My Inner Psalm Reader

A Tehillim Skeptic Turns to Prayer in a Moment of Crisis

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By Carol Ungar

Published July 14, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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My Israeli-born kids recited Tehillim in kindergarten. Tehillim, the Psalms of David, are background music here in Jerusalem. But they weren’t when I was growing up in mid-20th-century New York. David’s words lived on in my siddur and set to Shlomo Carlebach’s music, but the idea of reciting them on their own, and not during a synagogue service, was completely off my personal radar.

Then on May 15, 1974, terrorists infiltrated a school in the Northern Israeli town of Ma’alot and held 115 school children and their teachers hostage for two days. At my high school, Ramaz, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and all through the Jewish world, we followed the story closely.

Ramaz had trained us to be activists. Our instinct, honed at countless rallies, was to take to the streets — to yell, picket, boycott and petition. Suddenly there was nothing for us to do.

Our principal, Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, called the entire student body together. Dressed in tallis and tefillin he sang out Psalm 130, Shir HaMaalot Mimaamakim, the Song of Ascents — “From the depths I call to You, oh G-d” — in the ancient, plaintive melody of his Lithuanian ancestors.

Within two days, the IDF stormed the school and killed the terrorists. But the victory was bittersweet. During the raid, 25 people died, 22 of them children.

But the lesson remained: When life suddenly turns black and there’s no flashlight, a Jew grabs hold of the psalms. David knew that place. He lived in it. Although he did become king of Israel, David’s path to glory was full of difficulty. As a young man, he suffered the rejection of his own family and later the scorn of his wife. His numerous enemies included his father-in-law and his own son Absalom, who rebelled against him. Through all of this, he spun out the luminous verses that we call the Psalms. All of Psalms can be summarized in two short Anne Lamott-style phrases: “help” and “thank you.” In our own period, Natan Sharansky hung onto his psalter through his long years in Soviet prisons.

I wish I could have said that after that day, I began a regular Tehillim practice. But I didn’t. I didn’t even own a psalter. Even though I identified as a religious person, I trusted myself and the power of action. I defined life’s problems in terms of their solutions and in my mind solutions came from professionals: doctors, lawyers, psychologists, accountants, psychiatrists, engineers, “dummies books” and self-help books.

I sailed along that way for a good many years until a crisis involving my child’s education pushed me up against that proverbial wall. None of the so-called experts offered any useful advice. Then, in the midst of it all, a neighbor mentioned a women’s psalms recitation group and I went. It beat the alternative, which was staying home and worrying.


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