Breathe Bravely

January 26, 2024Tani Prell

For the Union for Reform Judaism's (URJ) Leading Change Summit in May 2022, Tani Prell wrote this reflection on the theme of bravery. Her poem, Breathe Bravely, explores the ways that her mixedness, Jewishness, and range of emotions are tied to what it means to her to be brave.

I can tell you so easily the times that sadness sat by my side. 
When I was six and the playground was fun for everyone but me. 
When I was silent at Thanksgiving dinner because despite the beauty and chaos of life 
My family could only talk about the stuffing. 
When my heart got broken a total of three times 
Sadness was next to me talking lightspeed over my Motorola cell phone. 
In the high school parking lot in grandma's silver Camry. 
And in the center of my incense infused college bedroom.

I can tell you so easily the times anger patted my back. 
When the TV was my mental punching bag watching bold brilliant blackness 
Challenged for her seat on the Supreme Court. 
When antisemitism is nothing but the sound of a dead leaf in the distance. 
When we have. To say. Another name.

And I can tell you so easily the times love held me gently. 
I am rocking in my grandma's arms as she tells me I don't have to worry. 
Love squeezed my hand tight and led me into the mikveh. 
Love was holding me when I wrote my first poem. 
She promised that writing would always love me even on the days when I couldn't love myself.

I can tell you so easily the days that grief pushes me to the ground. 
Watching the person you love most lose the memories so sacred to your love. 
Knowing you'll never know what it would have been like to grow up as a big sister.

And excitement! Oh, the life of the party. 
Excitement was there cheering me on when I first discovered bright pink lipstick. 
When I walked onto the stage of my first play performance. 
And as I stood under my chuppah.

So today I was asked to tell you the story about Bravery and me. 
Bravery? I asked. Hm. 
When did she give me her flaming sword? 
When did she launch me into magnificent action? 
So I paused.


Bravery has been branded as epic, universe changing, soul saving. 
But bravery wasn't searing like anger or explosive like excitement. 
Bravery was breathing.

Bravery shook me to the grocery store on days I just wanted to sleep. 
Bravery reminded me to water my plants and celebrate life even through a pandemic. 
On days where I just wanted to roll past my train stop to see where the end of the line would take me 
Bravery sat next to me, held my hand, and stood me up when my *ding* arrived. 
She is the star of David on my neck. 
She is in the mezuzah on my door. 
She is in my natural hair in every meeting 
She is the voice behind my "no" and the strength behind my full bodied "yesses" 
Bravery is with me when I'm the youngest. Blackest. Biggest. Boldest. 
When I'm quiet and choose to stay home, bravery tells me it's okay.

Our breath is our body's closest friend throughout the day. 
Bravery is the breath of our soul, moving us forward quietly, a subtlety of strength. 
Breathing is natural. Bravery is a necessity. 
To breathe. To live. In this world is to be brave. 
I didn't see Bravery because Bravery was my breath. 
She didn't get the grand entrance of love, or the aching yearning of grief. 
I thought a story of bravery for you would be a story of heroic feats. 
Of me climbing mountains. Of saving puppies. Of me changing worlds. 
But bravery is so much more than any moment. She is every moment. The everyday. The every breath. 
Bravery has always been my breath, my closest life giving friend.

Bravery wasn't the long haired maiven on a unicorn story we might have expected. 
But bravery is the confidence in our voice that we needed. 
When we wear the dress hidden in the depths of our closet. 
When we say no to the outing to treat ourselves instead. 
When we choose to not do it all alone. 
Bravery is with us when we sing the Shema. 
When we love the stranger. When we love ourselves. 
And breathing should NOT have to be an act of bravery. 
And the fact that we need to be brave to breathe is an absence of humanity. 
But together, we can live bravely. Love bravely. Breathe. Bravely. Together.

This piece was originally published on Be’chol Lashon’s online publication Jewish&. Be’chol Lashon (Hebrew for “in every language”) celebrates and prioritizes diversity as a Jewish value by uplifting the historic and contemporary racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity of the Jewish people and in doing so, strengthens the entire Jewish community.

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