Prayers for women, by a woman

“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 on Venice Boulevard in Mar Vista, 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 it was fate — and she found that the book spoke to the heart of her suffering at the time.

Berland is a poet and was then an editor at the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles; she had been estranged from her son for 11 years following a bitter divorce, and she was stunned to discover “A Mother’s Prayer Whose Child Is Abroad” in this book from 1866, titled “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).

“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, along with other English prayers, such as the ones for the morning and evening and the days of the week. At the time she was about to celebrate her father’s 90th birthday, so she 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.

And it was. It was also the beginning of their reconciliation and the beginning of Berland’s search for the origins of the prayerbook that spoke so plaintively to her. She thought it might also speak to other women.

Berland spent some years uncovering the origins of the book and updating it for a modern American audience.

“Hours of Devotion,” was first published in 1854 and written by Fanny Neuda, wife of Rabbi Abraham Neuda, of Lostice, Austria. When the rabbi died, leaving Neuda a widow with three children, at age 35, she compiled many of these prayers and published them in German under the sponsorship of Baroness Louise von Rothschild. The book was a German-language bestseller for more than a century, with 28 editions between 1855-1918 and was translated into Yiddish and English as well.

“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 the book’s preface, which has been 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 tkhines (supplications), that had been produced in Europe since the 16th century.” They were meant for women who generally did not know Hebrew but wanted to pray to God. Many tkhines collections were compiled from various sources, including the Psalms, Berland recounts, and they 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 “Thous” and “Thees” to contemporary language, making God not gender-specific and reordering the contents. But then she studied earlier German versions and found that the translations didn’t do justice to the original, and some prayers were missing. So she chose 88 prayers to retranslate (some included in the Mayer version and some from the original 117 prayers), rendering them as poetry rather than prose at the suggestion of her teacher, Ronnie Serr.

“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 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).

For example, the prayer “On the Approach of Childbirth” beseeches:
Let your mercy shelter me,
So these birth pangs do not overtake me,
So I am able to bear them with courage and strength.
Oh, that your parental grace
Might guide me safely and securely
Across this awesome threshold.
All-Compassionate One, shorten my suffering.

“In Poverty” concludes:

I ask only for one thing, O God:
In my poverty, let me never fall into
The shame and disgrace of an immoral, hopeless life.
Rather let me, through honesty and righteousness,
Worthy activity and effort,
Gain the good wishes, love, and high regard
Of my fellow human beings. Amen.

There is no time like the present for such prayers, Berland said in an interview. “The world is in such bad shape right now. The world is looking for support on a deeper level. Since Sept. 11 there’s a great state of anxiety in the world, and people have been turning to religion for obvious reasons,” she says.