I sat on the edge of the ditch, my toes drawing marks in the soft, red dust. It was the end of the dry season in Kenya, and the little grass that remained on either side of the ditch was yellow and crackly. I picked a weed topped with a tiny yellow flower, and watched a black ant scurry across the centre of the flower and into the petals. “How come this flower survived the heat?” I wondered before returning to the more pressing problems that a child of ten years old faces during the interminable vacation:

“Where is Olivia?”

I had finished eating lunch twenty minutes ago. What was taking her so long? I twirled the stem of the weed between my palms and prayed, Dear G‑d, please help Olivia finish lunch quickly so that we can go and climb the tree behind my house. I’m so hot here. Thank you.

Olivia was out a few minutes later. As a ten-year-old, I wondered if it was because of my prayer or because she had skipped dessert. I decided that maybe it was both.

The awkward translation bothered me I have always enjoyed praying. It started in my earliest school years, when I attended an elementary school run by Catholic nuns. Here my path to prayer began. We would start every morning with a general assembly of all the grades, and we would recite our set litany in chorus. First we recited one of the Catholic prayers. Our little voices rang out obediently as Sister Giovanna walked among the lined-up students, her small eyes scanning us all, her starched white habit cutting deep into the fleshy sides of her face and making her pink complexion turn even pinker.

We ended with what she probably considered to also be one of their prayers. “The L‑rd is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in soft pastures. He leads me beside tranquil waters.” My voice would chant, and my mind would wander through a lush, green meadow with a river flowing through it—just like the postcard I had seen of the Lake District in England. The awkward language bothered me, but not enough to take away the feeling of security that I felt when I said this prayer.

My best friend in elementary school was Olivia, the daughter of a staunch Roman Catholic family. We would often sleep over at each other’s house. Lying together in the dark, we would share our dreams for hours until, feeling sleep overcome us, we would each say our prayers. Olivia’s were an expanded repetition of the prayers we said every morning.

I felt it was not right for me to say those prayers when Sister Giovanna wasn’t watching, but I wasn’t sure what to say instead. I consulted my mother, and we came up with a solution: I would simply speak to G‑d. Another flagstone in my path to prayer was thus laid, and as Olivia murmured her prayers, I would talk to G‑d.

Often, in an effort to impose some kind of structure on my prayers, I would find myself talking as if I were dictating a letter: Dear G‑d, thank you for my Mummy and Daddy. Thank you for helping me win the race on the obstacle course. Please help me find the shilling I lost. Thank you. Sometimes I would fall asleep in the middle of my prayers, and while I worried that G‑d would not take too kindly to this, there was little I could do to stop it happening.

I would simply speak to G‑d“What do you do when you’ve done something bad?” Olivia asked me one day when we were eating oatmeal cookies on the bank of a stream that flowed by the bottom of her garden.

“What do you mean? Like what?” I asked her.

“Like when I tried on Simona’s new lipstick and I broke it,” she said. Simona was her older sister.

“I don’t know. I guess I would tell her what I had done, and then say sorry,” I ventured.

“Stupid. You can say that because you don’t have an older sister who gets really mad at you every time you touch her things.”

Olivia dismissed my words with a toss of her sandy curls. For the millionth time, I wished my dark, straight hair was more like hers.

“So what do you do?” I challenged her.

“I go to confession on Sundays at church. I tell the priest all the bad things I’ve done, and he tells me which prayers to say, and then I’m forgiven,” Olivia said.

“Oh,” I answered. Even as a child, the concept of confession seemed ludicrous. How could saying a prayer, or even a lot of prayers, help Simona’s lipstick? But my friendship with Olivia was too precious for me to risk asking her. So I threw the rest of my cookie into the brown water bubbling past our feet, and asked Olivia if she had ever seen any fish in the river.

The next flagstone in my path to prayer was chiseled out, years later, in the north of Israel, where I spent part of the winter at a girls’ seminary, studying and touring. On one excursion, as I sat by a stream and watched the bubbling torrent, capped with white foam, whirl round the shiny black rocks before it continued its rush downstream, I mulled over what I had been learning.

After a week of watching my roommate ramble through the pages of her prayerbook every morning, I had realized that, like all roads, the path to prayer must be structured for it to lead somewhere. So I had asked one of our teachers to show me what I should be saying.

“Say from here to here every morning,” the rabbi told me, flipping through my brand-new siddur (prayerbook) I had just bought.

“All of that?” I gasped.

“That is the main part of the morning prayer service. Say as much as you can manage,” he smiled at me warmly, and I wondered how much he said every morning.

