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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Talking to the ladies

Nearly every year during the Rosh Hashanah holiday I see or hear something that becomes the memorable thing that stays with me for the rest of the year.

This year it happened as I was passing my friend Shmuel's seat on my way out of services. As I passed, I noticed that, rather than using one of the many popular Israeli machzorim (holiday prayer books), or a prayerbook from one of the many modern American Jewish publishing houses, he had a tattered copy of the old Birnbaum machzor sitting in front of him.

It caught my eye because during my early years of becoming observant, the Birnbaum weekday, Shabbat and holiday prayer books were all I had known. I had been given a well used set by the navy chaplain in my home port of Pearl Harbor, and they had sailed with me around the Pacific and Indian oceans for many years before going into semi-retirement amid my growing collection of Jewish books.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with the venerable Birnbaum prayer books. They were workmanlike, clear, and contained everything one needed to get from beginning to end of any service of the year.

But they lacked the faux leather binding and preachy philosophy of the Artscroll books that would come along later, and at some point, orthodox congregations became too sophisticated for the old cloth-covered stand-by.

When I asked Shmuel why he was still using the Birnbaum when there were so many other choices out there, he just smiled and began flipping through the threadbare volume in front of him. Every few pages he stopped and showed me a page with a faint lipstick smudge near the top.

I didn't understand what he was trying to show me and watched as he thumbed past several more pages similarly marked with crimson smudges.

After a few moments of enjoying the obvious puzzlement on my face, he explained that this was a machzor from the synagogue in New Jersey where he had grown up. He told me that as a kid in that shul, he had watched the old ladies - many of them survivors of Hitler's Europe - praying with their own brand of devotion... and occasionally giving the pages a kiss before setting them down in their ample laps.

He explained that he still used the tattered old Birnbaum machzor instead of one of the many modern choices available in the Jewish bookstores, because it allowed him to spend a few moments of each Rosh Hashanah talking with the long-departed old ladies of his childhood memories.

How could he not gain strength from this machzor, he asked me, when any page turn might reveal some smudged token of old-world reverence for this threadbare volume and the words it contained?

Of all the things I saw and heard this year during Rosh Hashanah, this is the one that will stay with me this year.

Posted by David Bogner on September 12, 2010 | Permalink

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Awesome!!

Posted by: Hadassah | Sep 12, 2010 11:49:19 PM

The Birnbaum siddurim were not only great because of their utility, but because of their open, honest, and less edited translations of "racy" or "inappropriate" material. The Birnbaum siddur never tried to editorialize Shir HaShirim, or present the liturgy as saintly in its purity - it was obviously wonderful without any need to add commentary or explanation. All you had to do was talk to God, say the words, and there you were. There was no need to sanitize. And *that* is why I am always on the lookout for old Birnbaum editions. :)

Posted by: Tanya | Sep 13, 2010 1:28:38 AM

Of all of the things that I may merit in this coming year, I pray that I become as attentive to those blessings that we all are fortunate to encounter as you are.

Posted by: Kae Gregory | Sep 13, 2010 1:44:41 AM

We also had many of those elderly Holocaust survivors in my childhood shul in Brooklyn, and they would also kiss the pages of the machzor before setting it down. I can totally understand Shmuel's attachment to those machzorim.

Posted by: Raizy | Sep 13, 2010 1:46:40 AM

Beautiful post.

My grandfather was an avid collector of antique seforim.

On the Yamim Noraim he would always use an old machzor. When people would ask why he was using a 300 year old machzor, with none of the "yehi ratzons" and kabalistic prayers, with no translations, no commentary and no instructions, he would tell them that the tears on those old pages were way more powerful than any commentary or special usage of GD's name in a kabalistic prayer.

And he was right.

Posted by: E. Fink | Sep 13, 2010 2:35:05 AM

In my adolescence, as I'd help my late dad (the Shammos) tidy up the sanctuary, It seemed that every other machzor or siddur that we removed from the ladies section had crumpled Kleenex, listick stains at Aleinu or both. Great memories.

Posted by: Shmiel | Sep 13, 2010 3:02:28 AM

Great post!

It reminded me of a favorite machzor of mine, the machzor le'am yisrael. This machzor is not much to look at, it's diminutive (measures 5 1/4" by 3 1/2" and fits easily into a pocket), it isn't even my nusach (it is sefard), it's not old (published in 1973), not very pretty, is entirely in Hebrew, has no explanations, and barely has directions, but it was purchased by my father in Israel after our family moved there after the Yom Kippur war, and it's the machzor that we shared while living in the merkaz klita and waiting for the rest of our stuff to arrive from the USA. Somehow that makes it special to me.

