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Feeling the Tefilah

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My constantly changing relationship to prayer

Feeling the Tefilah photo

It's 4 p.m. on Thursday and the house is currently cleared of the 14 relatives who will crowd around the stovetop asking for seconds on matzah ball soup. But we've still got time -- time to make roast and tzimmus, matzah farfel and broccoli, sweep the floor, wash the floor (since its sticky from unattended juice boxes bulldozed with petite feet of the same size) and set the table. Mom needs time without foot traffic, so the house is empty except for her and me. But the hours slip seamlessly like the Jewish CD that's flipping from track to track.

Soon the twins will be back and there are calls for "Bubbie, Bubbie" and sounds of the fridge door yawning open and winding back. Suddenly, I remember the presents I bought for my 7 (and three-fifths)-year-old nephews. They "wait right there" while I claim the rectangle boxes from my bedroom. They stare at the name-engraved siddurs, exactly the same, except that one is beige and the other brown -- fraternal twins, like the boys.

As they stand, thanking me as per custom, I cannot help but imagine they're disappointed that my gift doesn't come with preprogrammed games and lacks an "on" button.

Someone says they'll grow into it. And I wonder -- at nearly 22 -- have I grown into it? Essentially, I've grown up with tefilah (prayer) -- that I know -- but have I become a grownup with tefilah?

Age: 5 -- feeling sneaky

It's so quiet that I can hear the fluorescent lights hum in the sanctuary. Kayla's laughing next to me. She's smirking -- her siddur's covering her mouth -- but I can see it in her eyes. I start to laugh too because her mom doesn't know we're mouthing the words "bubblegum, bubblegum" over and over. Her mom thinks were praying the silent Shmone Esrei prayer, and gives us an approving grin. We're rocking back and forth, mumbling our "bubblegums," trying to fit in. We laugh because we'll probably be rewarded with stickers on our Mitzvah Charts.

Age: 11 -- feeling high

I am one of the only girls -- and by far the oldest -- traveling round and round the bimah (stage) on my dad's shoulders. It's Simchat Torah, the yearly celebration upon completing the five books of Torah, and we're 40 minutes into the huddled parade. Dad shifts me every couple of minutes. With 75 pounds above him, the 52-year-old calls to my older brother for backup. A man hugging a Torah shouts a prayer and suddenly, I am tossed into the air squealing peals of laughter with other children. Together we look like sautéing vegetables, flicking and falling in a chef's skillet. Somewhere over the divider, my mother is covering her mouth, complaining that the ceiling fans are too low.

Age: 14 -- feeling bored

I don't know how reading from the Torah became a popularity contest, but it just does. We're eighth graders, and though we feel on top of the world, in years to come, we'll cover up these pictures and declare "it was my awkward stage." I'm a goofy eighth grader and look to entertain myself in the classroom we converted into a makeshift prayer space. I ask the teacher supervising services if she has a band-aid. She checks the desk drawers and declares that there aren't any. I ask if she can please find me one. She leaves the room. While she's gone, I go behind the desk and rifle through the confiscated items inside its drawers. I remove rubber bands and popsicle sticks, and stash them away inside the kangaroo pouch of my Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt. The teacher returns 60 seconds later with a band-aid and a "just in case" band-aid. I begin to craft a slingshot and shoot rubber bands over the mechitzah (dividing curtain). Popular kids laugh and I'm no longer bored.

Age 19 -- feeling the kedushah

Margin by annotated margin, my siddur becomes a thick enjambment of diary reflections and rhetorical questions. In my 6-foot by 4-foot turquoise text, blank spaces become as hard to find as downtown parking spots. I feel uplifted, inspired -- pure.

Age 21 -- feeling feminist-y

There's a circular sunroof just above the bimah that transforms the chem student reading from the Torah into a radiating Hercules. I imagine a ginormous hand reaching through the skylight -- like a hand unclogging a drain or King Kong plucking Ann Darrow -- and pulling him through the orb. Someone says a blessing, and I remember I'm supposed to focus. It is in this room, the upstairs sanctuary of Hillel, that I took an oath as a freshman to pray in daily, an oath I compromised to visit on Tuesdays and Thursdays as a sophomore and forgot entirely as a junior. Only the digital pestering of Facebook reminders brought me here on this Saturday morning. It's hard to ignore when there's a partnership minyan approaching, especially when you're friends with the people who organize partnership minyanim. It's even easier to get suckered into taking leadership roles. I approach the bimah while cursing myself for doing this. Grasp. Dip. Bend. Straighten. Someone spots me as I lift the Torah high, nearly touching the circle. I return to my seat feeling oddly empowered as the first woman to do hagbah (lifting the Torah) in Hillel during a partnership minyan.

Back to Pesach.It's the last day of the holiday and I'm waiting for Bubbie to finish breakfast so we can go to shul. I know this won't be quick. I grab a white siddur from the bookshelf and start from the beginning. After only 10 minutes of living room seclusion, I hear small feet patter and stop in front of me. I glance up and see one of my nephews. I look back down and continue, trying to convey that the proper respect for prayer is avoiding interruptions.

"Mom!" He shouts, though the kitchen is a few yards away. "Where's my siddur?" he asks.

She says it's packed in the basement, but he says he wants it.

"To use in the house or to bring to shul?" She calls back.

What comes next sends trills of pleasure down my spine.

"Both," he says.

I guess he found the "on" button after all.

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