Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women
Edited and Adapted into verse
by Dinah Berland
Schocken Books, $24
One day Dinah Berland was browsing in Sam Johnson’s Book Shop in Venice, Calif. and in the Judaica section tucked between the tomes she noticed a slim, well-worn volume with a mysteriously blank spine. She picked it up out of curiosity — later she would say fate —and found that it spoke to the heart of her suffering at the time.
Berland, a poet and then-editor at J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, had been estranged from her son for 11 years. And in this book, Hours of Devotion: A Book of Prayers and Meditations for the Use of the Daughters of Israel, during Public Service and at Home, for All Conditions of Woman’s Life, translated by M. Mayer (New York, 1886), she was stunned to discover “A Mother’s Prayer Whose Child Is Abroad”:
O Parent of All, hear my fervent prayer
And bring my child back to me
At the right time, full of joy and the vigor of life,
To be the pride and delight of my heart,
A blessing to all, and pleasing in your sight,
My God and Sovereign. Amen.
Berland bought the book and began saying that prayer often, as well prayers for the morning and evening and the days of the week. She was celebrating her father’s 90th birthday and decided to invite her estranged son. A few weeks later, he called her — and said yes.
“I have to tell you — this is an answer to a prayer,” she told him.
It was also the beginning of their reconciliation, and the beginning of Berland’s search for the origins of the prayer book that spoke to her and might speak to other women.
Berland spent some years discovering the origins of this book, and updating it for a modern, American audience.
Hours of Devotion was written by Fanny Neuda, the wife of Rabbi Abraham Neuda of Lostice, Austria, in 1854. When her husband died, leaving her a widow at age 42, she compiled many of these prayers, and published them in German under the sponsorship of Baroness Louise von Rothschild. It was a bestseller in German for more than a century, with 28 editions between 1855-1918, and it was translated into Yiddish and English.
“During my lifetime, so richly filled with the most diverse events, I frequently felt powerful, inescapable urges to enter into dialogue with the sublime Spirit of the Universe — who is enthroned so high and yet sees down so low — that I might find the insight and the strength in God not to stray from or sidestep the path of duty, which so often demanded great sacrifice. That is how most of these payers were written,” Neuda wrote in her preface (translated into English in Berland’s book for the first time).
These prayers, Berland writes, “grew out of a popular genre of personal, devotional prayers for women, initially written primarily in Yiddish, called t’chines (supplications) that had been produced in Europe since the sixteenth century.” They were meant for women who generally did not know Hebrew but wanted to pray to God. Many t’chines collections were compiled from various sources, including the psalms, Berland writes, and were often written by men under female pseudonyms or only using a first initial. (M. Mayer was Rabbi Mortiz Mayer, a German-born lawyer who served at the first congregation in the United States to adopt Reform Judaism.)
At first, Berland simply intended to update the book, changing the “Thou’s” and “Thee’s” to contemporary language, making God non-gender specific and re-ordering it. But then she studied earlier German versions and found that the translations didn’t correspond, and there were other prayers missing.
She chose 88 prayers to retranslate (some in the Mayer version and some from the original 117 prayers), and to render them, at the suggestion of her teacher Ronnie Serr, as poetry rather than prose.
“As soon as I introduced the line breaks, an inner light seemed to rise out of the text, allowing me to see the power of the prayers as never before,” Berland writes. “I began to hear the underlying music — the rhythms, repetitions, and resonances in the language — and to understand the meaning of the work in a whole, new way.”
The prayers include from daily prayers, Sabbath prayers, holiday prayers, and memorial prayers. But by far the most unique prayers are the ones for women — for a bride, an expectant mother, for an unhappy wife — and for special circumstances — poverty, prosperity, traveling, sickness, healing.
There is no time like the present for such prayers, Berland told The Jewish Journal. “The world is in such bad shape right now. The world is looking for support on a deeper level.…Since 9/11 there’s a great state of anxiety in the world and people have been turning to religion for obvious reasons,” she says.
People are looking for prayers that speak to them, and sometimes are put off by the formal and rote quality of the liturgy. These prayers “come from a very deep and personal place — they’re very intimate,” she says. “These t’chines have the quality of going to the deeper center of oneself.”
Berland has also been conducting workshops on composing personal prayer. For example, she may have them write down five losses and five great joys and see if any of those connect.
“After you live long enough, you see that a lot of the sorrows can be good,” she said. “My son was absent for me for 11 years, and I would never have bought the book in that bookstore if I didn’t need a prayer — and it’s changed my life.”