Nowadays I use various machzorim including the blue Artscroll "standard" that is used in my shul, the red Birnbaum which is also used in my shul because we don't have enough Artscrolls yet, and certainly the Rödelheim in my nusach (Yekke), but I always carry the little Machzor le'Am Yisrael with me in my tallit bag. And for mincha/maariv, tashlich, and kiddush, it's in my pocket ready to go.

Here's a picture of my trusty little "pocket machzor".

E. Fink, I think what your grandfather did was great! Not only the tears providing power, but just the fact that it simply was used 300 years ago by Jews of that generation to say [mostly] the same tefillot that we say today provides a powerful sense of continuity and purpose to keep pushing that continuity out to the next generation and beyond!

Posted by: Mark | Sep 13, 2010 5:06:51 AM

More reasons I like the Birnbaum Machzor:
1. I like the Hebrew typeface. It's easier on the eyes than Artscroll's.
2. Philip Birnbaum had a brother who went by the name George Burns, of Burns and Allan fame.

Posted by: Barzilai | Sep 13, 2010 5:13:34 AM

Oh well, I'm a chain-breaker, but I've been giving all of my nieces and nephews the Koren set (with names on the covers) for their bar/bat mitzvas. This set http://tinyurl.com/2e5khmu. though in Sfard... I'm not wealthy with money and I am wealthy with nieces and nephews (the number is over 25...) and this is a nice set that's easy to daven from at an Israeli shul, while not being overly pricey.

Posted by: LeahGG | Sep 13, 2010 7:06:50 AM

This little story will stay with me as well.

G'mar chatima tovah: may you be sealed for a sweet, healthy year... for you, your family, and all of Israel.

Posted by: Elisson | Sep 13, 2010 7:31:20 AM

Thanks for sharing this beautiful story.
G'mar chatima tovah!
P.S.: Nowadays those who dislike Artscroll's preachy tone can turn to the Koren siddur.

Posted by: Ilana-Davitata | Sep 13, 2010 8:02:00 AM

How lovely - reverence is a very sweet thing, sweet for Rosh Hashanah. Thanks for the picture!

Posted by: Kiwi Noa | Sep 13, 2010 8:57:56 AM

Thank you for that great post; a beautiful thought that will endure for many years.

Posted by: Ellis | Sep 13, 2010 9:48:05 AM

What a lovely story. It reminds me of Rabbi Emanuel Feldman's story "God and Mrs. Cooperman," which you can read at Google Books (search for the title on Google).

Artscroll, by the way, used good ol' marketing to supplant Birnbaum. When their siddurim etc. first came out, they offered shuls big discounts if they'd send in their old Birnbaums. Business is business, even if Artscroll likes to portray itself as above such things. (There are rumors the cherem on R' Steinsaltz was engineered to benefit them; they're definitely trying something similar with the new Koren.)

Barzilai, I assume you're joking, but they weren't related at all. :-)

Posted by: Nachum | Sep 13, 2010 9:58:01 AM

I loved this post. It brings back the musty smell, of the old shuls, where the ladies pinched our cheeks and stuffed hard candies into our hands.

Posted by: RivkA | Sep 13, 2010 10:34:58 AM

Hadassah ... It was. I was there. :-)

Tanya... My favorite part of the Birnbaum siddur was its inclusion of an English translation of 'Megillat Hannukah', a much-debated work which is still part of the Italian and Yemenite liturgy on Hanukkah. Considering the scarcity of liturgical layers to add to the simple act of that holiday's candle-lighting, it seems odd that modern siddurim banish this megilla completely.

Kae Gregory ... I've learned a lot from watching Yonah count the money he has hoarded from gifts, tooth fairy donations and the like. When you don't have much to count, I guess you place a higher value on what you have. G-d, in his wisdom (to paraphrase Tevye) didn't burden me with monotary riches. So I hoard and cherish the gifts He does send my way.

Raizy... I used to be bothered by what I perceived as the empty piety of those who mechanically kiss mezuzas and other ritual items as they passed within arms reach. But then I realized that there are far worse habits one can get into. :-)

E. Fink... I wouldn't call the Birnbaum siddurim antiques (although the Jewish calendar in the back stops sometime in the 90s), but I know what you mean. I have a couple of old seforim that I bought at auction when a shul in Minnisota liquidated its library in order to buy new seforim. I look at those pages and wonder about the Jews who looked at them before me.

Shmiel ... I'd forgotten your father (A"H) was a Shammos. I'm glad I could be the catalyst for a fond memory for you... especially this year.

Mark ... Thanks for sharing the thoughts... and the picture.

Barzilai ... I find the typeface much easier to read as well. But there was no connection between George Burns and Phillip Birnbaum, except that they shared the same surname.

