One from the heart


Three years ago, Rabbi Warren Stone of Temple Emanuel had just returned to Washington after traveling in Asia with a group of religious leaders. Moved by the experience and “with a new deeper awareness of our shared common humanity,” he composed a spontaneous prayer “from my own spirit.”

Source of all blessings

I am Grateful

for my life

for the Blessings

of my breath

the beating of my heart…

Stone’s “A Prayer of Gratitude” and 200 other traditional and contemporary prayers are collected in “Jewish Men Pray.” And while prayer composition has been the precinct of men for most of Jewish history, the volume’s editors, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Stuart M. Matlins, say they want to help contemporary men “establish or cultivate a life of prayer.”

Still, the contents of “Jewish Men Pray” don’t necessarily touch on men’s issues. Rather, the book “uses a male lens to look at issues,” says Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which works with unaffiliated and intermarried families.

The prayers are grouped by theme: yearning for God, guidance for how to live, a man’s role, our physical lives, grief, protection, gratitude, and legacy. A series of short essays acts as the preface:  “Becoming a Prayerful Person,” “Does God Hear Prayer?” “Who Can’t Pray.”

The essay “The Purpose of Prayer in Judaism and Its Structure” describes three types of Jewish prayer: petition or supplication, gratitude and praise — or as they are known colloquially: “please,” “thanks” and “wow!” Prayers may be fixed — those are the texts that made it into the prayer book. Or they may be from the heart, as the early prayers in the Torah were, and as the prayers in “Jewish Men Pray” are.

Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington was thinking “thanks” when he wrote ”Prayer for Our Nation,” included in the book and which his congregation recites on Yom Kippur. Nearly every prayer book contains a prayer for the country. Zemel says that with his prayer, he wants to increase the readers’ sense of gratitude.

“Dear God — We love our nation deeply — from sea to shining sea.”

“One of the things we Jews need to learn from Judaism is to be better Americans,” he says. “That idea pervades the prayer.”

Olitzky and Matlins, founder of Jewish Lights Publishing, which published the book, worry that prayer from the heart is a dying form of expression, because synagogues focus on teaching liturgy, which is an intellectual, rather than emotional, discipline.

“We are fearful that a life that is enriched by prayer — and the divine relationship that is presumed by it — may be slipping from the grasp of many,” they write in their introduction.

The contemporary prayers in “Jewish Men Pray” are often plainly worded, sometimes with a touch of humor. That plain-spoken style is different from the traditional Hebrew prayer. “In many cases in the Hebrew, they were written more for their aural quality and not for the meaning of particular words,” Olitzky says. “What we get in English is not just the aural quality, but also the choice of words.”

Prayer helps the individual “close the gap between himself and God,” Olitzky says. “They help people express what they are feeling but don’t have the words to say it.”

[email protected]  Twitter: @DavidHolzel

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