Books: A Prayer Book for All Seasons
Yet A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book, edited by Aliza Lavie (Spiegel & Grau/Random House, 408 pp. $35) and first published in Israel in Hebrew as Tefilat Nashim in 2005, has sold more than 100,000 copies—reaching traditionalists and secularists, Muslims, Christians and Jews, men and women. Lavie’s book offers collections of prayers written for, and mostly by, Jewish women throughout the ages in various countries. Included are special prayers for Shabbat and the holidays; prayers for milestones; prayers for love, fertility and companionship;
and prayers for comfort and thanksgiving.
“I believe Muslim and Christian women are interested in the book both out of curiosity and their interest in the topic,” speculates Lavie, a lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and presenter and editor of television programs on Jewish culture. “The book provides an answer for their difficulties and wishes. A woman is a woman. Prayer is prayer, and there is one God.”
Examples are contemporary Israeli prayers such as “A Mother’s Early Morning Prayer” by Hava Pinhas-Cohen and “Yizkor for a Son” by Dalia Wertheim-Yohanan. Then there are prayers by Fanny Neuda of Moravia, who published her own siddur in 1855, and a Ladino bedtime prayer.
The response to the collection stunned Lavie, who was inspired to embark on the project after reading, on the eve of Yom Kippur 2002, an interview with an Israeli woman who had lost both her mother and baby daughter in a terrorist attack. In synagogue that night, Lavie sought to find comfort for the bereaved woman in the traditional siddur—and could not.
But Lavie, who is modern Orthodox, admits her own search predated this event. The 44-year-old mother of four grew up in a religious Zionist home and always asked questions.
“I tried to find my place, but didn’t always get answers,” she recalls. “But I also took responsibility; at 30, I felt handicapped, realized I didn’t know how to open the Gemara. Something was missing in my life, and I had to find out what it was. My husband encouraged me to look.”
As a special gift for her eldest daughter’s bat mitzva, Lavie enrolled with her daughter in a mother-daughter educational program about lesser-known historical Jewish women. She was also influenced by Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg’s 1981 groundbreaking book, On Women and Judaism (Jewish Publication Society). “I realized that knowledge is power, within halakhic borders,” she says. “I wanted to do something.”
Considering her diverse background, it is only fitting that Lavie’s collection appeals to different communities. Her Kurdistan-born grandmother raised six children on her own after being widowed. “She was a Zionist who went to synagogue three times a day and prayed in Hebrew,” Lavie says. “People asked halakhic questions of her.” Her other grandmother ran a boutique in her native Romania before coming to Israel, settling with her husband in a tent camp and speaking Hebrew reluctantly.
Part of the appeal of Lavie’s book is that it is attractively laid out in Hebrew alongside English translations, with commentary on the origins of the prayers and authors’ background. Lavie culled the tefilot from libraries, archives and private collections or tucked in family siddurim. In addition to original compositions, she has also included the biblical prayers of Miriam at the sea, the supplication of Hannah and the Song of Deborah.
“In the Tanakh, mothers and fathers had dialogue with God—they prayed personal prayers,” she comments. “Through the generations we forgot to have this personal contact. The prayers I’ve included aren’t new—but maybe for that reason, they feel familiar.”
In Israel, Tefilat Nashim has inspired workshops for women who want to write their own prayers. The English edition garnered a 2008 National Jewish Book Award and generated an interdenominational conference on women’s prayer held in New York, at which Lavie—a research associate this past year at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute in Waltham, Massachusetts—was keynote speaker.
Lavie has been invited to speak in ultra-Orthodox communities, secular kibbutzim and everywhere in-between. “I often have to wonder what to wear,” she says with a laugh.
But interest in her work has also been fueled by a general search for meaning in “ancient texts and half-forgotten customs,” Lavie says. And her research underscored that Jewish life was “more than texts.”
“Many women in the past practiced Judaism with a spiritual approach, a sense of God everywhere,” she notes. “I grew up with women who knew how to speak with God.”
Lavie, who is completing a second book about women and ritual, is still trying to grasp the “ga’agu’im,” yearning, of women—and of men—for Tefilat Nashim. One secular man who had lost his son in Lebanon told her he hadn’t prayed all his life, but when he found her book, something changed for him.
In addition to reclaiming Jewish women’s history and making prayer more relevant, Lavie hopes her book will help bridge the gaps between the secular and the religious, Jews and non-Jews.
One reviewer has pointed out that Lavie’s work would be stronger if prayers were included in their original Yiddish, Ladino or other languages. Even so, A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book evokes a Hebrew proverb: “Words that come from the heart, enter the heart.” The prayers, says Lavie, “are coming home.”
