The Do-It-Yourself Prayerbook

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Patrick Aleph is the lead singer of the Southern Jewish punk band Can!!Can and a former employee of Modern Tribe Judaica. Michael Sabani is his quieter, more introverted partner in crime. Together, they’re creating PunkTorah, a mostly (but not entirely) online Jewish community of punks, vegetarians, outlaws, and anyone else who (in their words) wants to take ownership of their spirituality. indie minyan kitPhysically, they’re based in Atlanta (with a group house and beis midrash/library in the works), but online, they’re literally all over the place. And, with the release of their new Indie Minyan Kit, they’re aligning themselves for even bigger things.

The Minyan Kit includes music, an “egalitarian kippah” (more on that to come) and a brand new PunkTorah Siddur — a “gender-inclusive, LGBT friendly, progressive and independent” prayerbook for individuals and groups, with prayers composed by Aleph and Sabani.

In their short existence so far, Sabani and Aleph have been wildly productive. They’ve started a video blog of the weekly Torah portion, created an online IndieYeshiva (their word) of outside-the-box Jewish learning, and printed about a million little themed pins, from the kooky “Hey! There’s a box on my head”yoda jewish to drawing the missing link (see the graphic on the right) between Star Wars and Pirkei Avot. I wrote my first book about Jewish punk kids because I was Jewish, and pretty intense about it — “intense” in a slam-dancing, shout-your-prayers-out-loud way — and I wished there were other people out there that felt the same way I did. Patrick and Michael did the same thing, but they went a step further: instead of fantasizing about the community, they’re actually building it. Through their websites PunkTorah.com and IndieYeshiva.org, they’re building a virtual community of like-minded activists, learners, and Jews that want to be affiliated, but are uncomfortable affiliating with the usual places. We asked them about the perfect minyan, how to write a siddur…and what exactly a gender-inclusive kippah is.

MyJewishLearning: Let me start off by saying I don’t get it. What’s the difference between a regular kippah and an egalitarian kippah?

Michael Sabani (to Patrick): You kind of named it that.

Patrick Aleph: That’s true, I did name it that. The egalitarian kippah came out of my experience of going to the Limmud fest, the first-ever Southeastern Limmud fest, and seeing women walking around with kippot. When we were putting together the idea for the IndieMinyan kit, I casually talked to friends of ours about what we wanted to include. We struggled with this thing of, how do you do headcoverings for men and for women? We finally decided, instead of having lace headcoverings and yarmulkes and scarves–so what’s the one thing we can do that covers all headcoverings? We picked this one design that was gender-inclusive, that wasn’t too much in either direction.

Why not just use one of the egalitarian siddurim that already exists?

Michael: Personally, for me this came out of a soul search — more a soul struggle. I got all these different siddurs, and I’m looking at them, and they’re so — just confusing to me. With PunkTorah, we’re making a place where outsiders can feel welcome, and where I can feel welcome. I would study with some Orthodox rabbis, and I’m like, how do you do this stuff? How do you pray every day? We didn’t have any spirituality in the house at all growing up. I was looking for guidance, getting different answers from everywhere. We wanted to take Judaism and make it understandable for us — something that anyone can feel comfortable making their own.

Patrick: One thing for me is, when I started talking about writing a siddur, at first Michael mentioned it to me — I’ve got a really out-there idea, let’s write a siddur. I’d been writing since i was 11 years old, but it never occurred to me that a siddur was something that someone could write. Someone could look at our siddur and say, hey, that’s something I can write. Prayer should be open source.

So was the idea of the PunkTorah siddur to create a beginner’s prayerbook, or an everyone-should-write-their-own?

Michael: I wouldn’t call it a beginner’s prayerbook, but it is an easily-approachable one. It’s for someone who’s not in the traditional or progressive movement, or someone who’s not familiar with praying 3 times a day — you alterna-rebbe michael sabaniknow, someone who’s like “You mean there’s more than just going to services on Friday night?” We wanted to bring it into people’s lives, the idea of praying three times a day. And if it inspires people to write their own, that’d be incredible — to inspire someone to own their Judaism by creating their own.

Patrick: I almost see it like when you’re young, and you go to your first rock concert, and you see a band play that you’ve heard on the radio, and then you pick up a guitar or the drums, you’re not going to play that style of whatever that person’s into — you might play something completely different. But you still have that initial experience, and you use that to go the next step. Michael: The whole big driving point behind this whole yearlong project of writing the siddur and creating [the upcoming website] 3xDaily, I come from an interfaith home, too — my father’s Muslim. We didn’t do anything Muslim as kids, but seeing the whole Islamic aspect of praying five times a day and how vital that is to Muslim identity — it’s like, being a Muslim means that you pray five times daily. And I have the Jewish concept of praying three times a day, and it’s not familiar to many Jews, even affiliated ones — they don’t even know what you’re talking about. We want to bring that to people, to make it important and approachable. That’s one of the main things we tried to do with the siddur — it’ll have videos and content and, just, how to pray 3 times a day. Not that you should pray, but that you can — and this is how.

Did you base your prayers on any single translation, or was any existing prayerbook influential for you?

Michael: Pretty much all of them were. We have a bunch in the IndieYeshiva library — as we wrote, we would have all of them open, and we just jumped from Mishkan Tefilah [the new Reform prayerbook] to Renewal to ArtScroll and the Koren Sacks Siddur and Reconstructionist.

