Prayers from the Heart

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September 1, 2007
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Dinah Berland, ed. and adaptor, Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women. New York: Schocken Books, 2007. $24.00
Reviewed by Elisheva Carlebach

“Pour out your heart like water in the presence of God.” (Lamentations 2:19) Sometimes the injunction to unburden ourselves completely before God seems at odds with the Jewish tradition’s emphasis on the communal, formal, and prescribed nature of prayer. Water is after all free flowing, amorphous, fluid while every word in the prayer service is scripted, sifted, and weighed. The contrast between raw emotions — of grief, thanksgiving, shame, or gratitude — and the archaic forms, the setting of public solemnity, and the requisite decorum in communal prayer is great. The gulf between spontaneous emotion and ceremonious prayer services is even wider if we factor gender into the equation. Synagogue services were originally designed to complement or replace the Temple service in which only men played a public role. Public prayer did not so much mark momentous turning points in the human lifecycle as it enacted the covenant between God and His people. Particularly during the High Holy Days, prayer services mark the majesty of the Creator, His bond with His people, our duty to embody the highest moral virtues, and our plea for forgiveness when we lapse. Lofty and important goals indeed, but how to unlock the dam and pour out our hearts before God?

If Jewish men have a tradition of direct dialogue with God, Jewish women over the ages have won the right to set ground rules for worship from the heart. In the First Book of Samuel, Hannah, tormented because of her childlessness, turns to God in a silent and private prayer. Her whispered entreaty transformed our notion of prayer. Tkhines, a strain of Yiddish women’s prayers written for every occasion in the life of Jewish women, became a popular prayer tradition centuries later with the advent of the printing press.

But the power of women’s domestic prayer is not limited to days of old. It has been rediscovered and revitalized often in modern times. In 1854, 35-year-old Fanny Neuda was devastated when her husband died, leaving her with three young children. As a way to reach out to God and seek consolation in her time of loss and grief, Neuda composed a book of prayers — brief devotions to be offered at various junctures in the Jewish calendar cycle as well as in the lives of women. Fanny’s book became a best seller, and was reprinted many times. By composing a book of prayer, Fanny appealed to women like herself who desired to turn to God at critical times in their lives but found existing prayer books insufficient for their needs. Neuda’s Stunden der Andacht, Hours of Devotion, nourished by the book of Psalms, owes a debt as well to the tkhines and the medieval tradition of Books of Hours, to which her title refers.

A century and a half later, the poet Dinah Berland stood at a painful and critical turn in her own life when she encountered Neuda’s book, still powerful enough to speak to her across the divide of time and language. Berland has absorbed and reformulated the volume to create something rooted in the old yet entirely new. Berland edited and selected from the various editions to create a book of prayers from the heart. She has rewritten and updated them with a poet’s clarity and depth; each word, each line, is polished yet deeply affecting. God has become a parent rather than a father, and Berland has softened the emphasis on temptation and sin. The prayers open with daily entreaties, special prayers for the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, followed by prayers for various life circumstances. While some prayers, such as prayers for brides, mothers-to-be, childbirth, and widowhood “belong” to women, most of these prayers have a universal human appeal. Thus, a prayer for a parent with a child in the military, a prayer to withstand the spiritual dangers of poverty (and one for wealth), a prayer for safe return from travels, provide wonderful examples of the many instances when we turn to prayer for consolation, encouragement, and thanks but would not find the words to express these feelings in a standard siddur. Berland’s verses transcend the boundaries of time, gender, and formula. For those who seek a new vessel to help them pour out their heart like water, Berland’s reinterpretation of a classic is a welcome discovery.

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