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 Mara Lander,
Random House

    On wings of prayer

By Tamar Rotem, Haaretz

One can open the book "Jewish Women's Prayers Throughout the Ages" (published in Hebrew by Yedioth Ahronoth), without fear and with curiosity, just as one opens a book of poetry. The questions that arise after one leafs through the book do not require a specific reaction. Either one will be captivated by it or put it aside for lack of interest. And what is certain: There is no mutual contract between the reader and God, nor even room for guilt. Neither a vague bitterness, stemming from years of being forced to pray three times a day, nor an attitude of holiness. The initial attitude toward the book is therefore likely to be liberating.

"Perhaps because of people's fear of the existing prayer book," speculates Dr. Aliza Lavie, a lecturer on communications in the department of social sciences at Bar-Ilan University, and the author of "Jewish Women's Prayers Throughout the Ages." "The book has succeeded in touching so many and varied audiences, from the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] sector to [left-wing socialist] kibbutzim of Hashomer Hatzair." This week, for example, she lectured at Kibbutz Ma'abarot near Hadera. "This is the first time there was a lecture on Judaism there," she says. "It was moving for me to understand what is actually happening with this book. Women are relating to the prayers without any inhibitions, as though the emotional outpouring of the women in the book is what is transmitted and what moves them."

"Women's Prayer" is an anthology of forgotten women's prayers from throughout the generations, alongside contemporary prayers. It is one of those books that struck it lucky. Three months after publication, it still heads the bestseller list and is arousing questions as to how a book that is ostensibly sectoral and religious, has succeeded in going beyond the periphery and reaching the center and the secular world, and as to what need it fulfills in its readers. Its publication aroused a debate over the fact that it does not include prayers written outside the Orthodox stream, a fact that did not hurt sales, but just the opposite. According to Lavie, the criticism voiced by the non-Orthodox rendered the book kosher for the Haredim.

The book has become a cultural phenomenon beyond its success in terms of sales. Since its publication, there have been constant conferences in various cultural worlds in which women's prayers are discussed. Lavie tells with excitement about a group of secular women - Maagalei Nashim (Women's Circles) - who explain and discuss the texts of the prayers. And on the other hand, about the awakening of women with a traditional bent, who are reviving ancient texts they vaguely remembered from their grandmothers, and relating them to the book.

For example, Lavie was invited to a basisa in Or Yehuda, a Tripolitan ceremony that is celebrated on the first day of Nissan (March-April). There have even been various cultural events inspired by the book: a play, a dance performance and the prayers set to music. Lavie is amazed by "the way the book has been welcomed in Israeli society." Since its publication, she has been on an anthropological journey, as she puts it: "I think that what connects all the audiences to the book is a great longing, a kind of feeling of having missed something by not listening to what their grandmothers brought from home, and even making light of it."

"The book came out at the right time and in the right place," says Prof. Avigdor Shinan of Tel Aviv University, who studies the history of liturgy and of synagogues, and writes prayers himself. "Thirty years ago, a book of this kind would have been seen as a curiosity. Today, within the general tendency of bringing women into the inner circle of religion, when there are female rabbinical pleaders, women who study Torah, women who are professors and doctors of Talmud, it was accepted naturally."

Lavie reports a contemptuous attitude on the part of academe toward her extracurricular project and toward her, as a person who does not come from the field of the study of liturgics. "I was unable to raise even one stipend for the book. I think I was touching a sore spot," she says.

A feminist model

Lavie, 41, an impressive and energetic woman, is as excited about the book as about a firstborn child saying his first words. She belongs to the national religious camp, but lives on the seam line between the religious and secular worlds, communications and Judaism: She is a lecturer in communications at Bar-Ilan University, the moderator of a television program dealing with Jewish culture (at present on the program "Vehareshut Netuna" - "Permission Granted" - on Channel 10) and a leading activist in the religious feminist organization Kolech. She lives in Netanya and is married to Tzuri, a businessman. The couple has four children.

Although she grew up in Netanya in a national religious home and was a member of Bnei Akiva (the religious Zionist youth movement), her emotional childhood was experienced in the shadow of her grandmother in Jerusalem's Bukharan neighborhood. She says her grandmother, who died four years ago at the age of 96, symbolizes for her a type of naive faith alongside knowledge and a feminist model. Her grandmother immigrated to Israel at the beginning of the 20th century, says Lavie, became widowed at an early age, raised 12 children by herself, and was an important figure in the community and the synagogue. She went to pray in the synagogue three times a day, and was very strict in her observance of the commandments, "unlike me." "I wonder how she knew so much without knowing how to read, and who transmitted her knowledge of Judaism to her," says Lavie.

