Learning to Pray: Personal, Painful, Passionate
Until last winter, the only prayers I knew were those in the books I studied with my mom and the rabbi at my synagogue. I discovered spirituality in nature and found a home in Jewish community and tradition, but I never truly prayed. I didn't know how it felt to speak directly to G-d. Of course, I knew that people did it—I'd watched firefighters find religion in the face of the worst southern California summer fires, and I'd read Are You There G-d? It's Me, Margaret multiple times, but I’d never really thought that someone out there was actually listening.
It wasn't a fire or some other disaster that taught me to pray. It was a text message I received just before Shabbat from one of my closest friends: a non-religious gay boy who, until that week, had stoically refused to be defined by his chronic anxiety and depression.
I learned to pray on Friday, February 24th, 2017. This was the day my friend told me over text that he'd been to the doctor, and that if he lost any more weight due to his eating disorder, he would be hospitalized.
In the days and weeks that followed, I became his cheerleader, his alarm clock, and his mother. When I stood in tefillah on Sundays with the first-grade religious school class I helped teach, I pleaded with the sanctuary's ceiling and hoped that someone was listening, that some greater power in the universe existed, and that this power cared. I let go of the words I trusted, and held only the picture of my friend, alive and healthy, in my mind.
I've thought a lot about why I became so consumed by the need to know that my friend was safe. Naturally, I want my friends to be alive and happy, but this was different. Every morning when I woke up, my first thought was to talk to him, to make sure he had survived the night. My own mental health began to go downhill.
I would wake up in the middle of the night from dreams that my friend was in the hospital, dying. Every time, there was some way that I could’ve saved him, but I always failed. Each dream seemed more realistic than the last. I dreaded going back to that place in my subconscious every night, so I stopped sleeping. I crawled into bed only three hours before my alarm would go off, giving myself just enough rest to get through the next day, but not enough to start dreaming.
On nights I did sleep, dreams continued to wake me up. I wanted to call him, just to know he was alive, but at two in the morning I knew he had probably just gone to bed, and he needed sleep more than I did. Instead, I sat in bed with tears running down my face, and I prayed. I didn't read any words; I couldn't speak at all, beyond the word "please" whispered desperately into the comforter pressed against my face.
I argued constantly with classmates who accused him of being lazy or overdramatic—they didn't know what it was like, I told myself, to fight with their own minds. I did. In one such encounter, a classmate complained that my friend was just "being a little girl," referring both to his eating disorder and the fact that he was brave enough to share information about his condition with those around him. I fought back, of course, but I'm still disturbed by that classmate's words. A young man diagnosed with serious mental illness is a little girl because he tries to take care of himself? And what was my classmate saying about what it means to be a girl?
It's no secret that eating disorders affect a disproportionate number of girls and women across the United States. Body image issues have been on my radar pretty much as long as I've been aware of the existence of gender. They glare at me in the mirrors of the dance studio and from the magazine racks in the grocery store. Maybe I cared so much because I saw a piece of myself in what my friend was going through. I'd been indoctrinated with the idea that I should be ashamed of my body, and now, because of my friend, I was seeing that play out.
So I stayed awake at night. I stared out the window of my bedroom and tried to distinguish the stars from the light pollution, and prayed. I looked for G-d in the salads and chicken soups in the refrigerator, in the boxes on my calendar marking each day my friend and I had been alive. I looked in the backlit glow of my phone in the dark, open constantly to my conversation with him, and in the companionship I eventually found in a mutual friend who had also taken notice of his situation. I asked whoever was listening how I could help, and how I could be strong enough to support my friend. I prayed that there was someone listening, if only to feel less alone.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Cohen, Tamar. "Learning to Pray: Personal, Painful, Passionate ." 31 October 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 2, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/learning-to-pray-personal-painful-passionate>.