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Raw and Real

 Yitti Berkovic

Next time, let the call from the unknown number go straight to voicemail.

That’s what I mumbled to myself as I heard the sweet voice on the other line and when I heard her sweet – but terrifying – request. 

I was on my way to work, and it was my first day on the job. I had just taken a position at a new school, and even with all the years of teaching under my belt, I was nervous. They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and there’s no first impression like the moment a teacher walks into a classroom full of teenagers for the first time. (Yes, students. We see you looking us up and down, and we hear you giggling about the lipstick on our teeth. Another note to self: check the mirror before walking into the classroom).

The woman on the phone was the school’s extra-curricular coordinator, and her enthusiasm was a little much to take so early in the morning.  “Hi, Yitti!” she chirped. “Sorry for the late notice, but we’re canceling your first two classes today. Instead of teaching, we’d love to have you sit on a panel to discuss the topic of preparing your tefillos for the Yomim Noraim. It would be a great opportunity for you to introduce yourself to the school.”

My foot hit the brake – hard.

Me? Really? 

I am a secular studies teacher. I teach English, History, Holocaust Studies, and World Issues. I can teach you the skills you need to ace an AP exam. I can recite passages from the Constitution, and I can dissect a poem with one hand tied behind my back.

But I do not feel equipped to inspire your tefilla. That’s a job for a Limudei Kodesh teacher. That’s a job for a mechaneches. That’s a job for the kind of woman who gets to go to shul on the Yomim Noraim (I haven’t been to shul for any kind of davening in nearly two decades), the kind of woman for whom connected tefilla comes easily and naturally.

I thought about saying no. I thought about making up an excuse – I have a sudden case of laryngitis! – but the quote about making a first impression applies to the faculty too. I didn’t want the people who hired me to think I wasn’t a team player or that I was too chicken to stand up and speak for a crowd.

So, I pulled to the side of the road and pulled up some Rosh Hashanah davening on my phone. As traffic whizzed past me, I read through different explanations of the tefillos and jotted down notes on a receipt I plucked from the bottom of my bag. (Great. My first impression was also going to include that I am super professional).

I played it cool when I walked into the auditorium and took my seat next to the other panelists, hoping no one noticed my knees practically knocking together.

The principal opened the panel with a gorgeous explanation of U’nesaneh Tokef, and I immediately began eyeing the nearest exit. How was I supposed to follow that brilliance with the slapdash presentation I put together in my car?

The next presenter was an alumna of the school, and she took my breath away too. So young but so poised, she brought her machzor with her and held it up for the students to see. Beside every single tefilla, she had written a brief note. For some tefillos, it was a note about the essence of the tefilla, for others it was a connection to her own life. For others still, it was a tune to use when singing the tefilla to herself, a means of adding spirit and joy to her davening. 

Wow.

If I could have, I would have crawled under the chairs and slipped out the door without anyone seeing me. I was totally out of my league. But then they called my name, and there was no way of getting out of it anymore.

My hands were shaking as I stood behind the lectern, staring out to a crowd of faces that were all foreign to me. The notes I had scribbled on the back of the receipt swam before my eyes and read like complete gibberish. I crumpled the receipt into a ball and then told the audience of impressionable teenagers what I was least expecting to say.

I told them the truth.

“Davening for me is hard,” I admitted as I leaned into the microphone. “It’s not a muscle that flexes easily for me.”

I’m sure my face was beet red, but it was too late to take back what I’d said. My topic for the day had crystallized – right there on the spot. 

I told the audience – so quiet and so still – that I can speak to Hashem a million times a day. I constantly murmur, “Hashem, please help me find my missing keys” and “Hashem, thank you for making bedtime go smoothly” and “Hashem, I need some extra strength to help me not lose my cool while I’m doing homework with the kids.”  But when I stand in front of my siddur, it’s almost always during a time crunch: I have five minutes to be in the car and on the road to work. The day unspools in front of me, with all its responsibilities: Did you tell the office to run off copies for your first class? Did you remember to take the chicken out of the freezer so it will be defrosted in time for supper? My lips move and my pages turn, and my heart is in the right place. But my mind? My mind veers off the rails like a runaway train.

But then I told the audience what I so often tell myself: “Tefilla might not be a muscle that I flex easily, but I know it’s a muscle I can continue to strengthen.”  I told them that during Elul, I choose two tefilos to really focus on. Two. I know. It’s hardly ambitious, but maybe that’s why it works for me.

For those two tefillos, I concentrate. I will my mind to be quiet, and I will the distractions to remain at bay. The chicken that needs to be defrosted and the prescription that needs a refill, they can consume my thoughts in a few minutes. This is my time to connect to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

Maybe it isn’t much, but for me, it’s a baby step in the right direction.

I finished my and sat presentation down to a polite smattering of applause. I didn’t know if I should be relieved or mortified. Good going, Yitti. So much for a positive first impression. 

Then, when the panel concluded, one girl came up to me with a shy smile on her way out of the auditorium. “Thank you for being so raw and so real,” she said softly. “It is comforting to know that even adults struggle with their tefilla.”

I nearly collapsed with relief. I don’t know what the rest of the audience thought, but it didn’t matter. 

Her words rang in my ears. That rawness? That realness? That’s what I need to bring to my tefilla too. 

Hashem recognizes my struggles even more than I do. As long as I am working to develop my muscle – if I am real and raw with myself and with Him – our relationship will continue to grow.

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