On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to Meaningful Tefillah in the Synagogue from Jeremy Borovitz

I began attending a Solomon Schechter Day School at the age of four, but I do not think I ever truly prayed until the age of 17.

Sure, I went through the motions quite fluidly. I chanted the Shema’ and I bowed to the ‘Amidah, and when I turned 13, I donned my tallit and wrapped my tefillin. Yet it was not until my senior year that I first began to daven.

Prayer, however, has not been a consistent element in my life. During my college years, prayer was sporadic, and during my brief post-college holiday it was basically nonexistent. A year and a half ago, while I was packing for my 27-month Peace Corps stint in Ukraine, my grandmother gave me a present. It was a siddur that my great-grandfather had given to my grandfather just before he left for basic training in WWII. In it was an inscription in Yiddish: “If you don’t have a brain, you’ll end up dead. If you don’t search for your soul, you won’t have much to live for.”

My great-grandfather and Chancellor Eisen are both hitting on the same point. Prayer is not about talking to God. Prayer is about TRYING to talk to God. It is an effort, a search, an attempt—not a conclusion. The central story of the Torah is a story of a people wandering. It is not about our arrival in Israel, but rather about our search for this majestic land.

Now, for the first time in my life, I wake up every morning in my small Ukrainian shtetl, much like the one my great-grandfather came from, and I pray. I don my tzitzit and I wrap my tefillin and I try to communicate with God. I wrestle with my current circumstances, and I challenge myself to continue the traditions of my father’s father and his father before him. Prayer, for me, does not daily establish a connection with God. But as long as I am searching for the Almighty, I feel I am completing the mitzvah.