The Land of Israel, the Way It Was
In the Footsteps of Abraham:
The Holy Land in Hand-Painted Photographs
by Richard Hardiman and Helen Speelman. (Overlook Press, 365 pp. $65)
Tall buildings and new construction crowd modern Israel’s cities, its countryside is threaded with highways and technology is its best-known export. But beneath the development lies the ancient Land of Israel, a place of sunbaked sand dunes and stone walls, where industry was based on the farmed, picked or handmade.
Taken during the turn of the previous century by the husband-and-wife team of Eric and Edith Matson—members of the American Colony, a commune of Christian Americans based in Jerusalem—the 180 photographs in this tome are unobstructed glimpses into that earlier time. They are part of a collection of 2,200 hand-colored and black-and-white images from the early- to mid-20th century.
The iconic images are divided by region and paired with introductory essays by Richard Hardiman and Helen Speelman. The striking oil colors used by the Matsons to paint their slides (made before the advent of color photography) give the pictures a surreal aura: Men in bright white headscarves pick bronze Jaffa oranges; fishermen in fuchsia and yellow robes throw nets into the gray-blue Galilee; dark-skinned boys ride bright yellow camels. The Matsons also captured harsher realities, with their images of deformed Hansen’s disease sufferers (lepers) and beggars—old men and children—with outstretched palms.
Israelis—indeed all Jews—are justifiably proud of the rapid modernization of the Jewish state. But a glimpse at the not-so-distant past uncovers the roots of all that progress. —Leah F. Finkelshteyn
by Ilan Stavans. (Nextbook/Schocken, 223 pp. $21)
Ilan Stavans’s book Resurrecting Hebrew is ostensibly a biography of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the passionate Zionist lexicographer and visionary who fanatically sought to rehabilitate Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jewish people. Hebrew had been the lingua franca of Judaic scholarship in the diaspora, but it was not the language of everyday life. In an attempt to make Ben-Yehuda’s vision relevant to contemporary readers, Stavans sets out on a personal pilgrimage to recover the Hebrew that he once knew.
Stavans’s search originates in a dream he had some years ago: He is talking to a beautiful woman about an exotic bird called the Liwerant, yet he doesn’t actually understand the language she is speaking and a relative scolds him for not recognizing that it is Hebrew. Acknowledging the profundity of his dream, Stavans sets out on his quest. His research leads him from one interlocuter to another. He interviews scholars, writers and taxicab drivers, leading the reader on an engaging journey into different aspects of the language.
It soon becomes apparent that Stavans’s own search echoes that of the Jewish people.
This tale is written with charm and erudition as well as a deep engagement with Jewish culture. Stavans traces the beginnings of the Hebrew language from its origins as a northern Canaanite dialect to its establishment as the national language during King David’s time. Stavans thrills to the fact that, although modern Hebrew might differ from biblical Hebrew, as contemporary English differs from that of Chaucer, it still uses the same alphabet and is basically the same language that King David spoke (he reigned from 1011 to 971 B.C.E.).
But what about Ben-Yehuda? Although not always present, he becomes the point of convergence for all of Stavans’s discussion of the restoration of the ancient tongue.
Born Eliezer Yitzchak Perelman in 1858, Ben-Yehuda came from a Hasidic family in the village of Luzhky, Russia. During his studies in a Hasidic yeshiva, he became interested in Western thought and eventually attended a gymnasium in the Latvian commercial center of Dunaburg. There, young Jews engaged in heady discussions about Zionism, Bundism, socialism and anarchism. Won over by Zionism, Ben-Yehuda concluded that the resurrection of the Hebrew tongue went hand in hand with the revival of Jewish nationalism. His essay “A Burning Question” became the call to arms for returning to the Land of Israel and creating a majority of Hebrew-speaking Jews. “Let us revive the nation and its tongue will be revived too,” he declared.
But this was no simple task. Ben-Yehuda arrived in Palestine with his family in 1881 along with the pioneers of the First Aliya, and he and some of his colleagues set out to make Hebrew the language of instruction in Jewish schools. They had to create their own Hebrew textbooks, inventing terms as they taught. Ben-Yehuda devoted himself to lexicography and compiled a massive dictionary, creating modern Hebrew terms that were based on biblical and mishnaic sources, words that were of primarily Semitic etymology.
He was a purist, shunning slang or encroachment from other languages. Consequently, many of his words seemed artificial and quickly became obsolete. For example, he coined the word amunot for democracy, but the word demokratia took hold instead.
