Sometimes, when one experiences tragedy or needs a happy thought, turning to prayer can bring comfort.
But prayer is not just a formal refrain. “Prayer is what you believe it is,” says lifestyle writer Rachel C. Weingarten, author of Ancient Prayer: Channeling Your Faith 365 Days of the Year (Fall River Press 1/16).
From traveling to feminism, Ancient Prayer covers a wide spectrum of topics. There’s the blessing “Shehechiyanu” for new things, new foods and new experiences—one of Weingarten’s favorites. Then there are the lightning and thunder blessings, which she says bring “comfort and empowerment.”
As Ancient Prayer is multifaceted, so is Weingarten. The Brooklyn native’s worked as a celebrity makeup artist ran a mini muffin business, and wrote two other books—Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America ‘40s – ‘60s and Career and Corporate Cool. It’s a diverse resume—one Weingarten says helps her “see things from many different places and viewpoints.”
“I’ve been told my whole life that I have a very different way of thinking and of seeing beyond the obvious,” says Weingarten, who grew up in an observant Jewish home and once wanted to be a rabbi. “My hope is that I was able to share some of that in Ancient Prayer.”
Garnet News spoke with Weingarten about prayer, challenging stereotypes and facing issues of faith.
Garnet News: Ancient Prayer is meant to be an inspirational book. Before you wrote it, did you find yourself in need of something like this?
Rachel Weingarten: On some level, I’ve been in need of a book like this my entire life. Because despite the subject matter, I try to be very open and inclusive of all levels of observance—including none. As to the specifics, I’d just come through a particularly tough time in my own life and at my lowest points wished I could have found easy to digest words of inspiration that weren’t platitudes.
Garnet News: You talk about the formality and informality of prayer and the power of words. What is your connection to prayer?
Rachel Weingarten: I was taught to pray from a very early age and for myriad reasons. You wake up—send up a prayer of thanks. You’re afraid—say these words to strengthen your resolve. You eat something delicious and unusual—here’s a blessing that’s said less frequently. Sometimes it’s like a puzzle trying to remember which prayers are said when and why. For me, prayer has been a connection to what came before. I tend to overthink nearly everything, so as I learned the origins of the prayers, I also tried to tie them into the era in which they were written and the reasons they emerged. And I always sought relevance in modern life. There’s a reason these particular words remained relevant and alive after millennia.
Garnet News: Do you consider your life now “an observant life”?
Rachel Weingarten: By my own standards and choices, yes. I was raised in a very specific way and come from a very observant Jewish background. I still hold many of those tenets and observances dear, but not all of them make their way into my day-to-day observances. That said, I’m the child of a child concentration camp survivor (my late father David, who passed away in June 2015, was a survivor of the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp) from an extended family of survivors.
In many ways, it was my family’s faith that got them through and their traditions that were forbidden them by the Nazis—who am I to reject what they fought so hard to hold on to, what so many of them were murdered for? I observe what feels right and sometimes what feels necessary, and that can change day-to-day and year-to-year.
Garnet News: Ancient Prayer challenges our stereotypes of people of faith. Was this a challenge you wanted to take on as you started writing?
Rachel Weingarten: People of faith tend to have a very specific reputation as being rigid or unfunny or somehow out of touch with the world at large, and I find those stereotypes laughable sometimes and depressing at other times. But observing or believing doesn’t make you inherently out of touch with the world at large, but it can keep you grounded when it feels as though the world is spinning out of control at times. My outlook has evolved over my lifetime, and certainly as I wrote this book and spoke with more people. I’m extremely open-minded about people’s faith and chosen lifestyles. I try hard not to judge anyone for their choices. I just expect the same courtesy in return.
Garnet News: In your book, each prayer comes with advice. How important was it for you to interweave your own wisdom?
Rachel Weingarten: My father was a role model in his views on feminism, he taught my sister and I that not only were we equal but that the question of anything else bordered on ludicrous. My mother lives by her own strong example as a woman in business and critical thinker. In school, I’d sometimes get into trouble because my take on a lot of what I learned in Bible studies or the like was interwoven with both what we were taught and also what I’d put together by studying the puzzle pieces. My way of saying that it was an amazingly empowering thing to be able to share my own insights into these beautiful ancient words.
Garnet News: At the end, you’re transparent about your struggles with putting the book together. Why was that transparency important for you?
Rachel Weingarten:Because faith is such a personal issue, and because I come from such a complicated background, I would never presume to be something I’m not.
And because I struggle with issues of faith, I wanted to speak to people who share that struggle. I think that faith, in yourself, in your chosen deity or spirit animal or whatever moves your personal narrative forward is a tremendous strength, though it might be denigrated by some.
Everyone has a carefully constructed persona these days—from their social media profiles to their airbrushed selfies. I think imperfection is a vastly underrated quality. My struggle is real; I don’t hide it.
Garnet News: How do you hope people interpret your book?
Rachel Weingarten: In exactly the way that means the most to them.
By Annamarya Scaccia
Annamarya Scaccia is an award-winning freelance journalist who reports on social justice issues. Follow her on Twitter: @annamarya_s
Interview edited for clarity and length