“There’s a story about a man who goes into synagogue in a small Ashkenazic town [in Germany, along the Rhine] in the 18th or 19th century. He’s there for Yom Kippur, which is the most important holy day of the Jewish year. (Well, that’s an oversimplification, but go with it.) Yom Kippur is a day where we pray to repent of all our sins and have a fresh slate for the New Year, to become better people. We pray, significantly, for G-d to grant forgiveness, so that we may move on. This man walks into the synagogue, and he starts saying his alef bet (ABC’s in Hebrew–this would have been before the Reform movement, when you couldn’t go to a synagogue that prayed in the vernacular, it was all in Hebrew or Aramaic). Some people around him start to complain, to ask what he is doing. The rabbi comes and asks him what he is doing. He says, “The only thing I know in Hebrew is the alef bet. I thought I would offer that to G-d as my sincere prayer of repentance.” The rabbi told the congregants, “G-d is more likely to hear every letter that sincerely comes out of his mouth than all of the prayers said by people without true intent.”
Leslee grew up in a Jewish community in Kansas, and when talking about her the folklore of her culture, she said “Most Jewish folklore has been published, largely because, when you’ve never been a majority culture, and the majority cultures have consistently tried to eradicate you, and you base your culture on a notion of being “people of the book”, you write stuff down…ask any Ashkenazi Jew how far they can trace back their family: the people who can do it more than two generations are the super lucky (and rare) ones.”
Accordingly, this story emphasizes the importance, not necessarily of words themselves, but of the intent behind them, and (as Leslee says) the way language is used to preserve culture. The man in the story does not have the words he needs, so he uses the words that he has and that rings truer for the rabbi than any thoughtless recitations from people who had been schooled in the language and customs. It’s a pretty great reminder to people of all religions that their rituals have meaning and purpose that is largely drawn from the faith that drives them.
I found another version of this story which supposedly occurred in a Jewish community in Kiev during perestroika. The setting is Yom Kippur, 1987, and the story explains that it was the first Yom Kippur in decades where Jews have been allowed to practice openly, and that the service was not going well. People were uncertain of how to pray together and were growing bored. Finally, the rabbi tells a version of the parable above (set in Poland) where the protagonist is not an adult man, but is instead a shepherd boy who does not know the prayers and cannot read, but very much wants to pray, so he recites the alef bet to the best of his ability and asks G-d to understand. Moved by this story, the people recited the alef bet as a whole and then exited the synagogue. I find this version very poignant because it demonstrates the effect that folklore can have on a community, helping them to retain their identity in the face of opposition and strife, and serving as a reminder that the universal tie that connects all of them is not necessarily ritual, but faith; and this piece of folklore is indicative of the strength of that faith- a faith which has allowed “a minority culture” to survive and thrive throughout the centuries and on into the future.
The version of the legend that I cited can be found here: http://www.ascentofsafed.com/cgi-bin/ascent.cgi?Name=567-02