It was erev Yom Kippur 2002. Earlier that day, Aliza Lavie had read an interview in an Israeli newspaper with Hen Keinan, who lost her mother and baby daughter in a suicide attack in Petach Tikvah the previous May and had since moved to the United States.
Lavie, a communications and political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, could not stop thinking about Hen Keinan – even at Kol Nidre services that evening. “I stood there in the synagogue,” she wrote, “grappling with Hen’s questions and sensing that the prayer book in front of me could not provide the answers. I resolved to explore the eternal, powerful faith of Jewish women.”
Lavie set about searching for and finding prayers composed by Jewish women through the ages in vastly differing circumstances. The fruit of her labor was Tefillat Nashim, published in Israel in 2005 to considerable acclaim.
“Aliza,” said former Israeli chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, “opened the gates of prayer.”
One of Lavie’s goals in compiling the book was to transcend the limits of time and geography and unite women from all centuries and places in prayer. Her book includes a wide variety of prayers to commemorate life events big and small – childbirth, candle lighting, hafrashat challah, sending a son to the army, Yizkor for a child, etc.
For any event in life, she says, there is a prayer.
Tefillat Nashim has just been published in English by Spiegel & Grau under the title “A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book.” Lavie recently spoke with The Jewish Press.
Jewish Press: What did you hope to accomplish with the book?
Lavie: I found something missing in my life, as a Jewish woman, as a mother. I couldn’t find the answers to my questions – about Israel, the Jewish world, etc. I always tell my students, as I tell my kids, when you need an answer, go learn, go learn history, check the past. I was sure someone else had problems like this and did something. So I decided to go learn. I didn’t know the answer would be prayers.
The story with Hen also gave me a sign that I had to do something that would answer questions and speak to everybody – secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox – though I didn’t know what it would be. I couldn’t think about anything else. It was deeply in my heart.
How did you get started?
The starting point was Italy. I spent Shabbat in Rome, in a huge synagogue near the Jewish ghetto. I was shocked when I heard a Misheberach for women – it appears on page 234 of my book – because I had never heard that before, and it made me realize there must be other prayers out there.
I met this professor, the son of a rabbi, and I asked him about the Misheberach. He told me, “Welcome to the Italian Jewish woman’s world.” Then I understood there was a world where women were involved in everything in community life, even in the 15th and 16th centuries. This was a sign for me. Via this prayer, I learned about Jewish women in Italy, who had tefillat nashim.
Once you knew there were such prayers, how did you go about finding them?
For days and years I was like a detective. I spent a lot of time in archives, in synagogues. It was not easy; nobody believed me that there were prayers like this – you couldn’t find it in history books.
I heard about a women’s prayer book in an old synagogue. I tried five times to get in, but it was closed each time. Finally, a nice lady led me to the old archives. I asked myself, “What is this about? Why am I not familiar with this? Why are women in Italy worthy of this, but not in Jerusalem?”
Another lady told me that 10 years ago she read something about a Jewish woman’s prayer book in German. I found it in the national library in Jerusalem and I had to get someone to translate it for me from old German.
Fanny Neuda, a Moravian Jew, composed those prayers in the mid-1800s and she was a great inspiration to me. I tried to understand her. I had imaginary conversations with her. Where did she get this knowledge? Who told her? Who was she?
Fanny Neuda realized that women around her, especially girls, were going to university for the first time, and unfortunately they didn’t know Yiddish. All the techinot were in Yiddish, and they had to be modernized. So she wrote in German for the young women; she wanted to give them prayers for every day and every moment in their lives.
It was challenging to translate them into Hebrew. We tried to use the Hebrew words of that time, but we wanted young people to be able to understand and use these prayers. Her prayers are really phenomenal.
How did you feel when you discovered all these prayers?
I felt angry. I was full of questions. Why hadn’t I had access to these prayers before? Why weren’t these publicized? Why was Fanny Neuda, one of the original women prayer-writers, not more recognized, more famous?
Which of the prayers did you personally find most profound?
The prayer of Perl of Berditchev, because I knew about her husband, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, and how he felt it was his job to protect the Jews of his country. My husband found it and gave it to me.
What was the reaction in Israel to your book?
It is accepted as a cultural book even more than a religious book. It’s a sociological phenomenon how people take the prayers with them, internalize them, add them to their private moments. People have told me after lectures that it makes them feel part of the Jewish people. It helps them a lot in their lives. It’s also interesting to hear about where each person keeps the book.
Where do you keep yours?
[Laughs.] Depends. One’s near my bed, and another is on the shtender close to where I light my Shabbat candles, as there are several prayers for candle lighting in the book.
Who is your target audience?
Editor’s Note: “A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book” is available at major Jewish book stores and at Amazon.com.
Aliza Lavie is available for speaking engagements in Boro Park, Flatbush, Williamsburg, Monsey, and Lakewood. To contact the author or schedule a speaking engagement, contact Judy Safern at Leading Thinkers Public Relations – (214) 438-3692.