Photo Credit: Ideastrator Press

Title: Sometimes When I Pray: Heartfelt, Honest Thoughts About Tefillah
Sari Kopitnikoff
Ideastrator Press



It took her several years, Sari Kopitnikoff notes in her preface, to complete her book on Jewish prayer. In the pages that follow, she approaches this loaded term from many different angles for readers of all ages: its text, the act and experience of praying as well as the thoughts that arise in her mind as she engages in this unique, complex and paradoxical conversation with G-d.

The diversity of shapes and forms of Jewish prayer can be quite overwhelming for children and adults alike. Particularly those (yet) unfamiliar with the intricacies of Hebrew, the structure of a siddur or the order of synagogue services are easily confused by the multiple, sometimes contradictory meanings that Jewish prayer seems to take on almost simultaneously: It is private and public, in Hebrew or any other language, it is improvised, but also fixed, it is thanksgiving, praise and supplication all at once. We are told to pray slowly, with intention, but are often forced to rush through the siddur. Or we find ourselves counting down how many pages are still to be turned, and how many words are to be said again, and again, and again.

I teach in a Jewish Sunday school that commences with a full morning prayer service (followed by breakfast and study sessions). Sometimes I see students struggling with this multitude of meanings. They find it hard to keep up with the pace of prayer. They have difficulties understanding the words they say and finding meaning in them. I have been wondering for some time what thoughts and what kind of advice I could share with them to enable them to get something meaningful out of our prayer service each Sunday morning. When I read that Sari Kopitnikoff had published her “Heartfelt, Honest Thoughts About Tefillah,” as she puts it in her subtitle, I was excited to read about her take on this subject.

In her book “Sometimes When I Pray,” she invites the reader to view prayer as an opportunity to engage in a personal conversation with G-d, to connect to others and oneself. Her book, or rather her slim booklet of around 20 pages, does not come to teach, prescribe or preach how Jewish prayer should look. Plenty of other books have been written for that purpose. Kopitnikoff’s aim is to describe the phenomenology of praying; she outlines – in poetic words and through powerful illustrations – her evolving, ever-changing relationship to prayer, thereby validating many different experiences and conflicting feelings about prayer. She invites readers to join her on an honest and authentic journey of reflection. “Sometimes When I Pray” begins with Kopitnikoff’s memory of receiving her first, very own siddur as a young girl. It then leads onto reflections about how she prays, when she does so, what she prays for, where she finds space for prayer and which aspects of life (or prayer itself) can disturb this very personal connection to G-d.

Although written in simple language, her book has a poetic touch. Almost every page, dominated by an illustration and subtitled with a sentence or two, begins with the phrase “sometimes when I pray.” Illustrations and text stem from Sari Kopitnikoff’s creativity, using simple, though colorful drawings and just a few, simple words to engage the reader in a conversation about prayer.

It is not Sari Kopitnikoff’s first time to have created resources designed to spark conversations about prayer. As an edutainer, she offers online workshops on connecting to tefillah and has published “My Davening Diary,” a guided journal. Her latest book offers an insight into her personal experiences, thoughts and feelings about prayer. This also means approaching this issue from a woman’s perspective: Readers follow a little girl growing up, a teenager spreading her wings and a young woman developing her relationship with prayer in the hope that her special connection to prayer will last a lifetime. Centering a book on prayer around a female character and her personal, inner prayer journey is especially commendable because Jewish prayer is often associated with men, with rules outlining one’s obligations to pray, and with public prayer in synagogues. This book also mentions communal prayer and the obligation to pray, but these are not the main themes. It is about the personal experience of prayer.

The final pages are left for readers to reflect on their thoughts about prayer. Elliptical prompts beginning with “Sometimes When I Pray” encourage readers to complete these sentences with ideas, experiences, thoughts and feelings rooted in their own relationship with prayer. A few discussion questions allow readers to continue their introspection into what prayer means to them, either on one’s own or together with others, e.g., in a classroom.

Sometimes When I Pray” has big, colorful pictures and is rather sparing with words. But Sari Kopitnikoff chooses her visuals and sentences well. This short book is for children, teenagers and adults. Written in an accessible language, the book takes up central themes and notions of prayer and imbues them with deep meanings and associations. “Sometimes When I Pray” will be a starting point for discussions about prayer with my students. I highly recommend it and look forward to Sari Kopitnikoff’s next projects.

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Katharina Hadassah Wendl is a researcher on halakhic history at the Free University of Berlin. She is also a teacher and lives with her husband in London.