We are up to the part of Anne of Green Gables in which Marilla teaches Anne to say her prayers at night. She is relieved to discover that even if Anne does not pray regularly, she has some concept of God. “You’re not quite a heathen,” Marilla remarks wryly, and before I could read on, my daughter Liav interrupted me. “What’s a heathen?” she asked.
“A heathen is someone who does not believe in your concept of God,” I told her, trying to give a fair and accurate response.
“Oh,” said Liav, “So Anne is a heathen to Hashem, because she’s a Mitzri.” Mitzri is Hebrew for Egyptian, and my kids are forever confusing it with Notzri, which means Christian – for much of their early education, which was heavily informed by Bible stories, it was the Egyptians who were the “others,” not the Christians. As I was about to correct Liav, Tagel interjected. “I get it, so we are a heathen to Avodah Zarah!” she exclaimed, using the rabbinic term for idolatry. I was tempted to tell her that she, like all my kids, is a heathen to English grammar, but I bit my tongue.
Marilla instructs Anne to kneel down to say a prayer, but Anne finds this puzzling. She tells Marilla that it seems more appropriate to her to go out into nature to pray, not kneel beside a bed. “If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.” I asked the kids if this reminded them of anything, but they weren’t sure. “Do you know why we wear tzitzit,” I inquired, referring to the fringed strings that Jews are supposed to wear attached to a four-cornered garment. The Torah teaches that the fringes are supposed to be a blue color known as t’chelet, which according to the rabbis is a rare and expensive dye that comes from a marine creature that surfaces only once in seventy years (Menachot 44a). The rabbis explain that the fringes must be this color specifically because “t’chelet is similar in color to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the throne of God’s glory,” which was made of sapphire stone. That is, the ritual fringes are supposed to remind the wearer of the sea, the sky, and the infinite God, directing one’s thoughts to prayer – much like Anne looking up at the infinite expanse of the heavens.
Anne’s protestations notwithstanding, Marilla insists that she kneel beside her bed and compose a prayer. There is something somewhat ironic about the deeply spiritual Anne, who feels such a natural kinship with God’s creation, learning to pray from the stern and stoical Marilla, who has probably never uttered a spontaneous prayer in her life. When Anne earnestly asks Marilla what she ought to say, Marilla tells her that she’s old enough to pray for herself. And so Anne gives it a try, addressing the “gracious and heavenly father” out loud and couching her fervent sentiments in the archaic diction she associates with formal prayer. She thanks God for the lake and the trees she has already fallen in love with in Avonlea, and she petitions God to make her beautiful when she grows up. She concludes as if signing a letter: “Yours respectfully, Anne Shirley.” It is a prayer that comes from her heart, but Marilla can hardly keep herself from collapsing in laughter and exasperation.
“What’s so funny?” I asked the kids, because I wanted to know if they got it. They did. “Ima, Anne didn’t really do what Marilla asked. Marilla wanted her to daven from the Siddur, I mean, to pray from whatever prayer book they use. But instead Anne said a tefilla ishit.” I told Liav that she was exactly right. Marilla expected Anne to recite some sort of formal prayer, but instead Anne offered a tefilla ishit – a personal prayer, like the prayers my kids are supposed to come up with on their own during the two minutes of silence their teachers give them after they’ve closed their prayer books but before they’ve sat down at their desks. I know about tefilla ishit because during the Corona lockdowns, my kids prayed at home together every morning along with their teachers, who had pre-recorded the service on Whatsapp audio; at the very end of the recording, the teacher announced “tefilla ishit” in a singsong voice as a reminder to the kids to offer their own personal prayers. This was a signal for my kids to belt out the words “tefilla ishit,” toss their prayer books summarily on the table, stop the Whatsapp recording, and furtively switch to another app. Their version of tefilla ishit was watching Dora the Explorer on YouTube for as long as it took until one of us came over and confiscated the device.
I explained to the kids that the difference between the way Marilla and Anne prayed is the difference between Keva and Kavanah, to invoke two terms used (if not juxtaposed) by the ancient rabbis. Keva refers to fixed prayer – the liturgy enshrined in the prayer book. Kavanah refers to the spontaneous prayers of the heart. Marilla expects Anne’s prayer to be Keva, and so in the very next chapter, she hands Anne a card with the Lord’s Prayer printed on it and instructs Anne to sit down in the corner of the kitchen and learn it by heart. But Anne instead prays out of Kavanah – her eyes drift to a picture on the wall entitled “Christ Blessing Little Children,” and she imagines that she is the little girl in the blue dress in the corner, fervently praying that the Lord will notice her. At night, when I sing Shema with the kids in bed, our prayer is Keva—it is the fixed text of the central prayer of Jewish worship recited twice daily. But when I’m about to leave the room and Shalvi adds, “And we also daven for the Corona to end so we can go back to the gymboree,” that’s Kavanah.
I don’t need to teach the kids to pray out of Kavanah – at least I don’t think they do. I imagine, like Anne, that they have a natural spiritual instinct, and my job is just to nourish and cultivate it. I don’t really need to teach them to daven out of Keva either, since they do that in school every day. The best we can do as parents is to model both kinds of prayer ourselves, and for this I have Daniel to thank. For the past few months, Matan has begun attending synagogue with Daniel on weekday mornings. He claims he wants to daven early so that when he gets to school, he can read his book during the time allocated for prayer, but I know it’s more than that. By observing and following Daniel, Matan is learning how to pray not like a fourth grader but like an adult. One morning this week, when Daniel had a bad cold and felt too sick to go to shul, the two of them davened on our porch, side by side, bowing and swaying in synchrony. Daniel told Matan to lead the tefillot, reminding him which lines to read aloud and which to mutter silently. I was inside packing the lunch boxes, but I could hear Matan’s every word. This child of mine, at least, is not a heathen.