Called To Prayer

I was glad I wore my leopard-print Doc Martens last Friday, instead of my black Blundstones, which would inevitably get lost in the sea of other identical pairs. We took off our shoes before sitting on the tarp; bundled in bulky coats, we shifted slightly to find the most comfortable cross-legged position. We, on our ways to or from the grocery store, to prepare the green beans we were assigned for a potluck Shabbat meal; we, who tried to convince ourselves we would do homework at some point on this short Erev Shabbat, sat silent and attentive. This was a שעת תפילה, an hour of prayer.

I hadn’t even davened that day, oversleeping and gulping lukewarm coffee before making my way to the Jummah service on Low Steps. I had neglected my own prayers, but felt a duty to stand in solidarity with others’. There was a kind of peaceful, prayerful murmur, the just-a-drop-above-silence whispering of the silent Amidah, on those Steps, a makeshift shul facing Alma Mater, but not worshipping her.  The congregants kneeled and bowed their heads, in reverence before God. I felt self-conscious in this transformed space, though God had of course not only just now arrived. Feeling exposed, I closed my eyes, noticing the reaction I’ve been socialized to have to the guttural prayer chants, a baselessly fearful response to a dialect likely not dissimilar to that of my Talmudic predecessors.

While our Kabbalat Shabbat services were a few hours away, I tried to take in the Imam’s sermon and the power of the service itself, and preserve it for later, in the hopes of infusing my own melodic psalms with a more soulful appreciation of God’s majesty, of heightening my buried sense of yearning when I whispered the pleading Ana B’Koach. I thought about oneness. Were we making way for the Sabbath Queen? She brings peace, and is welcomed in peace. She ushers in a time of harmony, the kind of wholeness where the One who makes peace on high makes peace among us here, on Low Steps.  

I’ve written before about my affinity for davening in airports; I can’t quite explain why, but I like praying and being seen. Not that I want people watching; but I want to be Jewish in public. I get a kick out of this religious exhibitionism, I guess. I like that I can.

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A week before this Jummah service, I feel an unflattering pride as I learn a chapter of Mishnah detailing tedious ritual processes for tithing wheat; I am on my way to a protest in Brooklyn against the Muslim Ban, and realize how much I take for granted the way no one gives the foreign block letters in my holy books a second glance or doubts my right to be here. 

In the Jummah, I try to catch the couple of Arabic words I’ve learned or can surmise based on linguistic similarities to Hebrew. I listen to the Imam’s English translation. At one point, I realize they basically said a close equivalent to Brich Shmei, declaring God’s ultimate power, and pronouncing full reliance on God and not on any other entities.

On one hand, I am heartened by the closeness I see in our traditions and cultures, but I also hesitate to insinuate that solidarity must be predicated on similarity. But honestly, they also just want to daven, that’s the thing. It’s that simple. They also just want to bring out God’s glory in the world. We are on the same team. We are children of Hannah, who, according to some pretty subversive Midrashim, took chutzpah to a whole new level when she gave God a piece of her mind. We are students of Honi the Circle-Drawer, whose stubborn temper tantrum coaxed rain from the heavens. We have been praying in protest, and protesting in prayer, long before the Alma Mater statue was chiseled or even designed.

Selfishly, this was one of the best ways I could imagine preparing for Shabbat, a pause from protest, but its own form of resistance. This prayer was about presence, about faithfulness and goodness. These chants sounded like courage. I was thankful to be in a מקום תפילה, a place of prayer. And later, I was almost even on time for mincha. Almost.