesticks that my mother had tucked into my luggage when I left for Germany. Victor’s first teaching job was in Manhattan, Kansas and there I had my next Jewish experience.

There were two resident Jewish families in Manhattan. They adopted the itinerant, and, for the most part, uncommitted Jewish university faculty members. The ever-fluid Jewish community owned a one room building and from time to time a student rabbi from Fort Riley would pay a call. For Passover the two resident families ordered supplies from Topeka and arranged for shipment to Manhattan. I ordered two boxes of matzah.

Nina Becker taught me how to light Shabbat candles and how to bench. I was awkward, but I did it. I never forgot what the rabbi said at my wedding. What was I going to do when I had children? I knew nothing.

While in Kansas, I gave birth to a daughter.  Then, since academics travel, our son was born in Ohio. Knowing nothing about the importance of names, and neither family making suggestions, we just picked our children’s names because we both liked them. Our son was circumcised, but there was no brit milah. It didn’t matter to anyone. The decision still haunts me. We never missed hosting a Seder, and I never missed lighting Shabbat candles.

Victor’s next teaching job was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so we said good-bye to Kansas. By then our daughter was eight-years-old and our son, three. Victor drove a U-haul truck with all our belongings and I followed him in our VW Bug with the children. They had been the only Jewish children in that college town. There were no child car seats or seat belts in those days. To avoid the summer heat and traffic, we left about 3 a.m. I fell asleep at the wheel and hit a guardrail. The car went airborne over a fifty-foot embankment, plunged down, hit the ground, and bounced a few feet before stopping.

Miracle number one: The car did not turn over. Miracle number two: My children were not hurt. They had bounced between and among the nest of pillows and stuffed animals.

“That was fun, Mommy, can we do it again?” said my three year old when the car stopped moving.

I did everything wrong after that. Believing it was safer in the car than on the road, I told my children to stay in the car. Dazed and shaken, I climbed up the hill to get help.

Miracle number three: The car did not catch fire. My daughter had the good sense to turn off the motor. We stayed in voice contact. Victor, unaware of the accident, continued his journey.

A trucker spotted me. It must have been very strange to see a woman pacing the interstate road in the dark and screaming over an embankment. There were no cell phones in those days.

“Where’s your car?” he asked.

Shivering in the 80-degree heat, I pointed.

“Stay here. I’ll report the accident at the next exit.” He drove away.

Two cars passed without slowing. Meanwhile, I kept telling my children to stay put. It seemed forever before a police car arrived. The officer was kind. He asked me where I got my jacket. Until then I hadn’t noticed that the trucker had put his jacket on my shoulders.

The policeman stayed with me until Victor arrived. When Victor saw only me and not the children, his face contorted in pain.

“The kids are fine,” I said.

He put his head on the rolled-down window and cried for a few moments, then climbed down the hill and retrieved our children. Geoffrey’s pajamas were the color of the rising sun. I still cannot see the orange sun without remembering that accident.

Miracle number four: The VW Bug had not rolled over, but the guardrail had ripped a hole through the door of the driver’s seat. The hole was large enough to put my head through, but we walked away from that accident. We completed our trip scrunched in the cab of the U-haul truck. I never knew who the truck driver was. I never had the chance to thank him or return his coat. I wondered why I was still alive and my children safe. What made him stop when others didn’t?

We arrived in Milwaukee in August. I wanted to attend High Holiday Services. I needed to thank God I hadn’t killed my children. I needed to thank God for being alive. I needed to thank God for sending us the truck driver.

We visited all the Reform and Conservative synagogues in town. At each one we were told that without tickets we couldn’t attend the High Holidays. I asked why a person needed a ticket to pray. The answers did not satisfy me. Defeated, I told one Conservative rabbi that we’d pray in the park. He responded differently than the others. “A Jew should not pray alone on the High Holidays. If you decide to join us fine, if not, that’s fine too.  Come and welcome.”

We joined that day and enrolled our daughter in his religious school. Shortly after, at my daughter’s public school orientation, a woman approached me. “You’re new in town,” she said. “Are you Jewish?”

Her question shocked me. People in Kansas and New Jersey just don’t go around asking that question. I must have looked stunned because she laughed.

“I’m a speech therapist. I can tell by your accent you’re from the east coast. So I guess you’re Jewish. I’m Jewish too. Give me your phone number and I’ll invite you for Shabbat.”

To my surprise, she did. We talked. She said the synagogue I had just joined was looking for teachers and I should apply. I laughed.

“I don’t know anything,”’ I said.

“So, you’ll learn. You’ll keep one step ahead of the kids. I’ll help you.”

She did, and I did. We became good friends. Bit by bit I learned. Many people mentored me. I took courses through the Jewish community and the university. I attended Jewish conferences. It wasn’t long before I identified strongly as a Reform Jew. In time I received certification from HUC and teacher certification from the University of Wisconsin. I learned Hebrew, and, through the years, have received numerous teaching awards. I love what I do. My life was enriched because of my involvement in Jewish education. After 40 years of teaching in religious school and Hebrew school and helping kids prepare for becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, I have gained far more than I have given. Perhaps my debt to the truck driver is now paid in full. I wonder if he got his jacket back.

Just as I have been influenced by my many teachers, so have I influenced the children I’ve taught. I think about my Jewish journey and how far I have come. Was I led here? I like to think so. My husband is no longer reluctant to attend services with me or display Jewish artifacts in our home. When we recently downsized from a house to an apartment, he requested that a mezuzah be on every doorpost of our apartment, not just the front door. I wish I had treasured that strange paper the rabbi placed between my hands on my wedding day, but I didn’t know what a ketubah was. When I told this story to my present rabbi he smiled.

