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Making Tehillim Mine

Poor kriah skills, while less devastating for a frum girl than a frum boy, is still devastating

“We’re gonna do Sefer Tehillim,” one person wrote on our group chat.

“1-10,” came a quick reply.

“11-20,” was the next.

“21-30,” came right after.

And so it went.

I hope no one noticed that I didn’t volunteer.

I don’t say Tehillim for people. Not because I’m cold and selfish, but because my kriah isn’t fluent. It’s painstakingly slow. And I don’t have time, patience, or energy to face one of my failures.

“Her kriah isn’t the best — it’s a good thing she’s a girl.” A friend made that offhand comment about her daughter. I reassured her that it wasn’t a big deal, her learning future wasn’t at stake. She didn’t have to read Gemara, get an aliyah, lein at a bar mitzvah, or learn textually in any significant way.

I was lying. Poor kriah skills, while less devastating for a frum girl than a frum boy, is still devastating.

When we’d practice kriah in the lower grades by going up and down the rows and each girl read a pasuk of Tehillim, I’d calculate which pasuk would be mine, and I’d practice the words, praying the teacher kept the pattern consistent, that she didn’t decide to switch to the next row by starting at the end instead of the beginning.

I know the nekudos, and I don’t have a reading disorder. I just don’t have fluency. It takes me so long to read anything. When I was in first and second grade, I was sent to the resource room for both English reading and kriah. By third grade I was in the accelerated track for English reading and largely ignored in kriah.

I tried. I did. Sometimes. But every mother knows how 99 percent of prize charts work with their kids: with great promise and hope, with shiny stars and perfect squares pinned to the fridge, and each day it wilts with another valid excuse, tired mother, tired child, eventually being covered by an invitation, a picture, a recipe, forgotten.

Once, in third grade, I memorized a pasuk. When my teacher asked for volunteers to read the pasuk, I raised my hand for the first time ever. She didn’t call on me for that pasuk, but for the next one, the one I didn’t know.

In fifth grade, a long-term sub purposely asked me to read a pasuk as a power play because I was misbehaving, and she knew I struggled.

In ninth grade, a teacher had me read a Ramban. I mumbled through it, ears pink and burning. “Everyone in the class was supporting you,” she told me after. Like that helped.

School is long past, yet I still remember the shame. I wish I could easily open a sefer and read from it. Truthfully, it doesn’t affect my day-to-day life.

What it does affect is my tefillah.

Davening is so engrained in me that I practically know it by heart. That’s not my problem, but extra tefillah? Think Yamim Noraim and Tehillim. Those are killers.

I can survive Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s just three days, and going slow is good anyway. But Tehillim, a lifeline for a Jewish mother, evaded me. What kind of Yiddishe Mama was I if I never said a kapitel of Tehillim for my kids?

Of course, I know the standard ones by heart — perek chaf, kuf chaf alef, kuf lamed alef — but all others evade me. Yes, there are so many perakim I know because of davening and popular songs, but I didn’t know where they were in the sefer, and I was too scared to even crack a Tehillim open to know which ones I already owned.

My kallah teacher told me that many kallos finish Sefer Tehillim on their wedding day. They didn’t do it all that day, but a few days leading up to it. A co-worker mentioned she could finish Sefer Tehillim in three hours. I sucked my cheeks.

I didn’t even try.

I received a Tehillim at my wedding from my husband, deep brown leather, ornate. It was a photo prop. I never used it.

Over the years I did try. I wanted Tehillim to be a part of me so I could daven for my kids, myself, others. So I could participate in the great loving-kindness frum women do all the time: “say a kapitel Tehillim.”

“I’m going to read a perek a day,” I’d declare. That would last for a few days until I got to the slightly longer perakim, and I’d get discouraged. The words were too hard, the minutes too short.

A few months ago, during one of those moments of inspiration, I decided I was really going to do it this time. I’d complete Sefer Tehillim (something I’d never done in my life). I was also going to meditate for ten minutes a day and go for a short run every day.

This one went like most moments of inspiration. The running lasted one day. The meditation, two spotty months. But the Tehillim — it was working this time. I’d structured it differently. I would read one page a day, two sides, my daf yomi. I could do more if I’d like, and there was no “40 days” segulah hanging over my head. If I missed a day, I could just continue where I left off. And so I did.

I found pockets of time in the minutes before my kids woke up, came home, right after they went to sleep, right before I went to sleep. It wasn’t time-bound.

My Sefer Tehillim has 250 pages. It should have taken almost a third of a year to complete. It felt pathetic at moments, but I knew not to push myself, not to ask more of myself. This was finally happening. At perek ayin hey, I told my husband in disbelief that I was halfway there.

This past Shabbos, I had a few more minutes, and there are a lot of easy perakim at the end, so I did a little more than usual. I just wanted to finish already.

And I did.

At the last pasuk, “kol haneshamah tehallel Kah, hallelukah,” I cried. I brushed aside tears as I started perek alef anew.

I finally did it. I tried going to my bedroom to finish crying and process it, but my two-year-old was poking me, nagging me to go “ow-sigh.” As I tossed a ball on my lawn, I reflected. I felt so small that it had taken so long, and at the same time so happy and so proud that I’d done it.

“I finished Sefer Tehillim,” I told my mother when I Facetimed her on Motzaei Shabbos.

“Over Shabbos? Nice!”

I laughed. “It’s been in the making for a while.”

She was happy for me and encouraging just the same. I should note that she completes Sefer Tehillim every week.

I felt a true victory a few days before I completed the sefer when someone posted on a chat: “Can everyone please say some perakim from this Tehillim B’yad link?”

I didn’t hesitate. I knew I could do it. I’d gotten comfortable enough and fast enough that even if I was given kuf yud tes, I’d be fine. I clicked the link, said the Yehi Ratzon and started reciting the words.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 775)

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