How successful was Ben-Yehuda? Has his idealistic vision of Hebrew withstood the influences of successive immigrations, popular culture and globalization? Fascinated with the crossbreeding of tongues, Stavans grapples with the issue of whether contemporary Hebrew and, concomitantly, Jewish identity, are part of a singular, monolithic Judaism or a Judaism influenced by many cultures. He echoes the very dilemmas that Jewry, Zionism and the State of Israel confronted in the restoration of Israel and its language and probes the mutual influences of Hebrew and Arabic in a country where 18 percent of the citizens are Arabic-speaking.
In one of Stavans’s many conversations with Hillel Halkin—Israeli translator, writer and language aficionado—he questions whether Ben-Yehuda would be satisfied with the way Israelis use Hebrew today. Halkin’s response can perhaps be seen as a crowning statement to Stavans’ entire enterprise.
“I think Ben-Yehuda would be dismayed by the state of the demotic Hebrew spoken by most Israelis today,” Halkin says. “But he would have been thrilled by the success of the Hebrew revival itself, which is the only case in history of a language dying and being brought back to life again.”
And while, perhaps, Stavans provides less of an insight into Ben-Yehuda’s psyche than we would have liked, he nonetheless brings his mission to life with lively prose and a tangible love of Hebrew culture.
by A.B. Yehoshua. Translated by Stuart Schoffman. (Harcourt, 386 pp. $26)
In the opening pages of A.B. Yehoshua’s Friendly Fire, Amos Ya’ari accompanies his wife, Daniela, to the airport on the first day of Hanukka. She is off, solo, on a weeklong journey to Africa. Her older sister has died a year earlier in Tanzania, where her husband, Yirmiyahu, was serving in the Israeli consular service. Although his legation has since closed, instead of returning to Israel, Yirmi has found work as a bookkeeper for an archaeological expedition of native Africans that aims to reaffirm the centrality of Africa to the larger human narrative. Transparently, these agenda-driven diggers are surrogates for Palestinians.
When, upon her arrival, his sister-in-law presents Yirmi with Hanukka candles and a bundle of Israeli newspapers, he spontaneously consigns them to unfriendly flames. We soon learn that Yirmi’s disconnect from matters Jewish and Israeli is linked not only to his dead wife but to the death of their son, Eyal, who, serving in the Israeli Army, was the victim of a friendly fire incident.
This equivocal sugarcoating with language only aggravates Yirmi’s bitterness. It serves Yehoshua as a leitmotif for the bones he excavates in much of his fiction: unpalatable mendacity in the official version of the Israeli national narrative.
Compelled by inner needs she cannot articulate, Daniela, overriding her husband’s objections—“Nothing is solid or clear-cut there”—takes off for a weeklong trip with her brother-in-law and the ghost of her sister.
Her journey entails not only exorcising the pall of double mourning and the ordeal of self-discovery but, inevitably, a trial of fidelity. At the airport in Tel Aviv, Amos reproaches his wife for evading physical intimacy in the days leading up to her departure, for which she accepts blame. Indeed, their conjugal fire is less than passionate. Immersed in the heart of darkness, however, Daniela plays a role straight from Genesis and gets enlisted by the Africans to smuggle illicit bones into Israel.
Amos runs a firm that designs and installs elevators; in his wife’s absence, he is nothing but distracted. Residents of the 30-story Pinsker Tower bombard him with complaints about wailing noises emanating from the luxury building’s elevator shaft, mournful sounds that conjoin the themes of bereavement to grievance and dysfunctional sexuality. Although Amos again shrugs off blame, he nevertheless accepts responsibility for getting to the root of the problem.
Until Daniela’s return, contrapuntal chapters bounce back and forth between Amos in Israel and Daniela in Africa. The action in Tel Aviv exposes palpable tension between Amos and his and Daniela’s only son, Moran (who works for his father’s firm but spends most of Hanukka in a military prison for refusing to report for reserve duty), and his self-absorbed daughter-in-law, Efrat.
Amos is more successful in engaging his grandchildren, his aged father—and his father’s mistress of yesteryear, for whom the old man in his day had not only designed a private elevator but endowed it with a lifetime guarantee. The fulfillment of that obligation now devolves on his much-burdened but capable son.
On the face of it, there is a flagrant incommensurability between Amos’s portion that orchestrates the disparate currents of Israeli normalcy that Yehoshua knows and depicts so well and the African narrative so charged with emotionally heavy guns: Daniela’s anguish and Yirmiyahu’s guilt-driven disaffection.
Unlike the author’s 1994 success in Open Heart in rendering an India he had never visited, the Tanzania portions of Friendly Fire feel murky, the characterization tentative. Yehoshua regains his sure touch in relating Amos’s harried round of professional and familial obligation, to an Israel that, perhaps more than Yehoshua intends, feels solid, clear-cut and, if neither passionate nor inspiring, reassuringly friendly. —Haim Chertok
by Zoë Heller. (HarperCollins, 335 pp. $25.99)
The Believers is Zoë Heller’s third novel (her first two were What Was She Thinking and Notes on a Scandal), and her delicious aptitude for social satire has never been keener. Born and raised in England, Heller now lives in New York. She incorporates both of those worlds in The Believers: Englishwoman Audrey Howard meets Joel Litvinoff, a young American civil rights lawyer, at a party in London and, in what seems like an instant, follows him to America. The year is 1962.