My first task was to tackle the unfamiliar wordsMy first task was to tackle the unfamiliar words. Some mornings, I would struggle through the pages. Some mornings, I gave myself a break and prayed my familiar, unstructured prayer. Dear G‑d, this is really hard. Can you help me learn to read it faster? The food here is not like Mummy’s. Please let them serve a tasty lunch today. Thank you.

A few months passed, and I started to learn the meaning behind these formal words of prayer. I began with the simple meaning, and then later moved on to the meaning behind the meaning. I marveled at how precisely our sages had laid out the flagstones of this path. Each word, each slab was taking me closer to the essence, and I never seemed to reach the end.

My next lesson on prayer came from a taxi driver on my wedding day. My friend Leah and I were on our way to the Kotel, the Western Wall, on the morning of my wedding.

“Do you realize that your passenger is a bride?” Leah asked our taxi driver a few moments after we had pulled into the flow of traffic.

“Really? Mazel tov! In that case, you must go to Rachel’s Tomb to pray before you go to the Kotel,” the driver instructed us.

“To Rachel’s Tomb? I can’t go there today,” I said, already feeling the heat of the unusually hot April sun.

“Of course you must. Every bride goes to Rachel’s Tomb on her wedding day,” the driver informed me.

I hadn’t heard of that custom, and I was feeling hotter by the minute. “Listen . . . what’s your name?”


“Listen, Avi, I can’t go to Rachel’s Tomb. I’m fasting today. I can’t overdo it. I’m getting married tonight,” I reminded him.

“Of course you must go,” he ignored my reminder. “You’re young, and you have plenty of energy. Besides, who ever heard of getting married without asking Mama Rachel for her blessing? I’ll drive you there right now,” Avi said.

My next lesson on prayer came from a taxi driverAnd so Leah and I settled down for the ride. I opened the window, and soon a cool breeze was blowing through my hair. One brown, gray hill slid into another in an endless flow. A dark green strip of shrubbery snaked its way along the seam of two hills, marking the presence of water. The occasional flock of sheep slipped by.

Avi sang every wedding song that he knew; then he repeated them. When we got to Rachel’s Tomb, he pulled a black kippah out of the glove compartment, put it on his head, and told us to take as long as we wanted. Then he went to talk to the soldiers standing near the entrance.

I recited Psalms. Following Avi’s advice, I asked Mama Rachel to pray for me. Then I remembered that I had been taught that Mama Rachel was buried on the road to Beit Lechem (Bethlehem) so that she would see the Jewish nation, her children, going into exile, and would be roused to pray for their return.

I asked her to keep begging G‑d to bring all His children home. When my heart had been opened by the spirit of the place and by its tranquility, I cried to my Father who loves and protects me: Dear Hashem, thank You for the gift of a husband. Please help us to build a home that will be true to Jewish tradition.

An hour and a half later, we were driving up to the Kotel.

“Avi, please give me your full name and your mother’s name, so that I can pray for you at my wedding,” I asked him, even though he had given me more than I could ever give him in return.

Over the years, I have begun to feel more comfortable with structured prayer. I meander through the precious words, traveling a road well worn by generations before me. As the routes become more familiar, I find pleasure and solace every time I reach a turn of meaning that I recognize.

While my love for formal prayer keeps growing, I have continued my informal conversations with G‑d. And one day, I was struck by a contrast. I noticed that whenever I am praying for something that I really need, when the wellsprings of my heart open up and in an effortless instant my prayer gushes forth, it so naturally starts with the words “Dear G‑d . . .” This is because the flagstones of my path to prayer were laid when I was a child, and this was how I then addressed Hashem.

Likewise, I think back to when we recited prayers in my Catholic elementary school. I now know that the psalm that comforted me most was Psalm 23, which is harmonized weekly by my husband and children when night draws its blanket over Shabbat and the special day comes to an end.

Understanding the profound impact my childhood traditions had on my life, I acknowledge the enormity of my task as a mother: I feel obligated to help my children lay their flagstones in their own paths to prayer.

The year that I felt my eldest daughter was old enough, I took her to synagogue for the Yom Kippur service. While it was still early morning, I shook Sara awake gently and we got dressed quickly.

It was very cool walking up the flight of steps that led to the road above ours, a soothing contrast to the heat we would feel on the way back, hours later. At the top, I gazed at the hills surrounding our town of Beit Shemesh. Vivid brushstrokes of purple and orange still tinged the sky above them.

Soon we were slipping into our seats in the women’s section of our synagogue. Before I opened my machzor, eager to wend my way through the structure of the morning service, I offered up a short prayer of my own: Dear G‑d, please help me teach my daughter to treasure these pathways to prayer, and please help her to also forge her own. Thank you.