A Jewish Woman's Prayer Book

Spiegel & Grau  2008

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.

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