September 12, 2002
‘Talking to God’
A new book helps people create personal prayers.
Several months ago, Carol Taubman called her longtime friend, Rabbi Naomi Levy, and asked her to teach her how to pray.
"Although I have a strong Jewish upbringing, with 11 years of day school and a traditional, observant home, I am not a person who ever prayed or who ever understood my relationship to God," said Taubman, a mother of two who works in real estate. "Temple was meaningless for me."
Levy told Taubman to repeat what she had just said to her about feeling disconnected from God and not knowing how to communicate with God -- but this time to address those thoughts to God -- and that in itself would be a prayer.
"Maybe I needed permission to understand that even though I don't pray in a formal, traditional environment, I do pray, and I have a relationship with God," Taubman said. "It made me feel much more connected."
It is a scenario that Levy hopes will repeat itself as more and more people pick up her new book, "Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration" (Knopf).
In the book Levy writes honest, succinct and poetic prayers specific to different issues or times. She has daily prayers blessing God for food or for bodily functions, prayers asking God for patience and wisdom in dealing with children and a prayer for the ability to pray.
The book is poignant and probing, at once bringing out the deepest emotions and also the most complex thoughts, as readers must consider each component of their lives.
"I try to show people ways to address God and talk to God in plain English, and to have dialogue with God all the time," said Levy, who served seven years as rabbi at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice and is married to Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman.
For many Jews, difficulty with prayer is most pronounced on the High Holidays, the time of year when more Jews pray than at any other period. Yet, the prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, with their language of kingship and omnipotence, can often serve to distance Jews from God.
"I personally feel that God is very approachable and near, and unfortunately, I think on the High Holidays God may not seem so near to people, even though that is when God is supposed to be nearest," Levy said.
Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills said Levy deals successfully, in a contemporary way, with a problem the Talmud acknowledges with prayer: the conflict between having set prayers at set times, and the need to express oneself honestly to God.
Vogel added, "Too often, even as rabbis, we are dealing with prayers that have been composed hundreds of years ago and can't by the very nature of historical context deal with the issues that we confront today.... People think there is some magic formula to offering prayers, and [Levy's book] tells people you can also write your own prayers."
Rabbi Eli Herscher of Stephen S. Wise Temple said he would like to see Levy's book in synagogues alongside the traditional Siddur or Machzor.
"This book is [a] wonderful companion to a prayer book -- maybe most particularly during the Days of Awe -- because people come to services with their own joys and their own sorrows and their own hopes and dreams, and often they don't know how to express them. Naomi's book, because of her depth of experience and her sensitivity, will help people give expression to those hopes and dreams."
Herscher is not worried that the book will replace traditional prayers. "I love nothing more than the traditional siddur, and I see this as a wonderful drash [explication] on the siddur," he said. "The two meet complementary needs: the need to be rooted in the tradition and the need to find new ways of expressing what is in our soul."
For Taubman, incorporating the prayers in Levy's book and composing her own supplications made her closer to God, she said, making traditional prayers and her experiences in synagogue more meaningful. "I feel liberated to really personalize the prayers, and much more in control of my own experience," she explained.
Levy includes prayers for specific moments in life -- a prayer to say on an anniversary or to bring back the spark in a marriage, one for healing when a marriage has dissolved or when one has been unfaithful. She provides blessings to recite over children, parents and loved ones.
There are also prayers for when a child moves out, a prayer to recite before a job interview, one to end procrastination and another to abstain from gossip. In addition, she has healing prayers for illness, addiction or disability. She includes a chapter covering pregnancy, childbirth, infertility, adoption and tragedies associated with pregnancy.
Levy began to write prayers when she was pregnant with her son nine years ago. When she wrote her book "To Begin Again," she instinctively included prayers at the end of every chapter for her own peace of mind, but planned to delete them before publication. Instead, she left them in, and the prayers became one of the most remarked upon elements of the book.
Like her first book, "Talking to God" is written and packaged to appeal to people of all faiths. Members of the Christian clergy have told her they have begun to utilize her book.
The book's attraction goes beyond the prayers themselves. Many of the anecdotes Levy uses to carry the reader through chapters are amusing. In one, she recounts the time she saved a marriage after her phone number was mistakenly listed under a photo of "Islandgirl" on an X-rated Web site. The caller, intending to reach a prostitute, ended up speaking with a rabbi. But the stories also let readers know that they are not alone in whatever troubles they face.
In her conclusion, Levy encourages readers to become more active participants in the relationship they are already in -- whether they know it or not -- with God.
"God is here," she writes. "God is watching over us and hoping for us. God is waiting for us to notice the beauty in every breath we take, the potential in every encounter, the extraordinary possibilities of every ordinary day."