Monday, July 22, 2019

Learning, the hard way, or learning from the inside out: An am haaretz teaches herself to davven

Am ha-aretz:  a Jewishly-illiterate Jew.
Davven:  Pray (Yiddish)

These are the three most important things that I learned from the first rabbi whom I chose as an adult:

~ Since he was a hard-core classical Reconstructionist, he taught me that the Jewish People was at the heart of Judaism.  (Of the traditional three components of Judaism, the other two are Torah [and other traditional Jewish religious texts such as the Talmud], which, in the 1970s, some would say was at the heart of Orthodox and Conservative Jewish practice, and God, which, in the 1970s, some would say was at the heart of the Reform Jewish approach).
~ He introduced me to a critical and not-necessarily-literal approach to the Bible.
~ He disagreed radically with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and some of the early leaders of the Reconstructionist Movement on one major point--he hated the fact that different denominations used different prayer-books.  He posited that the denominations divided us enough already, and that we should all use the same prayer-book, either reinterpreting the prayers or, if necessary, simply thinking of them as quotations from our ancestors.  (I have since learned that there's no such thing as "the same prayer-book"--we're still divided among users of Nusach Italki, Nusach Ashkenaz, Nusach Sfard, Western and Eastern versions of Nusach shel Ha-S'faradim, and the various nuschaot used by B'nai Edot HaMizrach such as Syrian and Iraqi Jews, not to mention Yemenite nusach and whatever nuschaot the Ethiopian Jews and the various Indian Jewish groups use.  I hope I didn't miss anyone).

At first, I really loved the (original) Reconstructionist prayer-book because it didn't "force" me to say anything that I didn't believe literally.  But I ran into a logistical problem--since our synagogue followed the Reform practice of not observing the second and "last" days of the Shalosh Regalim (Pilgrimage Festivals), I often found myself praying at Conservative or Orthodox synagogues on second and "last" days, and the fact that I'd never learned to pray in Hebrew, much less from a non-Reconstructionist siddur (prayer-book), interfered with my ability to participate in services there.

Besides, how was I supposed to pray the rest of the time?  I had no idea how to pray a weekday service.

So, one fine day, I bought myself a copy of my rabbi's favorite Orthodox prayer-book, the Birnbaum Siddur.  Then I started teaching myself to use it.

But, rather than starting from the beginning, I decided to start from what I understood to be the heart of Jewish prayer, the part that all serious pray-ers considered required:  the Sh'ma section followed by the Amidah ("Standing" Prayer).  And I decided to learn it the way it's prayed:  not b'rachah (blessing) by b'rachah or page by page, but as one unit.

Given the limitations of my Hebrew-reading ability, it took me something like five months.

And that was just the beginning.  First, I worked my way backward and learned P'sukei D'Zimrah, then the beginning section including Birkot HaTorah, Birkot HaShachar, L'olam y'hei adam, Rabbi Yishmael Omer, and Psalm 30 (known as Mizmor, Shel Chanukat HaBayit, L'David).

Then, I worked my way forward, learning Psalm 30 (known as La-m'natseach), Kedushah D'Sidra, and all of the Shirei Yom (Psalms of the Day).

And finally, I resigned myself to learning at least part of Tachanun for the sole reason that I couldn't see skipping an entire section just because I didn't much appreciate it.

But that's not all, folks.  Given the fact that we say the Musaf of Shalosh Regalim only 10 times a year (I think) and the Musaf of Rosh Chodesh (New Moon/New Month) only 12 times a year (or 13 in a Jewish Leap Year), you shouldn't be surprised that it took me well over a decade to learn each of those!

And I did finally pick up another few sentences of Tachanun within the past decade or so, due to, first, a switch to the Koren Sacks Siddur, in which the "beginning section" was divided differently and, then, to the fact that I began to feel uncomfortable about skipping the entire "shuv me-charon apecha" subsection.

I started teaching myself to davven at roughly age 27, and just finished--maybe--about six years ago.  Somewhere along the way, I also taught myself Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) and how to put on tefillin without them sliding down my arm.  :)

It's been one heck of a learning project.

See also:

Near tears at morning minyan (and the posts to which I linked there)

Learning from the inside out

A word on behalf of the rest of us



Blogger David Staum said...

Kol Hakavod!

My Yeshiva education left me with a lot of things I strongly dislike. Lack of critical thinking, blind faith, and numerous disturbing prejudices, which I’ve thankfully shaken in adulthood.

But I will forever be grateful how lucky I was. I am grateful to that education for teaching me Hebrew, teaching me to daven, and teaching me to study Jewish texts in the original. All in childhood.

Tue Jul 23, 02:19:00 PM 2019  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

David, I just added a new link at the end of this post, just because it's easier to create a link in a post than in a comment. The linked post, "A word on behalf of the rest of us," is all about what you said above.

Wed Jul 24, 10:51:00 PM 2019  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

And thanks for the Kol Hakavod. It's rare for us late-bloomers to receive any recognition for all the hard work that we have to do to (even begin to) catch up.

Fri Jul 26, 06:05:00 PM 2019  

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