Praying Away the Chumbawamba

Judaism and memorization.

When I was in middle school, and the assignment was to memorize a poem, I picked the shortest one I could find — a Robert Frost, a single sentence — to thumb my nose a bit at the teacher. Jokes on me: That single sentence has been stuck in my head ever since.

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Bad things (crow, hemlock), are strangely lovely, and make the guy’s day better.

It pierced through the creases of my brain at some soft moment, and so now during any moment of silence (falling asleep, waiting in line), I hear that poem — my only respite is that it rotates with the song “Tubthumping” by the British rock band Chumbawamba that came out around the exact same time when my brain was apparently at its most malleable. It’s actually a nightmare. But it reminds me every day how powerful memorization is and why I want to memorize prayers.

Because memory — the portable Torah — is part of what it means to be Jewish.


I have been (slowly) memorizing prayers. I started just through observation, then mouthing along. Then I started listening to Hebrew children’s music. Now it’s a matter of practice. I bless our food every night, and if Bar helps me (let’s say I mix up the blessing for dinner with bread versus no bread), I rewind and we have to do it all again like a real brat. I want to get confident. I don’t want to have to use a bencher.

Last week, I stayed with my Uncle Bill in New York, and Friday night he had over the artist Michele Oka Doner and her husband, Fred Doner, who runs their studio and also teaches. They are Chosen By Choice readers, and so they came ready for Shabbat!

We lit candles, and Michele asked if I wanted to do the prayers — I’ve never done them without Bar there to step in as I stutter — but I surprised myself (and probably Uncle Bill too) and we said them and then sang them.

The conversation turned to Jews and memory. And Fred said something wonderful that he then texted me. Here’s what he said:

They were forced from every homeland, so Jews had to create portable knowledge, a portable religion, a portable g-d.  This required them to memorize Torah and other textual teachings. They literally carried their g-d in their brain. Keeping all that learning in mind and accreting it produced people with remarkable memory and curiosity...with an extraordinary ability to synthesize, create and imagine the new, the original, and the breakthrough. 

Very little in my life requires memory. My work is about taking information in, quickly chewing it, and then mashing it into a document. The less it sits in my head and turns to memory the better. And good! I don’t want most of the characters I talk to sitting around in my head for too long.

My memory itself is very bad, and I’m quite face blind. I once mistook my roommate for another friend who got a similar haircut, and it took a few minutes of us talking for her to realize what was going on and say “No no Nellie I’m __.” I once started flirting with a girl at a party only for her to remind me that we’d been on a date, and I actually hadn’t texted her back. I move through the world in a sort of perpetual present, relying on context clues. 

But when it comes to Judaism, I want to let the information sit with me. I want a little portable Torah in my brain. I want to memorize more. It’s not easy for me. It’s actually very hard. But I never feel more Jewish than when I close my eyes and sing from memory: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'zivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

Next I want to memorize the prayer for waking up:Modeh ani lefaneḥa meleḥ ḥai vekayam, she’he’ḥezarta bee nishmatee b’ḥemla, raba emunatecha. (“I offer thanks to You, our God, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”)

I’ll be using this great website, which sets it to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine.”

And if I’m lucky, one of these days, one of these prayers will edge out Chumbawamba.

Some other good resources for prayer memorization:

This My Jewish Learning daily prayer email.

Chabad has some solid resources for this too.

A reader sent in this fantastic resource: A rabbi who combines visual and auditory into prayer lessons on YouTube.

The best way though is just to Spotify search for: Kabbalat Shabbat. Or Hebrew children’s prayers. And then just sing along!

Instead of a Convert Corner this week, we have an entry in Reader Critique Plaza.

Last week, I wrote about how you can see cancel culture as a disagreement on whether humans are born pure or born flawed — the modern left sees humans as born perfect and so mistakes are shocking, while Jews see humans as born flawed and so mistakes are par for the course.

Elaina Ransford, a law student at NYU, found my framing unfair. Her point: there’s a whole lot of modern progressives who also agree that the hair-trigger rage faction is bad, and the essay made it seem like there was a consensus on the issue. It also put Judaism and progressivism as inherently oppositional, when of course this is not necessarily so. And, she’s right! Here’s Elaina:

While I sympathize with your aversion to cancel culture, I want to push back on how that culture is framed in this week’s newsletter. You describe cancel culture synonymously with “modern liberal society” and “progressives.” That conflation is, I think, borne from Twitter rather than from any evaluation of how most liberals think about the world. As someone not on Twitter who exists in a very progressive (largely Jewish) social circle, my experience is that people are generally forgiving and much more moderate than those on the right would believe. Most liberals do not believe in police abolition. Most liberals do not believe that a Tweet from high school should make someone unemployable for life.

I say this not to defend liberals, though, but because reading this week's newsletter I felt that by aligning anti-cancel culture with Judaism, and cancel culture with leftism, you're implying that a truly Jewish life is incompatible with being politically left. Cancel culture is not the same thing as being a progressive, and there is room within progressive politics for subtlety and acceptance (and Judaism!). 

The left that does the cancelling is not representative of progressive culture overall. I think the takes that are the furthest left get amplified by both sides of the spectrum which creates this impression online that to be a progressive = cancel culture and police abolition.

At bottom, we're probably saying the same thing - that the most dogmatic versions of leftist politics require a view of humanity that is in tension with the view of humanity espoused in Judaism. What I am pushing back on is not that insight, but the idea that it applied to progressives as a group, rather than to what I see as the more niche issue of cancel culture within that group. 

Thank you as always to those reading along!

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