Holiday Season 2007 was upon us. Plans for the office celebration were well underway and I had already collected money from my reluctant bosses for our secretaries’ Christmas gifts.
The newest lawyer in the office, Melanie, appeared in my doorway shortly after the lunch hour. She seemed nervous as she entered, her hands clasped behind her back.
“Do you have a minute?”
“Sure, what can I do for you?”
“Oh, nothing, really…I have something for you.” She placed a bag from Barnes & Noble on my desk. I spied a gift-wrapped package inside. I looked up at her quizzically. The professionals in the office did not exchange holiday gifts.
“I know we don’t know each other really well but I was in the bookstore today at lunch and I saw this. It made me think of you. I wanted you to have it for Hanukkah.”
I was taken aback. She was right, we didn’t know each other very well, but she was very nice. As was the case with most lawyers new to our agency, she had come to me for advice from time to time and I was glad to help her when I could. Our office was not what one could call “gender-neutral.” The women professionals stuck together and we watched out for the female administrative and clerical staff.
“Do you want me to open it now?” I asked as I took the gift from the bag.
“If you want…I hope you like it.”
I unwrapped the book. The cover was cream with fine green filigreed trim. Hours of Devotion. I looked up at her. A Book of Prayer for Jewish Women. I am Jewish, but Melanie is Russian Orthodox.
“I hope you don’t mind that I got you a religious book, but it said it was for Jewish women and it just seemed to me that I should get this book for you.”
“Well, thank you, Melanie. This is so nice and I really appreciate you buying me this book.”
She seemed relieved that I liked the gift and left my office. I was a bit perplexed. A book of prayer is an “iffy” gift even for someone you know well, even for someone of your own faith. A religious book for a co-worker of short acquaintance and of a different religion was a risky move at best; and certainly a potential disaster. I put the book in my briefcase and got back to work.
Later that night, at home, I remembered the book and took it with me when I climbed the stairs to bed.
Hours of Devotion is a book of prayers for all occasions for Jewish women written by Fanny Neuda, in the mid-1800’s, in Germany. The wife of an esteemed rabbi, Fanny had been concerned that young women of her day were drifting away from Judaism as they became more concerned with secular life. Having lost her husband at a young age, Fanny sought to put prayers to guide and comfort Jewish women into book form, to honor the memory of her late husband. The book enjoyed moderate success for the next 50 or so years, but disappeared from print with the onslaught of the Nazis and World War II.
All this I read in the forward written by the book’s editor, Dinah Berland. Ms. Berland, divorced and living in California had happened upon a used copy of the book in an old bookstore. Raised a devout Jew, she had suffered a crisis of faith and was now estranged from her son. Adrift and looking for guidance, Dinah was immediately taken by the simple and thoughtful prayers written by Fanny a century and a half before. Deciding to edit the book for modern times, she re-wrote the prayers as verse, included Fanny’s original forward and wrote a new forward detailing her own struggles and the impact Fanny’s book had on her. She told how she had begun reading one of the prayers, For A Mother Whose Child Is Abroad, in hopes that it might bring the son who she had not seen in 11 years, back to her, in time for her father’s birthday. My hands shook as I read about her son’s phone call from out of the blue, accepting the invitation she had sent him for his grandfather’s celebration. Her son returned to her life and her heart.
With thoughts of my own daughter studying in the mid-West, I turned to that prayer. The opening lines brought tears to my eyes: All Gracious God – far from his parental home, Far from his mother’s care and concern, My child lives in a foreign land, and I, Who would find delight in watching over his health, In guarding his every step, In lavishing my undying love and faithfulness on him, Am separated from him.
I could not put the book down as I read a prayer for the success of your children, a widow’s prayer at her husband’s grave, a prayer for livelihood and the prayer for bedtime: Sleep – you peaceful, tender angel, Whom God has sent down to this valley of tears, To dampen life’s suffering beneath your soft wings – Descend on my eyelids and bring me rest.
I was as transformed as Dinah had been. My Catholic upbringing had taught me many prayers but they were lost to me since I had converted to Judaism. I still had the urge, however, to talk to God and explain in great detail what I wanted and needed and felt I deserved. Afterwards, I often felt empty and embarrassed that I was harassing the Almighty about my children’s grades, my mortgage payment and my unreasonable supervisor. But, in Fanny’s simple words, I found a voice. For almost every want, every need, every worry that I had, Fanny had written a beautiful prayer, praising God while reminding Him that women – daughters, wives, mothers – had special needs in the world He had created.
I told Melanie the next day that the book she had given me was the best present I had ever received. And gave her a bottle of what I had learned was her favorite wine: Manischewitz Elderberry. And I have done so every holiday since then. Just as I have passed on copies of Fanny’s book to my daughter, my mother-in-law and most of my friends. Some have smiled and thanked me and never opened the book. Others have fallen into its simple beauty and have found comfort there. A few have followed my practice of giving the book to their family and friends.
Hours of Devotion is on my nightstand unless it is travelling with me. I have turned to it on countless occasions, searching for the right words to send my message to God. Every time Fanny’s book answers my plea. My thoughts and her words wing their way to God, who, in His Ineffable Way, has always answered us.