A few weeks back I shared with you a chance meeting I had with Dinah Berland. A poet and book editor, she serendipitously happened upon a book of women’s prayers (tkhines) written by Fanny Neuda (1819- 1894). This book, Hours of Devotion, was the first Jewish prayer book for all occasions written by a woman for women. It was reprinted more than two dozen times in German as well as in English and Yiddish in the years between 1855 and 1918. Although it’s a bit odd to use the word resurrection in discussing a Jewish text, that is exactly what Berland has done — she has brought Fanny Neuda’s collection of women’s prayers to life once again, adapting them for twenty-first century readers.
I have just begun to dip into the book and find myself swept away in the current of Neuda’s openhearted love of God. Her prayers are mine; they are yours; they are the prayers of any woman who has loved, worried, hoped, dreamed, suffered. Berland goes into great detail about how she came to edit this book, poignantly sharing the coincidences and personal heartache that paved the path to its inception.
There are prayers to be recited upon entering the synagogue, prayers whose focus is the cycle of holidays and the Sabbath. The chapter titled Prayers Especially for Women is timeless. Neuda wrote prayers for the new bride, for an expectant mother, prayers for a childless wife and for an unhappy one. There are prayers for rain, and for thanksgiving for a safe journey. Each one a humble plea, each one raw and resonant.
I’d read reviews of this book but never sought it out. Berland and I met the week before my son married and so I did not have her book until after his wedding. Else, I might have recited Fanny Neuda’s beautiful prayer for the mother of the groom. Who of us cannot relate? These words are upon all our hearts, even if we have never uttered them. Fanny Neuda’s prayer reads in part:
Almighty God, you have proclaimed that
A man should leave his father and mother
And cleave to his wife
Thanks to you for this day—
This solemn day on which my son shall enter
Into a sacred covenant with the wife of his heart….
Bless the union of love he pledges before you today
That he may find the blessing he hopes for ––
A wife who will create joy for him,
A companion who will persevere with him
Through all of life’s changes and opportunities…
All-Gracious benefactor, One more thing
I ask of you, in whose hands our hearts rest
And who directs them as streams of water—
Grant that although my child shall leave his parents’ house,
Filial love may never leave his heart.
Grant that…he may continue to be our joy and delight,
And that the love and reverence in his soul
Be preserved for a long life here on earth…
Hours of Devotion is not a book to be read quickly but savored. There are some pages we may pray never to read; there are others that one is grateful for and will turn to again and again. For whatever reason, I delayed in getting this wonderful book when it came out. Serendipity brought it, and its lovely author, my way at just the right time. Which is appropriate, since serendipity is exactly how Dinah Berland’s superb edition of these masterful prayers written in the nineteenth century, came to be translated and brought to light once again in the twenty first.