As we celebrate religious liberty in the first full day of Hanukkah, let’s recall why religion is worth liberating in the first place. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, the most powerful answer I’ve heard to that question, this fall, came from today’s guest in our weekly Conversation series: Dinah Berland, the poet whose own life was transformed recently by her loving adaptation for modern readers of the 19th Century “Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women.” In 1855, it became the first full-length book of Jewish prayers written by a woman for women—and it remained a best-seller across Europe for nearly a century.
Until the Holocaust, that is, which brings us to the story that began our Conversation With Dinah. Our exchange actually began in emails sent to me by Dinah, following a positive review we published about “Hours of Devotion.”
In one note, she told me a haunting, true story.
Dinah’s email began with these words: “Since the book was published, I’ve spoken with a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor, Edith, who lived near the town where Fanny lived …”
For a moment, step back in time with me to picture the situation involving Edith as a young woman:
In the darkest days of the Holocaust, the Nazis came for this young woman, who already was half starved and battered by the horrors of one concentration camp. From that first camp, Theresienstadt, they herded her into a suffocating crowd of men, women and children who were packed into a railroad car like a load of freight. All of them were bound for one of the ultimate destinations in those years: Auschwitz.
If you were that young woman, clutching desperately for the last vestiges of humanity, what final keepsake would have been in your hands that day? A worn family photograph? A piece of jewelry? A tightly folded letter?
What Edith had protected miraculously through her imprisonment at Theresienstadt and then onto the Auschwitz train was her beloved, German-language copy of “Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers.”
Much, much later, the train rattled to a stop, the doors crashed open, harsh light flooded into the car’s darkness and soldiers barked orders — the moment that, for so many, heralded the end.
Edith continued to clutch her prayer book.
In Dinah’s email, she told me what happened to Edith on the infamous selection platform at Auschwitz: “When the soldiers pushed her from the train, they knocked the prayer book out of her hand.”
Think about that prayer book and the thin hand that had clutched it.
Remember that image.
Whatever our faith may be, at the core of our lives we nurture yearnings for love and purpose. Arising from that spiritual core is the hope that—despite all of the signs to the contrary that we encounter each day — we will be able, somehow, to share our love and purpose with others.
Edith’s hand clutched her symbol of those hopes.
The good news is that she survived Auschwitz and later was able to start a new life in the U.S. She even found another one of the now-rare copies of Fanny Neuda’s book to accompany her into her new life.
Dinah’s email concluded that she has found Edith’s home address and: “I’m hoping to travel there in the near future to interview her further.”
Wouldn’t you want to meet this woman, too? Wouldn’t you simply want to sit quietly and hear her tell her whole story? Well, perhaps Dinah will write further about the enduring impact of Fanny Neuda’s work. Perhaps Dinah will include in that next book an account of her visit to Edith’s home.
Right now, Dinah also is searching through global archives and databases to find any direct descendants of Neuda who are alive today. The name was pronounced like Sigmund Freud’s last name with an added “ah” sound at the end.
Think further about the image of the prayer book and that thin hand. Don’t we all clutch at something transcendent in our lives? We’re all fascinated, I think, by stories about the ways we choose to reach out. In those stories, we find our own spiritual connections.
So, I knew that you all would want to hear more from Dinah about her own reasons for grabbing hold of Fanny Neuda’s book. I telephoned her office at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where she works as a book editor.
DAVID: Thank you for emailing me about Edith’s story. I can’t get it out of my mind.
DINAH: It’s powerful. And the way I found her was astonishing, too. When the book was finished, I was making arrangements to go back to my own hometown in Wisconsin: Milwaukee. I wanted to bring this book there to my hometown. When I called the current rabbi of the synagogue I had attended as a child to tell him that I was coming, he said: “My wife’s family is from Lostice.”
DAVID: Say the town’s name again. How is that pronounced?
DINAH: It’s in Czech and it sounds like this: lowsh and then TEACH-ah. And, hearing that his wife’s family was from Lostice was just amazing to me! I told him, “I can’t believe this. You’re the rabbi of my childhood synagogue and you’re telling me your wife’s family is from Fanny Neuda’s town?”
Today, there are no Jews left in Lostice, although the synagogue there is preserved. I was very curious about that, when I visited the Czech Republic to see the Lostice synagogue. Why are so many Christian people there so interested in preserving Jewish history? I wondered if it was maybe a curiosity like we’re curious, as Americans, about Native Americans.
But what I discovered was that it goes deeper than that in this area that has suffered so much. Czech people I met talk about how much they have suffered, too, under domination for so many years in the war and later under the Communists.
I began to realize that, in effect, some people there have this feeling about the Jewish experience in that part of the world that it reflects their own suffering under totalitarian regimes. This helps them sympathize with the Jewish people and this is the way they connect with Jewish history.
DAVID: And your hometown rabbi’s wife’s family was from this specific region, this specific town where Fanny was the rabbi’s wife in the mid 19th Century?
DINAH: Yes, and when I spoke to the rabbi’s wife in Milwaukee, she said: “You need to speak to my mother.”
DAVID: And her mother turned out to be Edith.
