The Chicago Jewish News
By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood
February 10, 2015
Alden Solovy was a successful writer and editor and a devoted Jew, but he had never written prayers before something impelled him to start one day in 2009.
He isn’t quite sure what that something was.
“I started writing prayers in response to a deep love of Judaism and prayer. For about a month I was just writing these prayers. It was quite beautiful and amazing to me that I was writing liturgy, poetic prayers, meditations, and really could not explain it,” Highland Park native Solovy said in a recent phone interview from Jerusalem, where he has lived since 2012.
A month later, Solovy would need all the prayers he and his family and friends could muster when his wife of 27 years, Ami, suffered a traumatic brain injury. She died the next day. The tragedy would eventually propel Solovy’s life in directions he could not then have imagined.
Today he is one of the Jewish world’s best-known creators of new liturgy. He has published two books, “Jewish Prayers for Hope and Healing” and “Haggadah Companion: Meditations and Readings.” His work has appeared in a number of anthologies and his prayers are used in institutions across the Jewish world, from the Reform movement’s prayer book to the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem (he is an alum) to Christian prayer services.
Solovy was named liturgist in residence for the National Havurah Committee’s 2015 Summer Institute set for Aug. 3-9 at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H. At the institute, a weeklong program of study, prayer, singing, conversation, meditation and outdoor activity that is expected to draw more than 300 participants, Solovy will offer workshops on the theme of “We Are Prayers, We Are Blessings.” His programs will include “Shmita of Prayer,” “Prayer Drash,” “Prayers the Rabbis Never Dreamed Up” and “My Life as a Prayer, A Prayer Writer’s Workshop.”
Writing prayers wasn’t on Solovy’s mind growing up in Highland Park, although he always liked to write and even in high school it came naturally to him, he says. So did Judaism: He grew up attending North Suburban Synagogue Beth El and later moved to Evanston, where he raised his family and was a member of Beth Emet the Free Synagogue.
He earned a degree in English composition and literature from Beloit College, a master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Illinois and an MBA from the University of Chicago, then served as editor and associate publisher for the Journals of the American Hospital Association.
“I was living a Jewish life, taking classes, being engaged, raising my children” – two daughters, now 28 and 31 – he says of his life in Evanston.
Then in 2009 his wife, visiting friends in Maine, fell down a flight of stairs and sustained a traumatic brain injury. Solovy and the couple’s daughters flew to say goodbye, and she died the next day, Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover.
After the shiva, “I was out of gas,” Solovy says. “I had nothing left. I really didn’t think I would ever write again. Then suddenly I had this urge to write a prayer for my daughters because of their grief. That was something positive I could do.”
After that, he says, “the well just opened. I wrote and wrote and I’ve been writing for the last five years.”
In that time, he’s written more than 500 prayers, 150 of which are in “Jewish Prayers for Hope and Healing.” They include prayers for the birth of a child, for military veterans, for people diagnosed with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, for an ill parent and for the survivors, victims and families of the Sept. 11 attacks. He has written prayers in praise of adoption, for dealing with the suicide of a child, and to be said before calling social services.
The smaller book, “Haggadah Companion” contains 15 readings for seders.
He writes several times a week and usually posts two new pieces to his website (tobendlight.com) every week, and is working on several new books of prayers.
After his wife’s death, Solovy found himself in a kind of existential crisis.
“Ami had passed away, my kids were grown, and I was at a crossroads,” he says. “I had had a very successful career as an editor and publisher in Chicago, and I found myself in my early 50s wondering what I would do next.”
He decided to visit Israel. “I was not thinking about making aliyah,” he says. “As a Jew, I felt it would be the perfect place to go for healing, to find out what G-d had in store for me. This is our ancestral waters. I felt that coming here would help me understand what to do next.”
It did, but not in a way Solovy had expected.
“After a month here, I realized that this was my home,” he says. “I came here with no family, I knew no one, spoke no Hebrew, had no job here. It was truly an act of faith, and it has been one gift after another.”
Israel, he decided, was “the place where I would find and build a new life.” In 2012, he made aliyah. “It has been marvelous,” he says of his Israeli life.
He has been involved in writing both liturgy and essays, speaking and teaching.
“People want to hear what I have to say,” he says, sounding surprised. “But more importantly, people see someone like me, who is truly engaged in loving prayer, having a life beyond my wildest dreams after some truly difficult things. It’s inspirational to them.”
The most important factor in that reaction, he believes, is prayer. “People gravitate to a certain amount of energy and enthusiasm for prayer,” he says. “I’ve been very blessed with people reading my writing and sharing my writing. It’s really been an amazing blessing.”
Solovy writes liturgy – prayer – but it could also be called poetry. He expounds on the difference between the two.