LeahGG... I was initially excited by the release of the Koren siddurim, but I find the typeface very distracting. Also, given that I prepare my morning coffee with a restored grinder from the early 1930s, you'll forgive me if I don't think all progress is necessarily a good thing. Sometimes you reach as close as you can to perfection... and from there you are simply moving further away from it.

Elisson ... I'm not sure why, but as I hit 'publish', I had a fleeting thought that you might enjoy this one. A sweet, happy, healthy and prosperous year to you and yours.

Ilana-Davitata... And may you and yours be inscribed and sealed for a good year. BTW, see my responses above regarding the Koren books.

Kiwi Noa... Don't thank me... I'm a giver. :-) L'Shana Tova!

Ellis... You know me... (see above) :-)

Nachum... I have less of a problem with Artscroll than I do with those who confuse the margin comments and footnotes in Artscroll books with the Shulchan Aruch.

RivkA... A lost world, to be sure.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Sep 13, 2010 12:35:46 PM

I think it was last Yom Kippur that I found a selichot in Yeshurun (Jerusalem) translated into German, circa 1925 or so. How the world changes...

Posted by: Nachum | Sep 13, 2010 2:41:02 PM

In our shul, we are still using the Birnbaum Machzorim. And the "newest" ones (that I have seen) have a calendar in the back that runs all the way through ... 2011.

G'mar Chatima Tovah!

Posted by: Drew | Sep 13, 2010 3:14:12 PM

I use the Artscroll Machzor that I received as a senior award from my high school back in the Mesozoic era of 1989. It was also the same award my father received in the same school some 25 years earlier. Its an award for service and education - something that is good to remember this time of year.

Posted by: Aharon | Sep 13, 2010 3:49:19 PM

beautiful!
brings back a lot of memories davening with my grandfather in upstate new york all those years.

Posted by: roberti | Sep 13, 2010 4:02:59 PM

Beautiful story, and one that I can relate to on many many levels. My shul still has a large number of Birnbaum siddurim. The only thing that Artscroll has over them, IMHO, is their printing of the shabbat leining, and perhaps a slightly more technical translation, for those who but want to understand a specific word, rather than a general phrase.

Paltiel Birnbaum is one of a number of Jewish scholars who is inexcusably unknown in modern times. If there were any intellectual honesty and historical appreciation left in the modern (or even "Modern" with a capital "M") American Orthodox world, his picture (along with those of Yehuda David Eisenstein, Rabbi Bernard Lander, and at least a half-dozen other lay and rabbinic scholars) would be displayed prominently in every home and school.

Posted by: efrex | Sep 13, 2010 5:12:58 PM

I checked, and I was wrong about the connection between George Burns and Paltiel Birnbaum. I was told this some years ago, and incorrectly assumed the person knew what he was talking about.

I have to say that having looked at his siddur again this morning, I was reminded of the graceful and informative manner he has in his translation and commentary.

Posted by: Barzilai | Sep 13, 2010 8:50:43 PM

Treppenwitz,

I remember the Birnbaum siddurim well. I still have the one I was given for my Bar Mitzvah in 1968 (although it is in "semi-retirement"--my wife has a fresher copy. And our shul used the Birnbaum machzor for the High Holy Days for years.

The shul has since switched to ArtScroll, which I also like. Interestingly enough, the shul still has some of the de Sola Pool siddurim we used to have before we switched to Artscroll. And I still see some people using them--I suppose they could even use the old Hertz chumashim (which I also got for my Bar Mitzvah) on the top shelf.

Posted by: sheldan | Sep 13, 2010 11:46:57 PM

Sheldan: The de Sola Pool siddur is a very well-intentioned effort, but unfortunately winds up being too stuffy for the moderns and too modern for the traditionalists, at least from my experience. There are some great things about it, though, including the most interesting (and, I would argue, accurate) translation that I've yet seen for talmud torah k'neged kulam. (de Sola Pool, btw, definitely fits in the list of leaders I referenced above).

The Hertz Chumash remains an incredibly underappreciated classic, and it would be lovely to have somebody produce an updated version.

Posted by: efrex | Sep 14, 2010 3:16:34 AM

Sheldan: The de Sola Pool siddur is a very well-intentioned effort, but unfortunately winds up being too stuffy for the moderns and too modern for the traditionalists, at least from my experience. There are some great things about it, though, including the most interesting (and, I would argue, accurate) translation that I've yet seen for talmud torah k'neged kulam. (de Sola Pool, btw, definitely fits in the list of leaders I referenced above).

The Hertz Chumash remains an incredibly underappreciated classic, and it would be lovely to have somebody produce an updated version.

Posted by: efrex | Sep 14, 2010 3:16:34 AM

I must disagree on the Hertz Chumash, which is a product of its times. In so many places, the notes explain or justify in the most unfortunate defensive or apologetic tone. A modern update would look very different.