Patrick: Not just that, but also having different commentary books and philosophy books. We really wanted to bring in everything. If there was a word we didn’t understand or a comment that didn’t make sense, we tried to see what everyone thought about it — we took this gigantic base, and then we went ahead and mashed up everything.

Some of the prayers — especially the bedtime shema — are surprisingly peaceful for, well, someone who shouts for a living. How’d you swing that?

Patrick AlephPatrick: That’s fair. I’m in a band where I scream and roll around on the floor, but there’s a place for meditation in every person’s life. This is the best example I can give of this: I was at Jewlicious, and I was working in the kitchen with Sasha Edge and her father, who catered it — they’re screaming and there’s knives everywhere, and fire. But then when it was time for Shabbos, we ended up making motzi over a vegan cookie and drinking Kedem grape juice and some of the back-of-the-house volunteers had a great, awesome, totally spiritual and peaceful moment. If you’re a rambunctious person like myself, it’s even more important.

What is the usual Shabbat like in your community?

Michael: We like to have dinner at home. My wife comes home, and my daughter, Willow, is running around, and try to make dinner and light the candles and have a normal — for us — dinner. Relaxing, company, friends and food.

Patrick: Occasionally, we’ll go to synagogue together, the four of us, but…

Is there a synagogue around, or a minyan, that gets you, or do you do your own thing?

Michael: We do have a minyan sometimes, actually — we’d be working or just hanging out on Friday afternoon, and we’re like, let’s just do it here! And we’ll fly solo, I guess. But there’s a few places around that we do like. We’ll go to a bunch of them —

Patrick: We tend to be temple-hoppers.

Michael: We’re not members of any synagogue in the area, mostly because we can’t afford it. We like to see what’s going on in different places. For me personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable only davening in one place.

Do you have any plans to get together a community of your own? Or are you going to start a little PunkTorah Michigan-Militia style havurah?

Patrick: I like that! In a sense, we have a havurah online because we’ve created it. Here in the Atlanta area, now that we’re doing PunkTorah all time through a few generous contributions, we’re in a place where we’re really going to start having more physical events. I’ve been talking to our local chapter of Birthright NEXT who let us be involved in their first conference. Now that the siddur is out, now that we have minyan kits and the new websites and the web store, getting out of the office and being more physical.

Kind of like praying, I guess.

Patrick: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Posted on June 23, 2010

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7 thoughts on “The Do-It-Yourself Prayerbook

  1. Matthue Roth Post author

    It’s a DIY prayerbook because Patrick and Michael did it themselves! It’s no Open Siddur, but it’s a pretty cool (IMO) story of how two people took prayer into their own hands and started to identify with it.

  2. Aharon Varady

    A lot of folk who would like to create their own siddur could certainly benefit from whatever content Patrick and Michael brought together to make their siddur. However, their siddur has a big fat ole copyright symbol at the front of it, indicating that all the rights to all the content inside is reserved to the authors. I really wish Patrick and Michael had produced a truly D.I.Y. siddur that would share their content with other siddur makers, young and old. In my mind, that is what a DIY siddur does, it respects that the material inside it is either Public Domain (and not copyrightable) or made accessible with the intent for sharing. To note, I have no objection to using copyright to protect proprietary resources, I just think that the intention of prayer as a communal and collaborative project of Judaism recommends itself to licenses that reflect that intention. If Patrick and Michael wanted to create a siddur where the copyrighted content was accessible to other Jews 70 years after they both shuffle off this mortal coil (per copyright law) then they would be keen to share their siddur with a Creative Commons By Attribution, Share Alike 3.0 license.

  3. Patrick Aleph

    Hey Aharon, you’ve brought up a great point and we agree and have already done that. Our goal with the copyright notice was to prevent people from using the term “indie yeshiva”, which is not in the public domain. You’re right about sharing our content, and we do, on our site 3xDaily.org. Ideally, a DIY siddur should be something that everyone does, for themselves. And that’s what we hoped to inspire by making one through PunkTorah.org. Sincerely, Michael and Patrick

  4. Aharon Varady

    See, the confusing thing is that when I visit 3xDaily.org, I again see the following “copyright © 2010″ in the footer. So while I want to say, “great and thank you!,” I’m not yet seeing any indication that you have actually shared your work in this way.

    But perhaps we mean different things when we use the term “share.” My understanding of freely sharing is informed by the Wikimedia Foundation, the same folks who share wikipedia and wikisource. By freely sharing according to the license I mentioned above, I mean that folks are free to adapt and modify a given work so long as the provide attribution to the original creator. For sure, every work anyone makes in a country that is part of the World Trade Organization, has created a work that is copyright — all rights reserved — for their lifetime plus 70 years. The key is to re-license works that are copyright in such a way that some of those rights are offered up to the Commons to help make a for a more vibrant and collaborative culture. This is why I am such an advocate of standard free culture licenses that facilitate the sort of vibrant culture we want Judaism to become. As cultural creators we create works intended to function for a great diversity of individuals and communities. This practically beckons them to adopt and modify it for their particular use. By licensing our work this way, we grant others explicit permission to do so.

  5. Efraim Feinstein

    Patrick, It’s great to hear that you want your work to be free!

    Our goal with the copyright notice was to prevent people from using the term “indie yeshiva”, which is not in the public domain.

    What you really want is a trademark, not a copyright.

    By the way, trademarks and requirements to change the name of a work when it’s modified are compatible with free culture. Note also that all Creative Commons licenses except “Creative Commons Zero” require that someone who modifies and distributes the work and attributes it to you also specifies that it has been modified from its original version.

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