“It’s the intention,” he says. “Lots of liturgy is poetic. We have a history of poetic prayers. But a poem, say, that looks at nature, marvels at the beauty of nature” is different, he says, from “a prayer about the miracles in G-d’s world. The difference is the intention. The intention is essentially prayer. The intention in poetry is the poetry itself.”
There is also, he says, a difference between “a personal prayer and a piece of liturgy intended for public personal use, and between a blessing and a prayer. A blessing has the intention of honoring that which is alive. Personal prayer is about opening myself up to the world as it is for others and myself. The distinctions are in the intention of the different pieces I’m writing. What unifies them is this notion, this connection of prayer.”
Solovy demonstrates his intention with a new “meditation,” just posted on his website, called “Soul Shine.” He writes that it “is about allowing our souls to fill our hearts, to fill our minds and to fill our bodies with the radiance of heaven, so that we can bring that light into the world as tikkun olam, the act of repairing the world. The meditation recognizes the majesty within each of us, declaring that that glory must be shared.”
Let your soul shine
In your chest.
Let your heart sparkle
In your eyes.
Fill your limbs with radiance.
Fill your hands with splendor.
You are the instrument
Of G-d’s music,
Of repairing the earth.
You are the voice
Of wonder and awe,
Of hope and tomorrow.
This majesty within,
Is not yours to keep.
It is not yours to hold.
It is not yours to hide.
Let your soul shine
Brave and true,
A beacon of praise,
A lantern of song,
A summons for holiness
To enter our lives
And this world.
Let your soul shine.
Set it free.
Set it free to fill the space
Between the here
And the unknown
And with blessings.
“I write what I believe needs to be written,” Solovy says. “I’ve written prayers of joy, of grief, prayers specific to particular holidays. I make them available on my website and different folks use them in different situations.”
He considers them Jewish prayers, but doesn’t write for any particular stream of Judaism. The Reform movement has used many of his prayers in its anthologies and so have other streams. A prayer Solovy wrote for the three Israeli boys who were brutally killed last summer “got picked up all over the world by all streams of Judaism,” he says. His book, he adds, “has recommendations from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis.”
Naturally, there is one for the Jews of France after last month’s violence.
For the Jews of France, Revised
Author of life,
Man has turned violent,
Attacking hope with hatred.
Source and Creator,
Grant a perfect rest under your tabernacle of peace
To the victims of murder in Paris
Whose lives were cut off by violence,
An act of witless aggression
And calculated anti-Semitism.
Remember the survivors of this horror,
And the victims of any violence, suffering or despair.
Grant them shelter and solace,
Comfort and consolation,
Blessing and renewal.
Grant them endurance to survive,
Strength to rebuild,
Faith to mourn,
Courage to heal,
And devotion to each other.
Hand of love and shelter,
Put an end to anger and hatred,
Bigotry and fear,
And lead us to a time when no one
Suffers at the hand of another.
For the sake of our people,
And for the sake of Your Holy Name,
Grant the Jews of France Your protection,
Your wholeness and healing,
And Your peace.
Meanwhile, he is trying to engage new audiences in prayer. “Prayers the Rabbis Never Dreamed Up,” one of his workshops at the National Havurah Committee’s summer event, is for teens.
“I’d like to engage them in what they would want to pray about,” Solovy says. “It’s both important and difficult, sparking their imagination.” His workshops for adults, he says, will “dig very deep into how we pray, why we pray, the difference between a personal prayer and a piece of liturgy.” There will also be writing workshops for both teens and adults.
In all he does, Solovy says he has a message for Jews and others. “Prayer is phenomenally important, both to us as individuals as well as a people,” he says. “This is how we stay connected with G-d, connected with our history, connected with each other.”
His passion, he says, is “engaging people in prayer, helping folks pray. We marched through the sea and when we got to the other side safely, we prayed. This is who we are, marching toward Sinai together. It’s remarkably important.”
Even for individuals, he says, “every one of us has a prayer inside of us. Those prayers deserve to be heard, whether it’s a desire to write your own prayer or simply sitting quietly and saying it. The power of our own prayers is quite amazing. This notion that we have to follow a set liturgy all the time — sure there are prayers we say as Jews, and we can add our own. I have a workshop I give called ‘Permission to Pray.’ Some folks need it.”
And if you think any subject or activity is too mundane for prayer, Solovy will be happy to prove you wrong.
A field of colors,
A meadow on a hillside,
Wild and free,
Tended by sun and rain,
Gently painted by the will of the earth.
Another place of delight,
My garden blooms,
A blueprint from my heart,
Guided by my hand
Tended with love and affection
Planted according to my design.
G-d of splendor,
Grant me the willingness to plant gardens
And the wisdom to leave other gardens
To Your loving hand.
Teach me the beauty of doing
And glory not doing.
Grant me the power to act
And the strength to refrain.
Let my will to create,
And my willingness to accept,
Find balance and harmony
In my heart and in my hands,
So that my doing,
And my not doing,
Serve Your will
And Your world.