Posted by: Drew | Sep 14, 2010 5:53:20 AM

I must disagree on the Hertz Chumash, which is a product of its times. In so many places, the notes explain or justify in the most unfortunate defensive or apologetic tone. A modern update would look very different.

Posted by: Drew | Sep 14, 2010 5:53:20 AM

Lovely post.
One of the few things I took from my parents' home when emptying it after their move to AZ was a set of machzorim with my father's name, written with a young steady hand.
Artscroll is rather brainwashing.
I loved the DeSola Pool Shabbat siddur. Mine disappeared.

Posted by: Batya | Sep 14, 2010 8:12:46 AM

Drew:

I agree that the Hertz is a product of its time, but, if anything, I find it very much NON-apologetic, although in a way that contemporary scholarship can not take seriously. A contemporary version should look very different, which is why I called for an "update" and not a "reprint."

The Hertz chumash includes a beautiful literary translation, references to a diverse spectrum of traditional and secular scholarly sources, and erudite essays written for a lay audience. I'm not aware of any contemporary publication which has anything close to that. I'm not going to jump on the "bash ArtScroll" bandwagon: their Hebrew typography is magnificent, and the Stone translation is about as technically excellent as one could want, but they cater to a reader with a very specific set of cultural views, deliberately ignoring a great deal of worthwhile scholarship from the non-yeshiva world.

Posted by: efrex | Sep 14, 2010 4:01:02 PM

We had those ladies in our shul as well. They would tuck their tissues into their watchbands and some of them would yell at us kids for running around during davening. Those were the days when our shul in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was packed to the gills on yom tov. Now the few that are there rattle around the huge sanctuary, as hoards of other groups bide their time, salivating to get their hands on the real estate....

Posted by: Baila | Sep 14, 2010 11:08:21 PM

"and the Stone translation is about as technically excellent as one could want, but they cater to a reader with a very specific set of cultural views, deliberately ignoring a great deal of worthwhile scholarship from the non-yeshiva world."

I hate the way the Stone Chumash when translating at times sticks in a midrash from Rashi as though it were in the text, and also how they completely leave out phrases they don't want to deal with. All translation is an interpretation, but give me as close to text with the interpretation on the side please.

I used a De Sola Pool Shearith Israel (Sephardi) siddur growing up and really disliked the non-literal translations that tried to turn a Hebrew poem into a tortured English one.

Posted by: Shoshana | Sep 15, 2010 5:59:59 AM

Efrex, Hertz didn't translate: His first (five volume) printing used the British Revised Version, presumably adapted for Jewish use- basically, the King James. The second, one volume printing, which is what (in the form of the second edition) everyone has these days, uses the old JPS translation, which is based on the King James as well.

There was a Hungarian version too, I think, and at least one volume of a Hebrew translation, without a translation of the text, of course.

The current Koren translation is an updated version of one of the 19th Century Jewish King James versions.

Posted by: Nachum | Sep 15, 2010 9:33:39 AM

Nachum: Yep, which is why in his commentary, he often offers a "better" translation of certain words or phrases. The point is that the translation itself is an aesthetically pleasing one, which serves as a worthwhile read on its own, not just a word-for-word translation.

Shoshana: I can't believe that I'm playing devil's advocate for ArtScroll here (next I'll be defending Cats against Sweeney Todd - not!), but interpolating midrash into the translation goes all the way back to the original Targum Onkelos (Off the top of my head: his interpolation of the word "yehudi" in Pharaoh's decree against all males, his translation of "k'li ish" to fit the talmudic explanation). ArtScroll has its agenda. It's quite open about it, and I can't blame them too much for following their perceived mandate.

I don't believe that the "poetic" translation of piyutim in the de Sola Pool were his - IIRC, they were mainly by Zangwill and Nina Salamon. In the intro to the siddur, I seem to recall him providing some apology for retaining them although they demonstrated that the translator took full liberty of his creative license. I get a big kick out of them, personally, but there's no question that they don't speak to someone who's even moderately Hebrew literate.

Posted by: efrex | Sep 15, 2010 8:23:58 PM

While I use Nusach Ashkenaz, my favorite translation has been that used in the Chabad prayerbooks (Nissan Mangel, translator). The language seems to be an modernized adaptation of the old Singer translation (UK). Birnbaum's is OK, too, but sometimes seems too streamlined.

As for ArtScroll, I like their explanatory notes and detailed instructions, whether or not I always hold as they do. The translation, though, makes the most sense for someone who doesn't understand the Hebrew, since it often parallels the structure of the Hebrew, which can make it flow less smoothly in English.

Posted by: Bob Miller | Sep 16, 2010 7:59:24 PM

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