Chasing the last few moments of daylight, I grope the shelves of the beit medrash for a siddur. Any prayer book will do as the words of the amidah always seem to escape me when I need them the most. Even though I say it every day, at least twice, sometimes with my eyes closed, I just can’t seem to memorize it.
I flip to Ashrei in great haste and begin to pray, wondering if it’s too late and if I should just wait for maariv, opting to continue anyway. I take off my coat and put my bag down, all while mumbling small praises under my breath, all with the spacey kind of intention we often incorporate into the prayers we say at the last minute — the sunset tugs my busy day along with it, low beyond the horizon, still, I hurry to praise my Creator.
As I rush through Shemoneh Esrei, I find myself lost in thought, gazing around the empty room, when finally, I arrive at Shema Koleinu.
I am horribly disrupted and nauseated at what I find in front of me. At the top of the page, right there in the corner, minding its own business, is nothing other than a pink and sparkly lipstick stain, and the sandy remnants of old makeup as well. At first I thought the book may have been old, the pages yellowed and ready to retire, but no. The siddur that I had chosen at random had clearly been marked by the emotional epiphany of a woman with a semi-artificial complexion. I imagined the siddur’s predecessor holding it closely, covering her face as she made her way through her conversation with the Infinite. As I concluded my tefila and flipped back through the pages, I caught these artificial prints in two places, the first was at shema koleinu, (hear our voice) the second was at modim (thanks).
I suddenly found myself lost in the narrative of this woman’s tefila — her moments of rawness, of looking for security, the moments she felt it necessary to cover her face with the pages she prayed from. What was she thinking of as she asked for her voice to be heard? What was it she was saying “thank you” for? What was it that made her cover her face?
I pondered the graffiti marks and couldn’t help but arrive at the following conclusion:
Siddurim are utter germ pools.
We kiss them, share them, cry in them; we get our faces and breath and hands all over them. I thought of the crinkled pages of my own prayer book — the notes I had taken inside of it, but I could not get my mind off of the makeup stained pages of the strange siddur I had held in my hands.
So I went to the shelf to return it and decided to flip through a few others. I found underlined words, glitter, dog-eared pages, and low and behold, more makeup stains.
Mascara, concealer, lip gloss, the works.
I imagined the siddurim on the men’s side of the mechitza. Do men mark up their siddurim with physical facial imprints? Does everyone cover their face when they pray? At modim? At shema koleinu? I imagine no one can walk away from their amidah without leaving something behind…
A teacher in my seminary insisted that we write in our siddurim. In a class on tefila, we treated our prayer books like our journals. We annotated the blessings, we wrote notes, we sketched out our intentions. I wrote the names of those I wished to pray for, I penciled in my hopes and dreams. We treated the siddur like a template, an outline not to be taken apart, but to be filled in and personalized. Yet part of me wondered if I was defacing holy property in the process. By making space for my own words in my prayers, am I destroying the siddur? Am I staining the pages?
Smudging, underlining, highlighting, dreaming. This book has G-d’s name in it, and now it has mine as well. Was I worthy of leaving something behind?
Finding the words of other people in public siddurim is to me, the most secretive form of human connection. The person left behind a little part of him or herself, whether intentional or not.
Once I borrowed a siddur from a friend and found a list of names written in it.
It seemed almost mandatory to pray for the names inscribed, they were now a part of my prayer, a weekday addition that if I skipped, I would need to repeat my amidah. I felt that part of using another person’s prayer book was to incorporate the ink stains on their pages, to pray for them and their loved ones, to treat their words with respect.
A friend of mine shared a story of a student who desperately wanted his rabbi to pray for someone who was sick. The student decided to take the rabbi’s siddur and write the person’s name in it, in the section where one would pray to be healed. The next day, the student felt incredibly guilty for writing in the rabbi’s siddur — so he went to tell him. But the rabbi did not know what the student was talking about. He wasn’t able to see anything different in his siddur, he simply read the words as he normally would, as if each one belonged there as much as any of the others.
A mentor of mine was once praying from a siddur where she found the words “Shiviti Hashem Linegdi Tamid” (Hashem’s presence should be in front of me always) written on the top of each page. While the siddur was not hers, she found herself inspired by the hand-written words, as if the owner of the siddur was trying to send her a message — as if the words belonged there. Perhaps we were meant to write our own prayers…
A siddur is more than just a prayer book; it’s a text book, a playbook, a journal, a script. It is a guide, a template, a coloring book — a shield for the eyes, a magnifying glass for the soul.
A dear friend of mine shared the story of the mascara stains in her siddur:
“My siddur has mascara markings at mussaf shemoneh esrei for shalosh regalim.
Every chag that I notice the black smudges, brings me back to the Kotel where I left them. On Shavuot, in five years ago, after a long walk from Har Nof…
I’m trying to put myself back into the moment…
Standing on the left side of the women’s section near the mechitza, the sun beating on me. I was so hot, thirsty, exhausted, and dirty. There was this black gunk all over my All Stars and on my maroon dress. I had just spent 4 hours listening to a friend’s painful childhood memories…and sharing my own concerns for the future…
We’re at the Kotel, on Shavuot. The coming together of Am Yisrael to commemorate the receiving of the Torah; our guidebook to a purposeful, G-d infused life.
The tears are blurry to me now…I have trouble pinpointing exactly why I was crying; I’m pretty sure I wasn’t exactly clear on why I was crying then either.
Maybe a combination of the joy of coming together with Am Yisrael on a Chag to offer what we can; an overwhelming gratitude of all the gifts of the year, the feeling of sheer exhaustion, and an uneasiness of the uncertain future…
Black smudges that carry a sense of confusion…of pain, of my best friend’s pain, of fear of the unknown, and of this overarching sense of purpose… Of celebrating our meaningful lives…”
Every teardrop-pelted page.
Every makeup stain and black smudge.
Every footnote or Post-it.
Every hand-written prayer.
Every name, carefully penciled in.
Every organic, man-made addition.
Every intention, annotation, explanation.
Behind every stain is a story. What story does your siddur tell?
Thank you Rita and Vivi for sharing your stories.