For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a cycle of formal poems about the effect our constant use of screens has on our souls. The extent to which our phones are affecting our brains is well-trodden territory — but how are they depleting us spiritually? In the beginning these were mostly standard western poetic forms — sonnets, villanelles, pantoums, sestinas. But I felt like the project needed some fresher, less common forms too. As I was branching out I found that just trying to put our modern predicaments into the form of prayers helped make the project feel fuller.
So these are two very different forms of Jewish prayers that felt like they worked. The first is of course the traditional barucha we know well, the baruch-ata-adonai, blessed-art-thou-God-ruler-of-the-universe prayer form. The second comes from the esoteric mystical sect known as the Dönme, the only Jewish-Islamic sect in Western religions. I’ve been researching the sect for a novel I’m at work on; they are followers of the seventeenth-century false messiah Sabbatai Tzvi. After much of the Western world believed him to be the messiah for a period, in 1666 Tzvi marched with his followers on Istanbul and was promptly forced to take the turban, and those who continued to follow him lived outwardly as Muslims, while continuing to practice Kabbalistic Judaism in private. Thousands of Dönme still live and practice in Istanbul, though they increasingly practice in secret. Their prayers, mainly written in Ladino, translate into a form with consistent language appealing to the Lord that I think lends itself to updating quite nicely. So, here they are — some prayers for our modern screen-obsessed souls.
Prayer for an End of Fake News
Blessed art thou, Lord our God, ruler of the universe,
Who in all your glory respond to the most
Precise amongst us with grace, allowing the sound
Of song to resonate clearest and loudest,
Reflecting faces accurately in the stillest waters.
Let the world return to agreement on the most
Basic facts, and allow the sophists solipsists
And propagandists to spend their
Eternities alone together. Alone. Amen.
Dönme-style Prayer for the New York Times
I believe with perfect faith in the perfect vision of the paper of record. I believe in
the fallibility of reporting any given fact, person, or reporter and the perfect mission of seeking stories, facts and narratives in the world.
I believe with perfect faith in the perfect idea of sending trained reporters to talk with
other laic humans and experts in the interest of telling readers what is happening in their country and beyond. I believe with perfect faith in Sulzbergers, in Krugmen and even from time to time Dowds, Brookses and Douthats — and in years past the truths of Taleses, John Leonards, Danners and Isherwoods.
I believe with perfect faith in the perfect fact that the best way to uphold trust is to attempt scrupulously not to make mistakes, but also to accept that mistakes are an inevitability and then to append, correct and further correct, often to humorous effect, any errors committed. I believe with perfect faith that when a Jason Blair, or a Judith Miller error, is discovered it will be dealt with swiftly publicly openly and in good perfect faith.
May it be pleasing before Thee, God of truth, God of Israel and the Five Boroughs and even the Sixth Borough of Philadelphia, who dwells in the Glory of Israel, in the strands of ideas and facts which will guide us from moments and epochs of drastic tragic national error. Amen.
This piece is a part of the Berru Poetry Series, which supports Jewish poetry and poets on PB Daily. JBC also awards the Berru Poetry Award in memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash as a part of the National Jewish Book Awards. Click here to see the 2019 winner of the prize. If you’re interested in participating in the series, please check out the guidelines here.
Daniel Torday is the author of the novel The Last Flight of Poxl West, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and an International Dublin Literary Award nominee. Torday’s work has appeared in The New York Times, NPR, The Paris Review Daily and Tin House, and has been honored in both the Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays series. He was longlisted for the 2020 Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates Literary Prize. A two-time National Jewish Book Awardee and winner the 2017 Sami Rohr Choice Prize, Torday is Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College. His second novel, Boomer1, is out now from St. Martin’s Press.