New prayer books revive forgotten women’s liturgy

Aliza Lavie, the author of "A Jewish Women's Prayer Book," resolved to explore the legacy of jewish women after reading about a mother bereaved in a terrorist attack. (Johnny Olsen)

Aliza Lavie, the author of “A Jewish Women’s Prayer Book,” resolved to explore the legacy of jewish women after reading about a mother bereaved in a terrorist attack. (Johnny Olsen)

NEW YORK (JTA) — On the evening of May 27, 2002, a Palestinian terrorist walked into an ice cream parlor in the central Israeli city of Petach Tikvah and detonated the explosives strapped to his chest. More than 30 Israelis were wounded in the attack. Two lives were claimed: 18-month-old Sinai Keinan and her 56-year-old grandmother, Ruti Peled.

Even in a country numbed to the brutality of terrorist violence, Israelis were captivated by the story of how one woman, Hen Keinan, had been rendered both childless and an orphan by the attack. Months later she was still a figure of public interest. On the eve of Yom Kippur, a newspaper interview with Keinan and her husband described their decision to move to the United States in the aftermath of the attack.

In synagogue that evening Aliza Lavie, a professor of communications and political science at Bar-Ilan University, found herself unable to banish thoughts of Keinan from her mind and draw comfort from the liturgy of Judaism’s holiest day. She wished she could tell Keinan of the long tradition of brave Jewish women who had faced down adversity — among them her own grandmother, a Bukharian immigrant who lost three of her nine children and yet remained steadfast in her faith.

“I stood there in the synagogue,” Lavie has written, “grappling with Hen’s questions and sensing that the prayer book in front of me could not provide the answers. I resolved to seek out the secret of my grandmother’s legacy; to explore the eternal, powerful faith of Jewish women.”

The fruit of that resolution was “Tefillat Nashim,” published in Israel in 2005 and which became, by the country’s standards, a runaway best-seller.

Fervently Orthodox women, unable to find the prayer book in religious shops, found it elsewhere and photocopied it for their friends, Lavie said. Secular women brought it to the hospital when they gave birth. Arab women soon followed suit. Musicians set the verses to music. And it resurrected an array of prayers of which few Jews, even among the scholarly and devout, were aware.

“Aliza opened the gate, the gates of prayer,” said Yisrael Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel, upon the prayer book’s release in Israel.

To the extent that a prayer book provides the stage direction for a choreographed synagogue service, Lavie’s book — released in English this month by Spiegel & Grau under the title “A Jewish Women’s Prayer Book” — is improperly named. Rather, Lavie has unearthed prayers from an expanse of Jewish history and geography that give liturgical expression to moments in a woman’s life often overlooked by the traditional synagogue service: a prayer for a first period, for childbirth, for a sick husband and for a son going off to war.

“We’re correcting history,” said Shulamit Reinharz, a sociology professor and the director of the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. “We’re correcting a misperception that women did not write prayers. And I think when you correct a misperception like that, you change history.”

Lavie’s book also has helped resurrect a tradition known as tekhines, or supplications, a genre of devotional prayers recited principally by women who were either uneducated in Hebrew or barred from participating in public worship. Such private prayers reflect the personal longings of women throughout the ages and, Lavie believes, explain a large part of their appeal to contemporary Israelis.

“It’s a kind of window on the lives of Jewish women,” Lavie told JTA. “It brings back to the Israeli society the personal prayers. The fact that you can pray without being part of the synagogue, because in Israel many people belong to no community — suddenly people felt that they can pray, that they can touch without any fear.”

The prayers in “A Jewish Women’s Prayer Book” cover a broad historical and geographic territory, incorporating contemporary authors responding to modern concerns — such as the discomfort many  feel with the traditional blessing thanking God for making women in his image, an alternative to the blessing for men that thanks God for not making them women. Others are ancient prayers and of unknown origin.

A number of the prayers were written by Fanny Neuda, a 19th century Moravian Jew who authored a popular book of tekhines in 1855. Lavie’s discovery of Neuda in the national library in Jerusalem prompted a flurry of questions.

“Who was she? And why I didn’t know about her? How come she got permission to write such an amazing book like this?” Lavie recalled asking. “I had a lot of imaginary conversations with her.”

Lavie is not the first contemporary writer to be amazed by the discovery of Neuda, nor is she the first to try to revive her work for a contemporary audience. Last year, the Los Angeles poet Dinah Berland published “Hours of Devotion,” the first English edition of Neuda’s landmark work in more than a century.

Like Lavie, Berland’s discovery of Neuda was prompted by a deep emotional disturbance. After her divorce, Berland writes in the introduction, her son Adam “disappeared from my life for more than eleven years.” A client encouraged her to pray, but she was at a loss until happening upon an old version of Neuda’s book and its prayer for a mother whose child is abroad.

“They’re very personal and they’re very concrete,” Berland said of Neuda’s compositions. “And they’re very emotional and direct. Rather than talking about God, they’re talking in an intimate voice to God as a friend or as a parent.”

According to Berland, “Hours of Devotion” was once enormously popular, published in 28 editions between 1855 and 1918. The first English edition came out in 1866 and the book was still in print in Switzerland as late as 1968. But over the years Neuda and, more generally, the tradition of tekhines have fallen into obscurity.

“I’ve been told that just about every Jewish woman who read German had a copy of this book,” Berland said.

Berland’s and Lavie’s recent books, and other similar volumes, including the recently published “A Women’s Torah Commentary,” may augur a revival of prayers for women, particularly as a growing number of women assume leadership roles, even in the Orthodox community. A conference on Jewish Women’s Prayer, sponsored by  women’s organizations from across the denominational spectrum, is scheduled for March in New York City.

“They are not new for people,” Lavie says of the prayers in her book. “Even though the people didn’t hear them, they had them in the back of their memory. They have them in their blood.”

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