A Book of Prayer

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.
Amen.

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Joy

Unadulterated joy. A lightness of spirit, a swelling of warmth in your chest, a lighter beat to your heart, a smile that stretches wider than usual, so wide it actually hurts the corners of your mouth. Enhanced hearing that catches even the smallest nearby sounds and acuity of vision that sharpens every object, brightens the color to almost cinematographic brilliance.
Absence of worry. An almost void in that part of your brain, that part of your soul that clenches first thing in the morning, before you even open your eyes, in that “Oh, my God, no” moment where the worries of the night before push into your consciousness before any other thought is possible, picking up the threads of dismay and weaving them immediately into the dread with which you fell asleep.
I had felt this kind of joy before. I was sure that I had. I just could not remember when. Maybe when I fell in love the first time and realized he loved me too. No, I was too worried that I was not good enough, that he didn’t love me as much as I loved him, that we would drift apart and I would be heart-broken. I was right about that. Certainly, I had felt joy when I graduated from college, the first in my family to do so? No, my thoughts were full of the details of moving home then on to law school. Maybe when I graduated from law school three years later? Not then. The specter of studying for and taking the bar exam loomed in my immediate future.
Surely, I was joyous when I met and fell in love with my husband on the first day of law school and when we married three years later. I think I was close to joy when I walked out of the country club doors and saw him waiting for me under the chuppah, the brilliant sunset reflecting off the foothills of the Adirondacks providing the backdrop for the gathering of our friends and family. I was ecstatic for a few seconds until nerves about bobbling my vows and the strained faces of the rabbi and the priest who had been arguing about Jesus right before the wedding dampened my happiness.
I did not feel joy when my babies were born. You come up out of agonizing pain to the cries of your newborn son or daughter. Your first thought is about your child. How many fingers and toes? Breathing? Apgar scores? Learner’s permit, college tuition, orthodontia, prom dates. Then measles, mumps, chicken pox, autism, leukemia, crib death all crowd into your brain before they even place your infant in your arms. Then you feel momentary relief, but not joy.
Losing my husband at the age of 35 pretty much wiped joy out of my realm of experience for the next two and a half decades. There was happiness, satisfaction, pride, contentment and a vast array of positive emotions in those years. But everything was tinged with his shadow, with the shadow of loss, with the nagging thought of what-might-have-been. And worry about the next loss, danger, tragedy.
Joy found me on Friday night. My daughter, my oldest child, was about to receive her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology. We arrived at the University of Indianapolis at the appointed hour. Standing by my car, she donned her gown, three black velvet stripes on each sleeve of itchy black polyester. Her velveteen hood, of gold, lined in crimson and gray was draped on her arm. On her head was a doctoral tam of black velvet, eight-sided, with a heavy bright gold tassel, jauntily hanging to the side. My gift to her, white gold hoop earrings, encrusted with diamond dust, sparkled on either side of her beautiful, if anxious, face.
“I love you, I’ll see you inside,” she said as she turned toward the area where her fellow graduates were gathered.
“I love you. Good luck.” I waved as I made my way to the gymnasium where the ceremonies would take place.
I found a seat at the end of the third row, left side of the sunken gym. The usher had informed me that graduates would cross the stage from right to left, so I was in position to get a good photograph of her as she walked back to her seat after she was hooded by her dissertation adviser and received her diploma from the University president. I was alone. No one from our far-flung family could attend and her friends were either away or graduating with her.
I waited for the feeling of emptiness that had accompanied me at her high school, college and masters graduations to cast a pall over the evening. I waited for the tears of sorrow that her father was not with me, with us, on this great day that culminated her 26 years of education. I waited for the worry that something would go wrong, that they would make her trade her doctoral tam for the standard-issue mortarboard, that I would not be able to see her enter or cross the stage.
I heard a noise to my right and realized that the graduation procession had entered the building and the graduates were lining up before they walked down the stairs to the rows of white folding chairs that faced the stage. I turned the camera on and looked for my daughter. I found the cluster of gold-hooded men and women (Doctors of Psychology) lined up right behind the turquoise-hooded Doctors of Physical Therapy. My eyes focused in on my daughter’s curling auburn hair topped by the jaunty tam. Her eyes found me (hard to miss in a lime green tunic). Her lovely face lighted up and she waved.
Joy. My spirit soared as I snapped shots of her, my eyes blurred by tears. Then I sat. Waited for the worry, the loneliness, the sadness to intrude on this long-fought for moment. Instead, I felt the comforting presence of my husband, her father, as real as if he sat right next to me, his arm around me. I had not felt his spirit in a long, long time. I could hear his voice in my ear, in my mind, a voice I had not heard in many, many years. Years crowded with worry and fear.
“We did it.” I whispered to him.
“No,” he whispered back. “You did it.”
No. She did it. And we made her. Joy.

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