Me'or Eynayim on hospitality and going forth
The Faith Between Us

On reviewing books, and "Hours of Devotion"

I like reviewing books. Reading with an eye toward writing a review is a different experience than reading all by itself. It's a way of reading-in-community; I get to respond to the work as a writer, not just as a reader, plus often there's conversation with other readers via email or blog comments. Often, these days, I get to connect directly with the author of the book, too, which is a treat.

And yet you may notice that I haven't posted any book reviews here since the first week of September. What gives? Well, it turns out that when I'm taking five courses at once, I don't seem to have the mental/emotional space I'd like to dedicate to really good, long, interpretive book reviews. I probably should have anticipated that, shouldn't I?

But -- maybe some of you have noticed this? -- Chanukah begins on Tuesday night! And perhaps some of you would like to buy books for your loved ones this season. So following that old adage about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, I plan to post a few short book reviews this week. I'd like to write something longer and more substantive about each of these, but for now I hope these brief reviews will capture your interest. These are titles I think are worth some attention and time. The first one is:

Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda's Book of Prayers for Jewish Women (Dinah Berland; Shocken, 2007)

This is a collection of prayers written by Fanny Neuda, originally published in German in the mid-1800s. Neuda was the daughter of a Moravian rabbi. Dinah Berland, who is a marvelous poet in her own right and who comments here often, worked with a translator to render Neuda's prayer-poems in modern English.

These prayers offer insight into the internal life of a Jewish woman in Central Europe during the Enlightenment, which is especially fascinating to me because I've been taking a course on the Haskalah this fall. The book's introduction sheds some light on how Berland came to engage with this work ("As an adult, my circuitous spiritual path -- punctuated by bouts of struggle and loss -- led me on a long quest, often far from Judaism, to try to recapture the sense of acceptance, love, and communion with God that I had glimpsed as a child") but after the introduction, the book consists purely of Neuda's prayers (and an afterword, also written by Neuda, included in every edition since the original printing of 1855.)

Great poems are both timely (grounded in the period when they were written) and timeless (meaningful beyond their initial moment in time.) I'd put many of these in that category. These personal devotions chart thanksgiving and praise in a way any reader of the psalms should recognize, and like the psalms they feel alive and new. And there's a range of material here: morning and evening prayers, Shabbat prayers and weekday prayers and festival prayers. I find myself drawn to the section titled "Prayers Especially for Women" -- a daughter's prayer for her parents, prayers for expectant mothers and for returning to synagogue after giving birth, a prayer for a mother whose child is abroad. But I'm also moved by the universal prayers here: prayers for rain, for illness, to be said at graveside.

Liturgical poetry is one of my passions. It's something I aspire to create. So I know how hard it is to write a prayer that works too as a poem. Prayers require the investment of emotion and heart, but there's a fine line between sentiment and sentimentality, and sometimes material that feels appropriate in prayer is too over-the-top for a poem, weights the poem down. I don't know whether Neuda's original 18th-century German verse would suit the modern sensibility, but Berland's rendering of Neuda's work walks the line beautifully.

You can read an excerpt from the preface here, and here are some selected prayers from the collection. (I especially like the Traveler's Prayer.) And here's a list of links to places where the book is available. Lately I've been incorporating these poems into my regular prayer life. Some days I read her weekday poems as a kind of 19th-century shir shel yom (song of the day), and I plan to meditate on her Chanukah poem later this week. These are poems I want to send to friends, little written gifts I think will speak to their lives, as they speak to mine. Maybe they will speak to yours, too.

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