DINAH: Yes. She’s 92, but she has an amazing memory. I sent her a copy of a booklet I had picked up in the Czech Republic in this little town of Lostice from the organization that preserves the Jewish history there. This booklet had a picture on the front of it and it listed names of people who lived in the town.
When I sent a copy of the booklet to Edith, she called me and left a voice message: “I received your package and … and on the cover of the booklet is a picture of my grandfather’s 70th birthday and there is my grandfather, my mother and all of my mother’s six siblings. Wherever did you get this picture? All of these people were lost in the Holocaust.”
She told me about her copy of Fanny’s prayer book.
DAVID: And how it was lost at Auschwitz. Remarkable connections. Even the photo on a brochure in Eastern Europe that found its way back to Edith through you.
Holocaust survivors cherish family photos from before the war, because so many of their family photographs were lost. Over the years, I have interviewed survivors who have painstakingly assembled photo albums of relatives lost in the Holocaust from a whole host of friends, researchers, groups and archives.
And you, without knowing it, suddenly returned a long-lost photo to Edith.
DINAH: There are so many unexpected connections that I’ve made through working on this book that are just amazing to me.
DAVID: I love the story about your reunion with your adult son, after many years totally separated from him. In the book, you describe it as a direct result of the whole new world of religious reflections that blossomed around you as you explored this old book.
What can we tell readers about this separation?
DINAH: I went through a very difficult divorce and my son, who was in his 20s at the time, made a choice that he felt he had to make. It led to our not speaking to each other for quite a long time. But I don’t think it was out of any anger toward me, because we had been very very close. It was a feeling that he needed to be loyal to his father in this great polarizing divorce that had occurred. I know it was a difficult choice for him and it was something that he later regretted.
It went on for 11 years. For quite a long time, I didn’t even know where he was.
DAVID: You describe in your Preface to the book that, as you began to read the prayers in the book, some of them became daily prayers for you. And, you were particularly drawn to a prayer that Fanny wrote, called “A Mother’s Prayer for a Child Who Is Abroad.”
You write in the Preface: “I was stunned to discover that someone had actually written a prayer for a woman whose child was absent from her life, a woman like me. … I felt, at last, that someone understood both my pain and my hope.”
Mmmm. Powerful words to read.
And, it illustrates so well the power of the spiritual connections we can make through our faith — and how far we can reach to make those connections. In that prayer, you were reaching all the way back, more than a century, to share in a prayer with this woman, Fanny Neuda, from a town half a world away from where you work in Los Angele.
And, at the same time, you were starting to reach out to your son.
DINAH: I had always hoped for a reunion. I always thought to myself that, well, if he meets a wonderful woman someday, she’ll ask him: “Where is your mother? Where are your sisters?” He had pulled away from all of us. I always hoped.
DAVID: Then, I love the way you describe your approach to your son. You were planning a birthday party for your own father in Milwaukee. And, even though people were warning you against even trying to reach your son, again, you didn’t follow their advice.
You decided to give it one more try. You addressed an invitation to the party to your son. There was so much happening in your life, at that time. You were becoming more involved in the Jewish community. That same day you addressed the invitation and sent it off — in what people were telling you was a hopeless act — you say it was the same day you finally joined a temple.
Things were coming together in your life.
DINAH: My son surprised me. He called and said he would come.
DAVID: And you write that the first spontaneous words out of your mouth to him had this phrase in it: “This is an answer to prayer.”
But here’s the part of your story that I’ll remember a long time. You said, thinking back, that the actual prayer was the action you took in mailing him the invitation. You write, “The very act of sending that invitation was a form of prayer.”
That phrase stays with me: “The very act of sending that invitation …” You were reaching out.
Your Preface in many ways is as powerful as the prayerbook itself.
DINAH: It’s wonderful to talk to you about these things. Because, I have this same feeling about these things.
Since the book has been published, people ask me, “How can this book from the 19th Century be useful to people today?”
And I tell them: “We all suffer loss. We all have a need to connect. These are inner human needs.”
Last night, I was speaking at an event for Jewish librarians in Los Angeles and, because we’d just had a new moon, I read the prayer from Fanny’s book about a new moon. It’s a marvelous extended metaphor on how the moon can represent so many phases in our lives. Fanny was a wonderful writer.
DAVID: In the prayer, the image of the moon almost comes alive as an expression of God’s Creation. Yes, it’s a great example of her work.
DINAH: What’s so marvelous about prayer, I’ve discovered, is that it allows us to leap across time and culture.
We’ll close today’s Conversation with those last words from Dinah — and, then, a few lines from the “New Moon” prayer, written more than 150 years ago by a wise woman, reflecting on the Psalms and signs — like the moon — that are so close at hand in the Creation:
To the unfortunate, the moon says:
Poor heart, do not dwell on your suffering.
Do not bemoan the gloom and fogginess of your path
Or how your life has become as dark as night.
Look at me! Your fortunes can’t be gloomier
Or more difficult than my own waning light was
But a few short days ago — and look now!
Already you can see me shining above you.
So, too, your fortune will shift.
Grief is not permanent. …
Soon the Eternal One will let you shine once more
In the brilliance of divine mercy.
Soon the Eternal One will guide you
Out of darkness and into the light.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.