“We didn’t even have children when we started this project,” says Lee, who plans to retire in June from the Hillel Jewish Student Center at Arizona State University after 42 years – 40 years as executive director and most recently as rabbi on a part-time basis. “I think [Roy] was already on the edge of grandchildren when we actually finished.”
They first discussed the idea for the book while on vacation near San Diego with their wives in the late 1970s, but it just took “a great deal longer than we ever anticipated for it to see the light of day,” Lee says.
The goal was to write a book to inspire “Jewish children to have a connection to prayer in their lives.” Because they started on the project long before the days of email, their early work was done face to face during visits; Lee was at the ASU Hillel and Walter was the rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston (he retired in 2011 after 41 years there).
“It was a good excuse for friends to get together,” Lee says.
They worked on the book through the years and at one point the manuscript sat for a long time until it was eventually rejected. The effort to get it published was sustained by a former ASU student, Jan Pasternak, who wanted to honor her mother, Helen Pasternak, who had taught at Congregation Emanu El, Lee says.
“ ‘My Prayers’ is a gift from Helen’s family to children everywhere,” reads the dedication in the book. “It is our special way of honoring our mother and grandmother and continuing her tradition of love for children and for Judaism.”
Instead of continuing to search for a publisher, they decided to publish it through Walter’s congregation, Congregation Emanu El Press, Lee says. It was published in 2011.
One of the biggest challenges was trying to find the right artwork, says Lee. The illustrations were by Limb Design, based on drawings by Jose Perez.
“The Jewish community is very different now than it used to be,” Lee says, and they wanted to make sure all children would find a character in the book they would identify with, across the multiple ethnic lines found in today’s Jewish community.
The illustrated backgrounds had to be changed, too. At one point, Lee realized that the backgrounds had a Midwestern look, with lots of green grass, so they added some desert scenes and apartment buildings to represent different residential areas. “It’s amazing that you end up thinking about things you never thought you would be thinking about,” Lee notes. “That was quite a trip itself.”
Another example of this is found in “My Prayer About a New Day,” which includes a reference to playing computer games.
During the writing process, Lee and his wife, Marcie, raised two children, and his co-author raised three children with his wife, Linda, which no doubt inspired some of the content.
The prayers in the book cover a variety of topics, from going to sleep and having a bad dream to prayers about a pet, a rainbow, a new home, going on a trip and being sick in the hospital. Lee says his favorite prayer in the book is “My prayer about a bad day.”
There are two versions of the book – the original one for a Jewish audience, and a second one that is nondenominational. The Jewish book includes the Shema prayer on each page, both in Hebrew and a transliteration.
They opted not to translate the Shema, the authors explained in a note to adults at the front of the book, because the usual translations are too abstract for young children. “When your child asks what the words of the Shema mean, teach your child that these words are the Jewish way of saying, ‘We believe in one God.’ ”
The note from the authors also says that the book is “based on the authors’ belief that God is near – that God cares about us, shares our joys and sorrows and is a source of strength in times of anxiety. We believe that prayer expresses deep personal feelings and is our way of sharing our joys, sorrows and anxieties with God.”