I am honored to introduce Rachel Weingarten, author of Ancient Prayer: Channeling Your Faith 365 Days of the Year (Fall River Press). Rachel is a freelance writer with extensive experience. She has published several non-fiction books and recently interviewed Matisyahu for Parade Magazine.
Ancient Prayer is a lovely gem of a book. Rachel has gathered traditional, meaningful prayers that inspire and comfort. She shares her insightful thoughts about each prayer – it’s like having a warm, caring teacher by your side. I keep a copy on my desk so I can open it up anytime I need a little lift! Though not a children’s book, Ancient Prayer is appropriate for all ages and would make a beautiful Bar/Bat Mitzvah gift.
It was delightful to interview Rachel and learn more about Ancient Prayer.
How does traditional prayer fit into your personal and professional life? What inspired you to write Ancient Prayer ?
That’s a really good question. Also, a really hard question. In my life, I’ve found that traditional ways of doing things haven’t always been the best fit for me. So I try to find ways to make things more relevant to myself. And I think that was a great inspiration for writing the book as well. I was raised very observant, where there was a rule or blessing or prayer for everything and nearly every situation. And that can be extremely comforting. But it can also be very constricting. So I like to use the ancient prayers as inspiration. They’re there at certain times of the year (or day or life cycle) but sometimes the words are just so beautiful that the inspiration behind the words can get me through a particularly tough time. I honestly can’t think of a single day that goes by without my thinking “Mah Rabu Ma’asecha Hashem” which is more exhortation of sort than prayer, How wondrous or how many are you creations, oh God. For me it’s feeling like there’s something bigger at work. And it’s looking at a tiny purple flower growing in a graveyard (this happened to me last week) and feeling a surge of optimism. Even in a place of such sadness and memory, beauty can grow. For me, prayer is appreciation and acknowledgement. I love the words the way that I love works of classic literature. And sometimes it feels so big that it overflows. For the times that it doesn’t though, it can be as simple as enjoying a favorite verse or lyric.
How extensive was your research process? What were some of the unexpected things you discovered about prayer in the research/writing of your book?
Well, I’d say my entire life has been spent in the research of faith and prayer and religion and not be exaggerating. Prayer and faith are included in some of my deepest memories. And for about five minutes in my life (okay, slightly longer!) I wanted to become a rabbi, so my study intensified. I’ve always been a thinking person, so beyond the 12 years of bilingual education, I always searched and explored. And I’m fortunate to have a brilliant extended network and my father is perhaps my greatest font of knowledge in matters of both Judaism and world culture. His grasp of the esoteric never ceases to amaze me. And my mother says the psalms on a daily basis without fail. And her ongoing commentary is always tied into modern life. So it’s something I research on an informal basis and through osmosis and also from talking to people of every faith and background and those with none. My father is a child concentration camp survivor. My mother is a Holocaust survivor. My entire extended family (the older generation) are survivors. I always wondered how these people came through that fire and managed to retain faith or belief. So I studied and asked questions. And then I wrote about it. And I want to write some more.
I discovered how similar many of the words were. The intent. I’m a firm believer that faith comes from the same place, so while the book is heavy on Old or Hebrew Testament basis, my own belief is that the language of prayer is universal. My greatest compliment is when people who are agnostic or not religious in any way write to me to tell me that they read my book first thing in the morning or last thing at night for comfort or inspiration. Prayer is universal if you let it be.
Prayer can be intimidating for some. Ancient Prayer seems to address that fear by making prayer accessible, meaningful, and sensible. Who was the reader you had in mind while writing?
I really didn’t have any one type in mind. Another one of my greatest compliments is when people tell me that same thing – that they found the book and my words and explanations to be accessible. Some people feared the study or even flirtation with religion or prayer because so much of what’s out there can be fire and brimstone or dire warnings of what happens if you stray off any set path. I’ve strayed. I continue to stray. I wrote this book for people who struggle with keeping a balance of faith and hope and realism in their life and still want to find a moment of light or inspiration. I’ll assume that if someone picks up this book, they’ve been searching for something, and if they find even a spark of it in my book, I can honestly say that I wrote the book for them.
Was it hard to strike a balance in your commentary – staying true to tradition while making prayer relevant for our lives today?
Brutal. And really really easy. My ‘day’ job when I’m not writing is a marketer and trend analyst. So I constantly study what is out there, what came before and how to make it relevant to people in their everyday life. I believe that I gravitated to that because that’s what my constant inner struggle is. Holding onto the tradition and threads of faith when I come from such a sad background. My ancestors and very recent family members were murdered for their faith. Who am I to reject it? But if it doesn’t fit me the way that it fit them, I have to imagine that there are others who are also trying to find a way to incorporate prayer and faith in a way that feels comfortable and supportive and warm and inviting. So I tried to present the passages in the book the way that I relate to them and in the way that inspires me most. And in that way, and to me at least, ancient prayer feels modern and relevant in a way that Shakespeare’s verse or love poetry is still so potent.
How did it feel when the book was published and you held it in your hands for the first time?
It’s always such a strange thing to hold your book in your hands. And it can be such a rush of emotion. This is my third book, so I vaguely knew to expect both exhilaration and crushing disappointment that comes after seeing something you’ve worked so hard to create and being worried that no one will love it the way you want them to. But I looked at this book and was dazzled. I think that the team at Fall River Press and Barnes and Noble created such a gorgeous little book. I feel like the outside and design really represent what the words convey. It’s been designed to be a gift item and I feel that it really does look like such a gorgeous little present. So it’s small and potent and beautiful and I feel like the text matches the design. (I LOVE the wheat sheafs on each page.) So I am so proud to hold this book in my hands. And I really, really, really hope people love it as much as I do!
Thanks so much for the inspiration, Rachel!
To learn more about Rachel and her work visit www.ancientprayerbook.com.