In January of 2019, I was invited to visit Israel by the mother of the Jewish family for whom I used to nanny. In exchange for a plane ticket there and back, I would provide childcare hours equivalent to the price of the ticket – most importantly, childcare on the flights. There was no question of whether I would go – I had been hoping she would ask for years – so I began to lay plans for my next excellent summer travel adventure.
I was incredibly busy with school and teaching, and May quickly arrived. I graduated from my master’s program with a renewed sense of finishing important milestones and being ready to take the next step and find a permanent relationship. I had been dating diligently for several years, but had a very particular idea of the kind of person I wanted, and went on a lot of awkward first dates with no luck. I figured I would take a break from dating while I traveled over the summer, come back for school in the fall, and keep up the grind.
At the end of May, I found a sale on flights from Tel Aviv to Athens during the time I would be in Israel, and decided to take a road trip around the country and visit its ancient ruins. I made plans to drive a giant loop around the country and hit some of the major cities and some smaller ones too, visiting Delphi, the Temple of Apollo, and the Parthenon. Leaving my dog in the somewhat trusty company of my younger brothers, I began my summer travels.
Now to zoom out for a moment: During the two years preceding this trip, I had been rethinking some assumptions and beliefs I had held for several years. Anyone who knows me knows that I do not commit to any ideology, and try to think through situations and problems on my own. Although I had spent the first few years after my departure from Mormonism feeling hostile towards religion in general, and turning towards secularism and left-leaning political solutions for social problems, I had recently become disillusioned with the consequences of the Left’s politics, and began to see the benefits of religion – even if I myself wasn’t interested in attaching myself to it. My years nannying for a Jewish family convinced me that, if done well, organized religion could provide communal support in a way that secularists could rarely, if ever, achieve. Moving back to Utah, and revisiting the well-run, productive culture that Mormonism produces made me believe this even further. Teaching public school and seeing the stark divide in the behavioral and academic well-being of my students with religious parents vs. those whose parents pursued only the doctrine of self-gratification further twisted in the knife into my adamant secularism. I was under no illusion that religion, with all its bureaucracy and hierarchical opportunity for corruption, was once again a perfect solution – far from it. But I began to see its benefits and stopped resenting it and belittling those who practiced it and naive and gullible.
In particular, I had been thinking about prayer and what it actually means to pray for or about something. In my early college years, I took a class called Philosophy of Religion. My teacher was a fascinating old gentleman with a spicy personality who had left Mormonism himself and converted to Catholicism, and he loved playing devil’s advocate, provoking the upstart kids in class to the point of tears. Two weeks into the semester, when it became clear that the class would be less about opportunities for bearing testimony or slapping down believers, and more about ancient philosophical religious theory, more than two thirds of the class had dropped and things got interesting.
One day, we were discussing the question of prayer, and Professor Sherlock shut down all of our unsophisticated arguments about why humans should pray. If God has a plan, could petty humans beg to change it? Surely not. If God transcends humans in every way, could He receive something meaningful from the prayer, like a stroke to His everlasting ego? That didn’t make sense, either. We wrestled with this for a class period, prodded along by Sherlock, until he finally revealed the thinking of many religious philosophers: Prayer is not for God.
Prayer is for us. It’s a kind of meditation. It’s an opportunity for us to single-mindedly focus on the thing we want and consider the trade-offs we are willing do to get it (which prayer often motivates – I remember as a kid, thinking, ‘If I get this or that for Christmas, I will never hit my younger brothers again.’ Didn’t usually work, but there were periods of time when I strove to be nicer).
Prayer, as described by Maimonides (a Jewish philosopher, funnily enough, but not significant to me at the time), has three functions: First, the humility we must undertake in order to admit that things are fundamentally out of our control. Second, the organization of our priorities when we think them through and decide what is important enough to pray for. Third, when we willingly and creatively consider making alternate lifestyle changes in order to achieve the things we truly want.
Seen this way, one need not be a theist to gain the benefits of prayer. What the ancients considered prayer is essentially described in many other ways by many other gurus today, minus the explicit supplication to God. Lovingkindness meditation is a kind of prayer. The Secret and all its woowoo-isms are essentially prayer that replaced God with The Universe (and what more godlike than The Universe, vaporously described as loving and infinite by those who supplicate it to get what they want?).
Zoom back in. All this and more was bungling around in my head while I planned my eastern travels. When I arrived in Jerusalem on June 17th, and went to the Western Wall the next day, I did what I had decided to do before I even left Utah: Tuck a tiny note in the Kotel, asking for what I wanted the most but ultimately felt to be mostly out of my control: A healthy, loving, permanent relationship with a good man and then children.
Of course, because this is me, things did not quite go according to plan. When I arrived at the Western Wall with the extended family of the kids I had nannied, I quickly realized I had brought nothing to write on – a major SNAFU for an English teacher, especially one who prided herself on always having something to write on and with. I thought of a terribly lame excuse for asking around my party for a piece of paper, and somebody produced a receipt that was blank on one side, covered in inscrutable Hebrew on the other.
I told my group that my Christian grandmother had requested that I place a prayer in the wall on her behalf. I don’t know why I said that; I guess I was embarrassed to admit that I wanted something badly enough to ask at the Western Wall for it. I had hoped to go tuck in the note by myself, but then a few of my group came along with me.
I stood back a little from everyone as we made our way to the women’s section of the wall, and, using my purse as a desk, I wrote on the receipt: husband, baby. I couldn’t think of anything else to say without sounding foolish, and that about summed it up anyway. I folded the note over three or four times, and then I approached the wall. It was crowded with women, many of whom were sobbing earnestly. Some rocked back and forth, moaning. Some had their hands on the wall, praying out loud. It was hard to get close enough to reach out and touch it. I stretched over a wizened old woman who was crying, clutching a filthy handkerchief in her hand, and looking up at the sky, repeating the same question over and over in Hebrew. A younger woman standing next to her kept her hand on the old woman’s shoulder and silently nodded her head.
