More lessons from Jewish Summer Camp: #2 Pray in English
Number two: pray in English
It can sometimes seems that our tradition feels praying in Hebrew is more authentic than praying in English—but there’s a reason there’s so much English in our prayerbook: sometimes you just need to pray in English. It’s the language that many of us are most familiar with, and in which it is easiest for us to express our thoughts and feelings.
You may not be surprised to hear there is a good mix of English and Hebrew in prayer services at camp, but you might be surprised that English is not the only vernacular to find its way into the prayer service.
One of the prayers we say in every service is the kaddish. We are all familiar with the mourners’ kaddish that comes at the end of our service, but there is also a hatzi kaddish—a “half kaddish”—that is a marker between parts of the service. When the kaddish was added to the service, it was considered so important that its words be understood by the person praying them that it was not written in Hebrew—that’s right, it’s not in Hebrew. The kaddish is, in fact, in Aramaic, which was the more commonly spoken language at the time the prayer was written and found its way into our service.
And if Aramaic, then why not English? Dan Nichols, who is a rock star among songleaders, and who joined us at Camp Newman for the first two weeks of the summer, wrote a melody for a version of the hatzi kaddish in English. On Shabbat morning, instead of the familiar chant, “Yitkadal v’yitkadash shemei rabbah,” we instead prayed and sang “may your wonder be celebrated, may your name be consecrated.” Later in this service we’ll sing the Aleinu. At camp, this was another prayer that we sometimes sang in English. Campers could be heard remarking, “have you heard that new Aleinu? “Let us Adore?” Those of us who remember the old Gates of Prayer siddur know that “Let us Adore” is not new—but it is rare nowadays that we sing the Aleinu in English.
Singing these prayers in English that we usually chant in Hebrew forces us to think about what they really mean. It challenges us to face the meaning of the words and to pray in a different way. The early Reform rabbis were very aware of how different it is to pray in the language you speak. When the meaning of a prayer was considered problematic or challenged the prevailing ideology, the earliest Reform prayerbooks chose not to translate it from the Hebrew—trusting in congregants’ lack of Hebrew knowledge to avoid any awkwardness. But at Camp Newman, Dan Nichols frequently reminded campers to “embrace the awkward” in prayer—to really read and listen and understand when we pray.
We do not come to synagogue to complete a checklist of required prayers; we come to refresh and restore our souls. There are times when we seek the comfort and connection of the Hebrew prayers and other times when we seek the challenges of wrestling with the words.