So often, we are faced with normative Jewish life rhythms, attending religious services whose substance and form just seemingly “are” (stand up, sit down, silence, repent, repeat, anyone?). And yet, our tradition tells us our Jewish prayer life does not have to be this way:
In fact, it actually never was.
Piyyutim or liturgical poems that originated in Israel from the time that the standardized prayers were being decided on by The Great Assembly, remind us that even what we are traditionally called to say is always accompanied by the wider call of our fiercely human hearts, which daringly, and often, rebelliously, speak.
Lying on my back, waiting until the daylight would turn to dark, I wish I had known. It was the longest winter of my life and unlike Camus, for me, there was no “invincible summer.” Only a count of the number of onegs I missed on both my hands and a deep, painful secret: I was emotionally devastated and so physically ill from it, that I could not pray.
My friends, David Karpel and Elad Nehorai, did not know this when they offered me the opportunity to tell my story. And little did I realize, this practice was my first piyyut. And my writing of communal trauma? A first passage to radically re-defining Jewish prayer.
Over the course of 2016-2017, I wrote nearly 450 piyyutim, which have dangled in and between me, standardized prayers and Jewish communities and which have collectively strengthened me to reconceive or rather, rewrite Jewish living. And as I started writing, on my childhood, on my differences of disability and economic difficulty in parts of my twenties, I learned about others’ writing, too. And with #MeToo and the profile of Jewish women of colour during Black History Month (which you should all stop right now and read), the stories got wider and freer, too.
Soon, those at the margins of institutional Jewish life, were having their stories shared like never before.
And the genre of contemporary piyyutim, of post-modern prayers adorning prayers, only grew.
Liturgical poems, to me, are the gateway in which Jews can re-purpose their personal stories in the service of their lives and communities. Having shared this way of writing, and true, living, with Jewish communities over the last year, I notice something amazing is happening:
When people come together to write out their experiences exactly as they are, they show up and glean meaning from Jewish life like never before. And when their lived experiences meet the recorded histories of our ancestors, the result is a meaning and a belonging that elevates us toward an inclusive and welcoming Jewish existence. We are poised for connecting, wired for leading and prepared, as ever, for awe-inspiring living.
Viktor Frankl once spoke of the freedom to take a stand toward conditions. My hope is that through my writing, you will be able to grow aware of the forces affecting your life in the world and tap into the potential for practices of meaning and well-being that will lead you in the direction of the life of your choosing. And I pray you’ll go on telling your stories.
Into. Toward. Blessed stretching and unknowing.