“You could have said no.”

His answer surprised me. Until then it never occurred to me that I had that option.

My daughter didn’t marry, but my son married a Jewish girl and they recently joined a synagogue. They live far away from me. My oldest grandchild now attends religious school kindergarten. He will learn Hebrew, see his grandmother light Shabbat candles and understand why. My brother, an atheist, is a strong supporter of Israel and his daughter and her family are active members of an Orthodox Jewish community. Our parents must have done something right, and maybe we did, too. I am blessed. L’dor v’dor.

Laura Greene holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. She has written twelve books for children and has received commendations for her work from the National Council of Teachers of the Social Sciences, Council for Wisconsin Writers, and the Writers League of Texas. She is currently seeking publication of her first adult novel: Walking on the Razor, a literary thriller about Eli Cohn, an Israeli spy whose courage saved a nation. Married, with two children, and three grandchildren, Laura enjoys reading, knitting, ballet, music, travel, cooking, and teaching. 

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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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Believing in God

by Jennifer Singer (Sarasota, FL)

Had an interesting conversation today with my friend Geoff Huntting, aka Rabbi Huntting.  We were commenting on the conundrum of not believing in God and yet being comforted by God-talk.  I’m always happy to talk to a like-minded person who isn’t uncomfortable with the seeming contradiction this poses.

It reminds me of a comment by my teacher at JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary), Rabbi Neil Gillman, who said that he is capable of being a rational Columbia University professor on Tuesday morning, and then feeling like he’s standing at Sinai with the Children of Israel on Saturday morning.

Note that I’ve now cited not one but two rabbis.  Thus, I hope, strengthening my case that it’s okay to have a complicated relationship with God and with God-talk.  If you ask me whether I believe in God, the answer will always be “no.”  But if you ask me if I’m comfortable with prayer that talks directly to God, or anthropomorphizes God, the answer is “yes.”

My friend Randi Brodsky (not a rabbi, but she is a physician so that should count for something) commented on my recent post called My Lucky Day (http://srqjew.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/my-lucky-day/), and said something very profound:

“Seems silly that I will ascribe good things that happen to me to God, but dumb things I will ascribe to bad luck, not that God is punishing me.  If I think about this too much, my head spins!”

I’m with her all the way on this, especially the part about it making my head spin.

It’s true — we call it bad luck when things go wrong and thank God when things go right.  And despite its confounding nature, I think this is both perfectly natural and absolutely correct.

I, for one, do not want to walk around blaming the Deity for the bad things that happen, whether they’re big (such as explosions at airports or 9-year-old girls getting shot and killed in Arizona) or little (such as why does my left elbow hurt and why won’t it stop).  I’m perfectly happy with seeing those as people-driven rather than God-driven.  (I think the elbow thing has a lot to do with texting and typing, meaning that it’s my own damn fault.)

But I also think it’s great to thank God for the good things, like my dog Xander being such a cutie (he’s snuggling the aforementioned elbow – I wonder if he can tell that it hurts), or the fact that the 12th anniversary of my cancer diagnosis is just a couple of days away.

Who cares if there’s a God Who’s listening?  Certainly not I.  Doesn’t matter if my gratitude is directed to a specific Someone or just the cosmos in general.  As long as I remember to be grateful.

Thus I will blithely continue to insist that I don’t believe in God while I continue to be perfectly happy with prayer.

Jennifer Singer has served as Foundation Director at the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation, worked as an educator at the Flanzer Jewish Community Center, and taught in programs across the community for adults and children.

In 2006, she earned a Master of Arts degree in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and currently works as a fundraiser for Technion University, as well as part-time at Kol HaNeshama, a Reconstructionist congregation, where she leads services and a Family Education program called Doorways to Judaism.

She shares her home with her husband, two daughters, four dogs, three parrots, two cats, and a turtle, and hopes one day to attend rabbinical school.

You can read more of her work at her blog SRQ Jew (http://srqjew.wordpress.com/) where this piece first appeared. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Giving Thanks

by Jacob Winkler (Passaic, NJ)

I remember running through the streets
it was still dark and I was racing
to my favorite rooftop.

This was before I learned to pray.

I would watch the sun
and in the quiet world around me
raise my arms to the sky
and twirl.

Thank You!
Thank You for the waking birds
the sun-streaks and the mountain wind.

Thank You for this life
this body and soul
and the companions You’ve given me
on this journey
my family, my friends.

Now I glance up
between verses of Psalms.

Today I have so much more
to be thankful for
it takes a long time
to say Thank You
in the morning.

Jacob Winkler lives in Passaic, NJ with his wife and one year old son. While he and his family are members of the observant community, he says he doesn’t fit easily into categories. Before spending three years learning at Yeshiva Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, he studied at the Kripalu Yoga Center in Massachusetts and spent a semester at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

You can find more of his work on his website, Glory To The Highest, http://www.glorytothehighest.com, where this piece first appeared. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Finding My Place

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Standing outside the temple,
I hesitated at the door, deciding
whether I would enter for the High Holidays.
“You speakin’ to me?” I asked when
I thought I heard Him inside my head,
beckoning me to come in and pray.
I was reluctant to go inside.
Honestly, I’m just not that comfortable
with the old men chanting in indecipherable tongues,
with standing up, sitting down, repeated too many times.
But then the thought came to me, (through Him?)
religion is not a matter of comfort, but gratitude.
I thought of not being pressed into a cattle car,
thought of living three score and more,
thought of having two fine sons,
and finally, of being, at least tangentially
a part of a 5,000 year old legacy, reasons enough
to rethink a few procedural questions.
“Well,” He said, “coming in?”
“Yes,” I said, firmly, walking in, finding my place.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

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