How Jews Pray

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How Jews Pray, the third in our “How Jews…” series, checks out what Jews are talking about — from an Australian Jew in New York to an Argentinian Jew in Los Angeles, and other folks in the woods, the cities, and some places in between. What do people who don’t believe in God think about praying?

When I was young, a secular Jewish kid living down the street from Hasidim — a weird remix of The Chosen — I thought it was mysterious how all the long-black-coated, hair-covered Jews was that they seemed to have their own way of talking to God. They didn’t just go to synagogue and pray like normal people — they would pray in living rooms, or in backyards, and they muttered to themselves walking down the street. Plus, they wore those funny clothes. Was God telling them something that God wasn’t telling the rest of us?

I guess I just felt disenfranchised.

This was before I met Jewish Renewalists who meditate and pray. And musicians like Chana Rothman and Jeremiah Lockwood, who pray by singing their hearts out. And before I learned how to pray myself, wherever I was and whatever was on my mind, sometimes in a “thank you” way, and sometimes in an “I need to save myself” way.

A few weeks ago, in introducing his new prayerbook, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “We have a problem with prayer” — and proceeded to detail how, in this world where we’re obsessed with talking about ourselves and eavesdropping on other people, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to speak to God. Whatever each of us think of God, and even, in one person’s case, whether or not we believe in God.

I think that’s my favorite thing about this video, above all the others we’ve done so far. It helps us remember.

Posted on June 9, 2009

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12 thoughts on “How Jews Pray

  1. amadeus482000

    This is truly a cynical stab at diversity and inclusiveness. Just the subject line, “How Jews Pray,” assumes that Jews must pray or not. “We’ve forgotten what’s it’s like to speak to God” exposes this. But who is this “we” that Roth claims to speak for? He certainly does not speak for me. Roth needs to be far more careful about voice if he hopes to actually reach out to “Jews.”

    Lumping a group of people together by certain standards and claiming their voice smacks of prejudice. Lumping Jews together by certain standards and claiming their voice smacks of antisemitism.

  2. matthue Post author

    I’m excited that I don’t speak for you, Amadeus! And I’d really love to hear (and see) your own take on prayer, and what it does or doesn’t mean to you.

    This video doesn’t try to be the definitive answer to how Jews pray — otherwise, we’d call it “How All Jews Pray,” or even “How the Jewish Nation Prays.” It’s just different people talking about how they do or don’t talk to a God that some believe in, and some don’t. I’m actually pretty proud that we got an atheist viewpoint into a video called “How Jews Pray.”

    Just because it isn’t 100% your own personal viewpoint, I don’t think that calls for throwing around the label of anti-Semitism. Assuming that any 6 Jews can count as all Jews, I think, is a much more cynical approach.

    But, really, we’d love for you to make your own video in response — or even be in our next video, if you’re around where Judy Prays is filming. Don’t just shoot us down — tell us what you think. If your computer has a video camera, you can record a video at or other sites like it, and just post it right here. Or on YouTube. Or anywhere.

  3. amadeus482000

    a) You’ve missed the point, which is that an assumed standard was set for Jews around the notion of “prayer” itself. I’ve seen the Christian version of this video, and it’s called the 700 Club.

    b) You’ve passed over my other point, which is that the article states “we’ve forgotten what it’s like to speak to God.” Who is the “we” you are referring to, and by what means did you arrive at that statement?

    c) It is not incumbent on any Jew to buckdance around the issue of prayer in particular for other Jews to highlight their differences or sameness. For a believer prayer may be private and personal and ultimately between the pray-er and God. And for a non-believer it may not be worth a moment’s reckoning.

    As such, the artificial framing of the conversation is in my opinion out-of-touch and entirely unhelpful. I find it no more useful than asking “How do Jews not eat bacon?” It’s meant to be moved forward based on an assumed set of conditions and arguments. I’m sorry, but that’s either ignorance or deep cynicism at work.

  4. matthue Post author

    Well, that’s why we have 8 glorious sections here on MyJewishLearning. If you’re not intrigued by points of view other than your own, you’re sure to find something else around here. If you’re curious about what some Jews eat, for instance, you should definitely check out our film How Jews Eat.

    (Although, outside the realms of seriousness — your comment about the 700 Club was totally awesome.)

  5. amadeus482000

    Once again, Matthue: you’ve written: “we’ve forgotten what it’s like to speak to God.” Who is the “we” you are referring to, and by what means did you arrive at that statement?

  6. Jeremy Moses

    Maybe it’s just me (and others are welcome to comment), but sometimes a video is just a video, you know?

    I think maybe it would have been cool to have one person in the video who doesn’t pray, but that’s just me being picky.

    I don’t think you can really cover more than what’s covered in a 5 minute video. This isn’t Roots or anything. PBS hasn’t called us…yet…

  7. amadeus482000

    Yes, he did– check what’s in the quotes and outside of the quotes. He repeats Sacks’ idea and elaborates on it in his own words.

  8. amadeus482000

    At any rate, Matthue, kudos to you on dropping what you’d originally written.

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