Last night, as I was trudging through the final half hour of John Carter with my husband, I noticed a word in the Hebrew subtitles at the bottom of the screen.


This is something I like to do when watching an English program on TV. Especially, when I’ve lost patience for the show I’m watching.

Subtitles make for good learning opportunities.

But, the reason this word caught my eye is complicated in the way that only religion can be.

My mind didn’t just notice this word. My mind remembered this word.

In a sing songy sorta way. In a dressed up in my Shabbat clothes sorta way.

השתחוו לאדוני

I could hear a familiar tune in my head. Feel joy in my heart.

I knew this word. From Kabbalat Shabbat. From Friday nights on Hannaton.

I recognized the word, but had no idea what it meant.

I turned to my husband, and asked.


What does it mean?

Bow, he told me. That woman just told John Carter to bow to him.

Ah, now I understand.

It’s a funny thing, this journey of mine.

As I become more Israeli, I become more Jewish. And as I become more Jewish I become more Israeli.

I’ve known the Shema prayer by heart for more than three decades, for instance, but only now do I understand many of the words.

I can’t say that they resonate with me. But at least now I understand most of what I’m saying when I sing it.

Is this what they call prayer?

Is this what they call “observance?”

Is it prayer when you sing a Hebrew song praising God, but don’t know exactly what you’re saying when you sing it?

It it prayer when you finally do understand the words but they still don’t resonate with you?

It is prayer if you don’t believe?

Is it prayer if singing it opens your heart?

Is it prayer if your heart closes once you know the meaning of the words?

Many Jews in America learned Hebrew; learned Jewish prayer; the way I did.

We were taught the letters, the sounds, how to string them together so we could read them, speak them, sing them.

But through all my “learning,” I was never inspired enough to feel those words — old, antiquated translations of old antiquated words.

Not until I made Aliyah — until the language became a language I needed to use to express myself — did the words touch me.

The words haven’t changed.

But I have changed.

And my understanding of the words has become deeper. On many levels.

Is it my connection to Israel that connects me to the prayer? Or my connection to the prayer that connects me to the language of this country?

Or neither? Or both?

And does it matter to anyone else but me?

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