I tried to wedge my sweaty note in next to the other notes, and I accidentally sent one tumbling down onto the ground. Even at the Western Wall, the word fuck involuntarily shot through my mind, and I looked around awkwardly to see if I should pick it up and put it back in. The note had fallen under the chair of the wailing woman, and there was no way for me to reach it without things getting incredibly awkward, so I decided to leave it. I looked around again, and, seeing the women next to me placing their hands against the rock while they prayed, I did the same.
I really want this, I thought. Whatever I’m doing to get in the way of getting it, I will stop. When the opportunity presents itself, I will take it. I stepped back and saw a group of young girls all dressed alike, who had clearly come as part of an Israeli school group. I was overcome by a longing so powerful it tightened my chest and made it difficult to breathe. Would I have a daughter? Would she look like me? Would I ever get my act together sufficiently to attract the kind of person I really wanted to be with?
I turned away from my group and pretended to be walking into the shade – again, for some reason, ashamed to be doing what I was really doing: this time, crying. I can’t explain now why it felt so embarrassing to want this so badly that I was willing to pray or weep over it. I certainly wasn’t the first woman who wanted a family badly enough that they were willing to do strange or uncharacteristic things to try to get them. And it wasn’t just a family for the sake of having a family – to be happy in my relationship, I needed to meet somebody I could respect and admire. I wanted it so much, I finally admitted to myself as I stood there hiding my face, that I had spent the last few years deceiving myself into nonchalance and saying that if it never happened, I would be okay. Working under this theory, the choice of men I dated did not really matter because if it didn’t work out, that was equally acceptable.
Now I knew this was not true. I wanted a good man to build a life with. I wanted a baby in my belly and then in my arms, and then another, and another. I wanted someone who was kind, intelligent, sensitive, and who loved me and was committed to me and our children. I was afraid that if I stayed in Utah, I would never find him, but I was also comfortable, and didn’t want to leave. I was independent and self-sufficient and thankful and pleased with what I had so far. But I was missing the critical piece of the other person, and that was one thing I couldn’t do alone. I had to wait for someone else. That in and of itself was humbling: This thing I wanted so badly that I could barely admit I wanted it for fear of not getting it was fundamentally out of my control. The tiny receipt with husband, baby written on it was my single-minded meditation on wanting that person to appear, a final admission to myself that I was ready to do what I needed to do, and make the changes I needed to make, to find him.
I waited until I could control myself, and then I rejoined my group. Later that day, I separated from the group so I could wander around more of the Old City of Jerusalem. I did a lot of thinking as I wandered down the aisles of the underground shuk, long enough to come out the other side in the Arab Quarter, look around, and then come back again to the Jewish Quarter. Eventually, I sat with aching feet in a little shade and wrote the following down in my notes on my phone:
“The people who insist on the ridiculousness of prayer as literal enterprise seem, now, to be fundamentally missing the point. The function of prayer feels now like a universally human outpouring of longing and hope that can’t find expression in the mere literal. Some element of the transcendental – the idea that people from all over the world would come to weep their desires and griefs, to tuck a scrap of paper into a rock hoping to invoke some existential intervention, to put a pathetic inscription in an ancient wall as a benediction against the necessary evils of life running their due course – stopped seeming stupid and instead became necessary.
All our lives we are fed mixed messages about getting what we want: Work for it, ask the universe, seek and ye shall find, the moment you stop looking it will find you. These are but modern prayers, rules to live by in the hope that they will protect us from the sheer randomness that is life. Maybe if I strategized carefully, I would find a partner. Maybe if I stopped looking, he would find me. But maybe, even if I did everything “right,” the family wouldn’t come. Maybe I’d be one of the unlucky ones. Maybe I would meet a perfect mate, and on the way to our wedding, he would die in a car accident. Maybe he would have a midlife crisis and leave.
If things like marriage are the public expression of a major commitment, maybe prayer is the private counterpart. It is a daily personal bargaining with life, an effort to control the uncontrollable. If I am allowed to survive this illness, I will be kinder, donate more to charity, stop cheating on my wife, etc. When viewed this way, the power of God becomes a metaphor for life itself – who can deny that life giveth and taketh away, at seemingly random intervals, with no care for our preferences? My brother recently told me the story of a friend who, shortly after getting engaged to his girlfriend of seven years, got a phone call from a lover’s worst nightmares. His girlfriend, out boating with friends, had accidentally fallen out of the boat and come into contact with the rudder. Her jaw was cut from her face and she was killed.”
This and more churned in my head. Things seemed more clear and simultaneously more obscure than they ever had. In some ways I felt closer to getting what I wanted, and at the same time, the cold, hard reality that I might not meet the right person at the right time made me feel further away than ever. I was 28, and that was young, but it wasn’t that young. Even if I met the perfect person that very day, I knew we wouldn’t start a family for a couple of years, and I had enough experience working for infertile women who struggled to have children to belief the myth that women can still easily conceive into their thirties.
Eventually, I stood up and walked to the bus stop that would take me from the Old City back down to First Station. From there I walked back down into my little hotel in the German Colony, and collapsed onto the bed to read. Eventually, I quieted my mind and began thinking forward to my remaining three weeks in Israel and Greece. I definitely wanted to meet some locals to show me the best food and drink spots – this was something I always did when I traveled alone – and so I got online.
That night, I swiped right on Udi.