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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Women’s Tehillim groups aren’t a new thing. They existed in Eastern Europe where a literate woman called a zoggerte chanted the verses and the other less literate women followed along. In modern groups there is no zoggerte. Instead, the psalter’s 150 chapters are split into two dozen skinny pamphlets. Each group member silently recites the verses in her pamphlet and within a half hour (or as little as 15 minutes in a big group) the group gets through all 150 psalms. This assembly-line strategy yields a great windfall; for reading a small booklet each participant receives the spiritual merit of all 150 chapters.

That sounded like a good deal. I could use any merit I could get, any clout with G-d to help my situation, but I can’t say that I enjoyed the group. I missed Rabbi Lookstein’s old-fashioned music. To my ears womens’ whispered chanting sounded like the hum of a massive refrigerator. My tongue stumbled over David’s difficult Hebrew words and my mind drifted away from the text and wandered around the room. I made intimate acquaintace with the mottled peach printed drapes, the spotted vinyl chairs and the white ceramic tiles of the community center room where the Tehillim club met. In those early days, I’d read a few chapters and then skip out ahead of the other members.

It was the group leader who kept me going, a venerable octogenarian who read the introductory and closing prayers at each session. “Ladies,” she’d say, her soft purring voice laced with a slight German accent, “you don’t know what you are doing when you come.”

That sold me. As much as I disavowed action, I had a need to do something about my situation and in the spiritual world psalm saying is an act of immense power. The mystics say that it can lead to hamtakat hadin, the sweetening of harsh decrees, which was probably why Rabbi Lookstein took out his psalter back in 1974.

Things eventually got better — not in a happily-ever-after Disney movie way, but slowly and subtly, the way that a flower blossoms when no one is watching. Just as David kept his eyes open to watch for the proverbial silver lining in a very cloudy life, I tallied up the small but significant milestones in my child’s life. I was a thankful for a day on which the school didn’t call, a day without a fight, a day when I could feel that my blessings outweighed my burdens.

Going to the group got easier, too. Somehow the silence softened and the words unlocked some of their secrets. Sometimes they seemed to come from the deepest places in my own heart, as though David and I were on the same wavelength. “Help me…”; Save me”; “I am poor and needy … I shall not fear.”

Nearly a decade has passed — years filled with children growing up and parents getting older, with birth and death, profit and loss, sickness and recovery, terrorism, wars, engagements, weddings and bar mitzvahs. I’ve stayed the course with psalter in hand. David’s song of surrender has become my background music.

Carol Ungar is a writer and food blogger. She is at work on a cookbook, “Jewish Soul Food,” forthcoming from Brandeis University Press. Read her work at www.kosherhomecooking.com.


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