Women’s Prayer Book Finds New Life
It was just before Rosh Hashanah when poet Dinah Berland, estranged from her son for 11 years, stumbled upon a book of women’s prayers that she believes led to her reconciliation with him.
As Berland tells it, in 1998 she had wandered into a Los Angeles store that sells used books, when a slim book written by a woman named Fanny Neuda caught her eye. She serendipitously flipped open the collection, titled “Hours of Devotion,” to a prayer for a mother whose child is missing.
But it was while attending a subsequent sermon at her synagogue, during the rabbi’s discussion of signs from God, that Berland caught herself sobbing out loud. At that moment, she decided to contact her son by inviting him to her father’s — his grandfather’s — 90th birthday party. She returned home from the supermarket, days after mailing the invitation, to find her telephone ringing. “I picked up the phone, and I heard this male voice,” she recalled recently. “The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Adam, I have to tell you, this is an answer to a prayer.’”
Now, nine years later, Berland — whose poetry has been published in the Antioch Review, Ploughshares and The Iowa Review — has recast Neuda’s prayers into a compilation titled “Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women” (Schocken).
Fanny Neuda, nee Schmiedl, was born in 1819 in the Moravian town of Ivancice, which was then part of Austria. She married Abraham Neuda, a progressive rabbi known for both his talmudic scholarship and his secular knowledge, and they lived in Lostice, Moravia, for nearly two decades, until the rabbi’s death in 1854 at age 42.
A widow at 35, Neuda published her prayers in 1855. After that, history loses track of Neuda until her death in Merano, Italy, in 1894. “Hours of Devotion,” meanwhile, became wildly popular.
Written in the vernacular, it joined a large market of prayer books for women that was thriving by the mid-1800s. Like other collections at the time, “Hours of Devotion” was composed of techinot, or supplications, whose intimate pleas were often whispered from the women’s galleries of European synagogues where men prayed in Hebrew. “Hours of Devotion,” however, was the first such book to be written for a woman by a woman, and it attracted a legion of admirers.
It was reprinted more than a dozen times, and it was so cherished that during the Holocaust, some Jewish women reportedly smuggled copies of the book into concentration camps. Berland says that during the time when she was researching the book, a 92-year-old woman, the mother of the rebbetzin at her childhood temple, left the following message on her answering machine:
About Fanny Neuda…. If you are working on Fanny Neuda’s book, this is the best book a woman can have if she needs help. I had a copy of that book from my mother in the concentration camp. And I had it when they took me to Auschwitz. When they pushed me out of the wagon, they knocked the book out of my hand, and that’s how I lost it, but I found another one from my mother-in-law and I have it here.
While “Hours of Devotion” was written primarily for a female audience, the collection of prayers — each one for a specific life experience — could be recited by anyone. Berland’s book includes prayers for the High Holy Days and for the Sabbath, as well as memorial prayers and prayers for healing. An unequivocally feminine chapter contains the prayers that Neuda composed specifically for women, such as a bride’s prayer on her wedding day and prayers for a woman during childbirth. Writing as a young mother, the pain of labor still fresh in her mind, Neuda told of her own experiences; it is, therefore, not surprising that she writes of the concern a woman has for her sick child.
Still, in a post-feminist era, Neuda’s work also must be subjected to a degree of scrutiny. While it is heartening that Neuda included a prayer for a barren woman, it is disappointing that she neglected to write a prayer for a sister or for a woman who is not a wife.
Certainly, a skeptic may demand to know why women need their own prayers at all. (This despite inherent biological differences, although some will argue: Is the maternal instinct inherent or learned?) In fact, such German scholars as Bettina Kratz-Ritter have written articles on Neuda’s prose, in particular an essay that was published as a preface to her original book.
In it, Neuda makes a case for the role of women in the domestic sphere, but perhaps more significantly she urges Jewish mothers to educate their daughters. Modern women, both highly educated and accomplished outside the home, therein may find a kindred spirit in Fanny Neuda.
In a sense, her prayer for success may find an unintended but appreciative audience in 21st-century women. Indeed, while today’s woman may not need her own set of prayers, she is nonetheless privileged to find that choice. E.B. Solomont is a writer living in New York City.