A Modern-day liturgist

A Jerusalem author raises over $13,000 for a book on prayer born from a family tragedy,

liturgy 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
liturgy 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
‘It’s a call that no father should ever have to make, a call that no daughter should ever receive.
And yet, I had to make it twice.”
That’s how Alden Solovy, author of the forthcoming book Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing (Kavanot Press) explains the devastating period he lived through, after learning that his wife had taken a tragic fall down a flight of stairs and was going to die in the next 24 hours. Solovy frantically gathered up his two daughters, flew across the US to where his wife had been visiting a friend when the accident occurred, and arrived just hours before it was time to say goodbye.
After only two days of the shiva mourning period (cut short by the start of Passover), Solovy says he felt entirely drained; his previously rich spiritual life exhausted.
“I felt like there was nothing there. I had no need to pray again. I was out of gas, out of energy. I was done.”
Solovy had been a writer most of his professional life. He’d received a master’s degree in journalism, worked at a few local newspapers and, at the time of his wife’s death, was the executive editor and association publisher for the journals of the American Hospital Association. He had also taken a stab at writing personal “on-the-fly” prayers following his daily morning meditation sessions. Those too stopped in the weeks after his family’s heartbreak. “I simply needed to get up in the morning and take care of the business of life,” he explains.
Still, he agonized over how he could comfort his daughters, already both in their 20s. “And I thought, what else could I really do for them, but pray?” And then, seemingly out of nowhere, “guided by a power I did not understand,” he says, came a prayer that changed his life a second time. Called “For Bereaved Children” (see sidebar), it was meant to console his daughters but, in hindsight, launched an unexpected career for the 56-year-old who immigrated to Israel from Chicago in 2012.
Since then, in the four years since his wife’s death, he has written more than 400 similarly situation-specific prayers in English and Hebrew. “It was like the floodgates opened. I was writing five, sometimes 10 prayers a week,” he recalls. These include a prayer to say before a fertility treatment; a prayer upon learning of a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease; a meditation on removing one’s wedding ring after a life transition; a prayer before removing a child from life support; and many more. The continuing education publication of Hebrew Union College even asked him to write a four-prayer liturgy on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Solovy, who has been a member of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations over the years, has published most of his work on his website – To Bend Light – for free.
“Nothing should stand in the way of someone who needs something I wrote,” he says. “That just feels right from a personal, spiritual and ethical perspective.” And he adds he will always waive copyright for a synagogue or church that wants to integrate his prayers into a part of their services.
Still, he expects his book – which collects 150 of his most popular prayers into one 220- page collection – to sell.
“People want something tangible, something they can give as a gift,” he says.
“And there’s something about holding a prayer book that connects people to community.”
He envisions spin-offs from his main book, too: birkonim (mini-prayer books) on even more specific topics. “I have a series of 14 prayers on the ‘cancer journey,’” he says, “in addition to a tailored Yizkor (memorial) series. My hope is that pastoral care agencies, hospitals, synagogues and churches will buy in bulk, in order to be able to give these books to their congregants in times of need.”
Solovy has taken an unusual approach to publishing Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing. He launched a campaign on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter with the goal of raising $12,000. He reached it in just two weeks; the total amount pledged came to $13,600 from 209 donors by the time the campaign’s month-long run was over in November. The funding will be used to cover expenses (he’s self-publishing the book). That i n c l u d e s cover design, editing, printing and d i s t r i b u - tion. He’s already invested a year of his time without a salary. “I’m very ‘cash aware ’right now,” he says.
Kickstarter seems to be a family tradition for the Solovys.
One of his daughters raised $5,000 on the platform for a comic book she wrote called The Adventures of a Comic Con Girl; the other raised a whopping $103,000 for a flexible stand that can be used with iPads and other tablets.
Contributors were able to choose from a number of “rewards” – such as a signed copy of the book once it is published or a 30-minute Skype consultation. For a big enough pledge, backers could request that Solovy write them a personal prayer as well. There was even a $1 option, which Solovy calls the equivalent of clicking on the “like” button on Facebook. The most frequent amount given was $25, with one big pledge of $1,000 coming in near the beginning.
While he reached his goal quickly, those first weeks were still nail-biting. “I was clicking the website all the time. It’s intense. You have to have an unshakable belief in your project and the ability to ask again and again. As soon as someone pledged, I asked them to publicize it on Facebook.”
Even if the book doesn’t become a best-seller, it may jumpstart Solovy into a new profession, that of “liturgist.”
He initially dismissed the term when a rabbi introduced him that way. “I always thought of liturgists as ancient mystical figures who employed a unique channel of communication to God… liturgists were old, wrinkled and pale, and lived on a highly spiritual plane.”
But the term stuck and, as a modern-day liturgist, Solovy would be happy if his book led to more teaching and speaking gigs. Indeed, he’s already taught several prayer-writing workshops. “People want permission to write their own prayers,” he says, “and they also want to understand what they’re saying when they pray ‘freelance.’” For those who don’t want to write their own, Solovy has done most of the heavy lifting already. The prayers in Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing are soulful and meticulously crafted. Clearly inspired by Jewish texts and tradition, Solovy says they appeal to non-Jewish readers as well. And while certainly no replacement for the fullness of life he had when his wife was alive, if his book can help bring comfort to others in difficult circumstances, it will surely be some small blessing for the resourceful Solovy.
Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing will be published in April 2014. Solovy is taking pre-orders on his website.