Jew­ish Text

A Jew­ish Wom­an’s Prayer Book

Aliza Lavie
  • Review
By – October 18, 2011
Dur­ing a recent phone con­ver­sa­tion, I asked edi­tor Aliza Lavie why she thought so many dis­parate peo­ple have respond­ed on so deep a lev­el to her new book, A Jew­ish Woman’s Prayer Book, rang­ing from a left-wing sec­u­lar kib­butznik com­mu­ni­ty to a suc­cess­ful Ashke­nazi busi­ness­man whose son had died five years ear­li­er. The over­whelm­ing­ly pos­i­tive response from Israelis, in par­tic­u­lar, is stun­ning, espe­cial­ly for a book of prayers writ­ten by women. The book touch­es the heart,” Lavie reports, recall­ing the myr­i­ad of per­son­al phone calls and let­ters she has received, taut­ing the book’s pro­found impact on its read­ers.

Per­haps the book speaks to so many so well because in its com­bi­na­tion of intri­cate, clas­si­cal prayers and direct, fresh, mod­ern prayers, it rep­re­sents a sin­cere and effec­tive tra­di­tion of peo­ple pour­ing out their hearts to God. Lavie seemed to want to empha­size the per­son­al, indi­vid­ual impact of the book. It is inter­est­ing, then, that most strik­ing to us was its com­mu­nal prayer — those com­posed for a recita­tion by a syn­a­gogue or com­mu­ni­ty to pray togeth­er.

In some ways, this book is the ide­al of litur­gi­cal inno­va­tion; it con­tains not only per­son­al prayers and addi­tions to the syn­a­gogue litur­gy, but vari­a­tions on tra­di­tion­al prayers set into main­stream syn­a­gogue litur­gies across the spec­trum of life and prac­tice, from Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties all over the world and through­out his­to­ry. One prayer, in par­tic­u­lar, Leah Shakdiel’s Prayer for Rain,” stands out as mas­ter­ful­ly craft­ed, superbly using the com­plex style of medieval piyyu­tim, but rich with the imagery of our fore­moth­ers. Oth­er note­wor­thy prayers include, At Dawn” by Frei­ha, daugh­ter of Rab­bi Avra­ham’, an 18th cen­tu­ry Moroc­can poet writ­ing in Hebrew; prayers by Cryp­to- Jew­ish women of Por­tu­gal, and a Ladi­no prayer enti­tled Light of Joy.”

When asked about her selec­tion of the Hebrew title for the book, Tefilot Nashim (Prayers of Women), Lavie replied, indi­cat­ing that the book is not unique­ly for Jew­ish women, but for all women, women are women and God is the same.” She proud­ly shares that she knows of a cer­tain (male) Chris­t­ian priest and a large num­ber of Ara­bic women using the book reli­gious­ly for per­son­al prayer. Even in our own fam­i­ly, both male (Con­ser­v­a­tive rab­bini­cal stu­dent — son of an Ortho­dox rab­bi and Jew­ish fem­i­nist) and female (Reform rab­bi, raised in a rightwing Con­ser­v­a­tive syn­a­gogue in the Mid­west) read­ers have found A Jew­ish Woman’s Prayer Book to be spir­i­tu­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant and his­tor­i­cal­ly impor­tant as a vol­ume of prayer.

If the book has any flaw, it is that some of the mod­ern inclu­sions are too long, mak­ing them dif­fi­cult to wield as litur­gi­cal pieces. In a future edi­tion, it would also ben­e­fit the work to include those prayers writ­ten in Yid­dish and Ara­ma­ic in their orig­i­nal form. Lavie agrees that the book would be strength­ened by the inclu­sion of the prayers in their orig­i­nal lan­guages, but remarked, I want­ed it to be usable and acces­si­ble to all; the book is already 400 pages long!”

Still, this book is a vision. It speaks to the heart of why prayer mat­ters and is a gift to the gen­er­a­tions of Jews who will ben­e­fit from the Torah of their foremothers.
Julie Pelc Adler is a rab­bi and a co-edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Join­ing the Sis­ter­hood: Young Jew­ish Women Write Their Lives (State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York Press, 2003). She is the assis­tant direc­tor of the Kals­man Insti­tute on Judaism and Health at HUC in Los Ange­les and also teach­es under­grad­u­ate cours­es in the Lit­er­a­ture and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Depart­ment at the Amer­i­can Jew­ish University.

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