Flash forward some 40 years and the Litvinoff children presumably share their father’s unwavering commitment to social justice. Karla is a dedicated social worker, while her sister, Rosa, helps disadvantaged young girls discover their inner self-esteem. Only the Litvinoff’s adopted son, Lenny, is a disappointment, bouncing from one drug rehabilitation program to another. Clean and sober or whacked out on weed, Lenny always has a hand out for pocket money.
Over the years, Joel’s crotchets have become legendary. As an atheist, he delights in returning every bar mitzva invitation with the words “THERE IS NO GOD” scrawled across the expensive engraving. One can only imagine the shock he would have felt had he discovered Rosa’s growing interest in Orthodox Judaism. What began as a visit to a shul evolves into Talmud classes and private discussions with her mentor-rabbi. Heller knows that moving from a nonobservant upbringing (the Litvinoffs’ “religion” is socialism) will not be easy. As a lifelong feminist, Rosa bristles when her class visits a mikve and she learns more than she had bargained for.
When Joel, 72, suffers a massive stroke, the entire family dynamic changes abruptly, especially when it is revealed that, several years earlier, he had fathered a black love child. Joel himself spends most of the novel in a coma while his wife keeps a vigil at his bedside and resists any counsel from the medical staff to let nature take its course. In all the disruption, Audrey still finds time to fume about the “other woman,” to nag Karla about her weight and Rosa about her return to Judaism and worry about ne’er-do-well Lenny.
Dysfunctional Jewish families are by now standard, predictable fare, but Heller writes rings around most of the competition. Heller, prose at once funny and sad, knows how to turn a phrase. Here, for example, is how she describes Karla’s funks: “Depression, in Karla’s experience, was a dull inert thing—a toad that squatted wetly on your head until it finally gathered the energy to slither off.” And here is Heller giving her protagonist, Audrey, the comeuppance she deserves: “Like an old lady who persists in wearing the Jungle Red lipstick of her glory days, she had gone on for a long time, fondly believing that the stratagems of her youth were just as appealing as they had ever been.”
Heller comes from a family of screenwriters, and given the adaptation of Notes on a Scandal to the big screen, I can easily imagine a film version of The Believers. Judd Hirsch would be my choice for Joel, and Meryl Streep is a shoo-in for his long-suffering, firebrand wife. But until The Believers arrives at your multiplex, I would highly recommend reading the smart novel Zoë Heller has written. —Sanford Pinsker
BOOKS IN BRIEF
Encyclopedia of Jewish American Popular Culture
edited by Jack R. Fischel with Susan M. Ortmann. (Greenwood Press, 488 pp. $85)
Though many of the 250 personalities, places and creative fields described in this work are well known (such as Woody Allen, the Catskills and comics), there are surprises. For instance, who knew that Al Capp, creator of the Li’l Abner comic strip, was Jewish, his real name Alfred Gerald Caplin? This is a topical guide to literature, politics and Yiddish theater—and so much more. —Susan Adler
Living Jewish Life Cycle:
How to Create Meaningful Jewish Rites of Passage at Every Stage of Life
by Goldie Milgram. (Jewish Lights Publishing, 283 pp. $19.99)
Finding personal meaning in age-old traditions is not always easy, but Goldie Milgram’s new book is a good place to start. Fusing her knowledge of Jewish ritual with her experiences as a rabbi, she both guides as well as informs; the book, which ranges from weddings, babies and bat mitzvas to sections on relationships and environmental considerations, is peppered with interactive “recipes”—workshops to help the reader make each tradition personally fulfilling. —Ray Katz
JEWISH BEST SELLERS
1. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. (Penguin, $15, paper)
2. The Defector by Daniel Silva. (Putnam, $26.95)
3. Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner. (Atria, $26.99)
4. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. (St. Martin’s Griffin, $13.95, paper)
5. City of Thieves: A Novel by David Benioff. (Viking Adult, $24.95)
1. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story
by Diane Ackerman. (W.W. Norton, $14.95, paper)
2. Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way
by Ruth Reichl. (Penguin, $19.95)
3. Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec. (Oxford University Press, $14.95, paper)
4. The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East by Neil MacFarquhar. (Public Affairs, $26.95)
5. Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet Waldman. (Doubleday, $24.95)
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks.com.