For three years, she searched for the sources of the anonymous prayers and pleadings and tikkunim (literally "repairing"), for those same significant moments or junctions in the lives of women that were not reflected in the ordinary prayer book, such as barrenness, birth and the loss of a child. Some of the prayers, it turned out, were even written by men for women. That explains the horrifying wording of the "Tikkun for a woman who was the reason for her son's death," by Ben Ish Hai (a leading 19th century Iraqi rabbi and scholar).

She collected the prayers in a long and Sisyphean process. At the same time, she also collected contemporary prayers. She received the information about these prayers from various worlds, through the grapevine. For example, Maagalei Nashim, who were fascinated by the extremely modern poem, "A prayer for a mother before Shaharit [the morning service]," written by religious poet Hava Pinhas-Cohen, called the text to Lavie's attention. And on the other hand, for two years Lavie wooed Shulamit Eisenbach, a Haredi woman who is a member of the Belz Hasidim in Jerusalem, until she won her confidence and received from her a unique prayer that deals with the relationship between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law.

Prof. Shinan believes the book shows how intimate and personal is a woman's relationship to prayer. "The world of the siddur is a masculine world that keeps out women, who in the first place are not obligated to say all the prayers," he explains. "The siddur is silent regarding the needs of the woman. She remained on the margins. Men were offered various solutions. There were even prayers composed for the soldier before going to battle, and for the pilot. They differ from those written by women. The man is not supposed to talk about feelings. I can't recall a man praying about the relationship between himself and his son-in-law. The religious person seeks channels for catharsis, and suddenly it turned out that there are events related to female experiences, birth, abortion, for which there was no answer." Shinan believes that "this is a positive ricochet of the waves of feminism."

Lavie defines her impulse as spiritual and feminist. "I tried to bring female voices that had no outlet, and to place them on the agenda," she says. The emotion can be heard in her voice as she expresses her anger: "How is it possible that we don't know about women like Freha bat Rabbi Avraham, a Moroccan poetess in the 18th century, or that nobody knew about the existence of Fanny Neuda, a fascinating woman from the Enlightenment period, who published a book of prayers in German, and provided an answer for the distress of women who didn't understand Yiddish." Her book, she says, tells a Jewish historical story from another angle.

'A certain injustice'

In light of her anger at the historical injustice done to women, a question arises regarding her failure to include women from non-Orthodox communities in the book. Prof. Shinan even points out that Lavie included a poem by Hava Pinhas-Cohen, which is barely a prayer, and not songs by Naomi Shemer ("Lu Yehi") or Leah Goldberg, which are clearly texts that express prayer. But he saw nothing wrong with that: "Lavie did not have a policy of non-inclusion," he says. "She clearly addressed an Orthodox community. The name 'Women's Prayers' may be too broad."

"The book is beautiful and important," says Reform Rabbi Dalia Marx. But she has reservations about Lavie's disregard of Reform or Conservative prayers. "She has committed a certain injustice by talking about a female mosaic of prayers, by saying 'I am giving a voice to women from all eras,' and leaving out other women. Where is her female solidarity? After all, most of the female liturgy is being written today outside Orthodoxy."

Lavie treats these complaints seriously. She went to meet Marx at Hebrew Union College (the academic center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism) in Jerusalem, and read new prayers there, with which she was not familiar. She learned about an important figure in the field, Marcia Falk, who is involved in liturgy in the United States, and whose groundbreaking prayer book, "The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival," recreates Hebrew and English liturgy in poetic forms from a contemporary, gender-inclusive perspective. "We can learn from that about the limits of my research," she says. "I really didn't come across Reform prayers. I come from a Mizrahi culture [of Jews originating in North Africa and the Middle East], which is a culture that includes everyone."

Among the Reform and the Conservatives there are many who don't accept the apology, and believe this is false naivete. Lavie says that in the English version of the book, soon to be published in the United States, prayers from other denominations of Judaism will be included. And on the other hand, she speaks of the unease in the Haredi sector with the contemporary prayers. "I'm thinking of publishing an edition for the Haredi community."

Apparently, the connection with the Haredi world is important to her, in spite of everything. A few weeks ago, Lavie, who usually doesn't wear a head covering, sat on a stage in Bnei Brak at an event attended by girls from the Bais Yaakov seminary, as well as teachers and mothers from the Haredi sector and gave her lecture. Occasionally there were melancholy and amazingly kitschy musical selections, as is usual at these events. Every once in a while Lavie tripped up and said something unconventional, and eyebrows were raised. But in the end they didn't let her leave.

After years during which she was considered a rebel in her community, and attracted fire as a member of Kolech, she is discovering that the embrace from the religious establishment, from such figures as Liora Minka, the chair of Emunah (the women's movement of the national religious stream), and like Rabbanit Yehudit Shilat, a symbol of female conservatism, is a comfortable place to be. Maybe there is a kind of maturity in finding something unifying rather than divisive. Lavie admits she was worried about the timing of the publication of the book, shortly after the difficult events of the disengagement. After the fact, she says, she was surprised; apparently many people found consolation in it.

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