“Having Trouble to Pray” is an ongoing series of more than 60 drawings that depict a worshiper whose existential crisis assumes unexpected and sometimes fantastical dimensions


“On Having Trouble to Pray”
By Moico Yaker

One morning in Tel Aviv I decided that the only way I could get to pray was by going out to the streets looking for a religious person who would force me into it. I needed to feel the leather stripes of the tefillin tighten my skin to precipitate again out of my heart the fluid of emotions that once warmed my days.

I wandered the streets of Bnei Brak fruitlessly for a few days but I wasn’t able to find what I was looking for.

“Having Trouble to Pray” started there, where representation attempts to fulfill the very act of praying . . .  or of “not praying.” A morning ritual of ink stripes on paper skin.

That day I draw my prayer while my fingers, entangled in stripes, run like blood as black as a raging bull. The next morning, as I draw my reading of the saintly words, they are warm—like my daughter’s cat caressing my leg. But I must concentrate, and I try to find a better position to read my prayers. I stand on one arm. I put the book on the floor and read it, bending. But then an olive tree starts to grow from my fingers, and I squeeze it on my arm to leave clear signs of my devotion. By the next day the bush has grown profusely, it has flowered. . .

When I heard a buzz and saw that a group of insects had joined me, chanting in unison, we matched our voices and I saw how their patterned wings and the black stripes around my arm looked just the same. “We must all be Jewish,” I said. Then more colorful birds and jungle parrots began to arrive, arraying themselves on the tree that was slowly growing out of my neck.

            I was trying to solemnly repeat those words that in a thunder unite all things in one. . . . But my body now felt as light as a whisper and I could hear all my guests—some whistling and others screeching on the canopy to the rhythm of the ink-swollen letters that I had been unable to read. I looked back at my prayer book and noticed how white and void of ink my seated body had become. . . . I shivered in my transparency, making all the black-ink birds and insects jump in a thunder out of the white page, returning me once again to the emptiness of the day.

But next morning a lemon tree had grown where the divine warbling could still be heard. There were many juicy fruits, and the weight of the black ink perfumed the intricate branches that grew tightly around the words of awe I tried to read.

“This fruit must be also Jewish,” I said, hoping to warm my heart with a feeling of mutual understanding. But I had to make sure, and insisted on having the round delightful shapes of my fruits perform my ultimate intention. Quickly I wrapped them with my own pen and ink as a sign of belonging to my community.

And the lemons turned to apples and they became bananas and soon tangerines. . . . We were all Jewish and we started to sing a song. I had to end all these banal distractions and concentrate on my purpose—had to liberate my ears and my eyes, hoping for some answer.

Silently I started to wrap the black phylacteries and return them to their small homes. On their way, the black ink stripes rose abruptly out of the white page and started to twist and swirl capriciously, reminding me of all the places they had been. An empty arm, my naked head, birds singing about love, a raging bull, an open flower, a blind deer, all of them repeated tirelessly, in black and white, how trees, birds, and mountains, clouds and rain, rejoiced in their recreation: an organized chaos in which heads and arms were bundled up in thick, black-lined patterns that became alive in pious chanting.

I stood back, noticing how eagerly they reproduced. I was sweating black ink on my white paper skin. The intensity of their devotion had made them become solid, like the chant of a whole synagogue; my own voice could no longer be heard. I hid within my prayer shawl, wishing for the silence of an answer.

Today my paper skin is white again, the empty space reflecting that devout hour in Tel Aviv. There are no answers on its surface, only the vanity of another Monday morning and a faint remembrance of my dream.