Archives for December 2007

Interview with Dinah Berland on ‘Hours of Devotion’


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, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

053: Tuesday Quiz: Hanukkah Lights!

HAPPY HANUKKAH! This is the 2nd of 5 Hanukkah stories.
Click here to read: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

riends, here’s our holiday dilemma! To mark the start of Hanukkah tonight, should our Tuesday Quiz be tough enough so that our Jewish readers will feel challenged — or should we offer this quiz for our non-Jewish readers, so they will enjoy learning more about their Jewish friends, neighbors and co-workers?
    Well, we’ve opted for the latter course. If you’re Jewish, please know that we’re honoring you by trying to spread the light with today’s quiz.
    TODAY, we’ve got 10 questions, drawing on details from “The Jewish Book of Why,” a popular reference book for more than 25 years, and also Wikipedia’s extensive articles on Jewish customs.
     INTRIGUED by today’s subject? Well, click on the cover of “The Jewish Book of Why,” and you’ll jump to our bookstore where you can pick up a copy. You’ll be looking at the Jewish Library, which we described in Monday’s story. I can tell you that in 25 years at the Detroit Free Press, I always had a handy copy of this quick-reference guidebook on my desk — so it’s a particularly good choice for non-Jews among the more than a dozen books in the recommended Jewish Library.


    1.) Why is the word Hanukkah spelled so many different ways?

    2.) How many candles or oil lamps stand in a common Hanukkah menorah?

    3.) Do Jews stay home from work or school during Hanukkah?

    4.) The story of Hanukkah doesn’t appear in the Bible, but there are books closely related to the observance that appear in the Catholic Bible and the Protestant Apocrypha. What books are these?

    5.) One popular story traditionally told about Hanukkah is that, when the desecrated Temple was recaptured by Jewish forces, only a tiny bit of sacred oil was found. However, this tiny amount of oil miraculously burned for eight days. Among other stories told about Hanukkah’s eight days are:
    A. The original Hanukkah festival actually may have been a harvest festival that the faithful had missed that year, so they celebrated it to mark the Temple’s liberation.
    B. Seven is the number of days in the Creation story and eight, then, would represent the Infinite nature of God. So, Hanukkah’s eight nights remind us of God’s unsearchable grandeur.
    C. Both have been told.

    6.) Can electric lamps be used instead of candles or oil?

    7.) How many branches were there on the ancient Temple menorah that was carried off by the Romans in the year 70 — and that appears today on Israel’s Coat of Arms?

    8.) Why are the Hanukkah candles used on Friday evenings sometimes bigger than those used on other nights?

    9.) Why do Jewish families enjoy foods like potato pancakes and jelly donuts during Hanukkah?

    10.) How is this year’s Hanukkah stamp different — and similar to — previous holiday stamps?

    When you think you’ve got all the answers, CLICK on the link below in the online version of this
quiz, and the ANSWERS will pop up!

    Ready? CLICK for the ANSWERS below …


1.) Because all of the English spellings of the word are transliterations, attempts at approximating the sound of the Hebrew. There are at least a dozen alternate spellings in English. Many place a “Ch” at the beginning of the word in an attempt to evoke a sound like the “ch” in the Scottish word, “Loch.”

    2.) Nine. There are eight candles or lamps for the eight nights of the Festival of Lights, but there is a ninth candle, called the Shamash (“servant”). The Shamash is used to light the other candles.

    3.) No, it is OK to work and attend classes. Hanukkah historically was considered a minor religious festival, although it has taken on more significance in the past century.

    4.) Maccabbees. Catholic Bibles and the Apocrypha contain 1 and 2 Maccabbees. Other ancient Bibles, including those used in the Orthodox Christian world, contain 3 and 4 Maccabbees.

    5.) C. Judaism invites rich reflections on symbols, rituals, stories and customs — always looking for fresh ways to draw spiritual insights from traditions.

    6.) Sure. Most Jews would agree that electric lamps are fine in places where flames would be a bad idea.

    7.) Only seven. The instructions for making this particular menorah appear in the 25th chapter of Exodus, which includes the words: “You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. … You shall make the seven lamps for it.”

    8.) Observant Jewish families would not light candles after the Sabbath begins, but they want to be sure that the Hanukkah candles provide at least a half an hour of light in the darkness. Many common brands of Hanukkah candles are small and burn out in about half an hour. So, often, bigger candles are a Sabbath solution.

    9.) Because they are fried in oil, a reminder of a central symbol in the holiday story.

    10.) The U.S. Postal Service apparently loved their earlier design for a Hanukkah stamp, featuring a colorful dreidel. So, this year’s stamp is virtually identical to earlier versions — except that this year it has been upgraded with a 41-cent designation. (We have reproduced the older and the new stamps below.)


How’d you do?
    Remember — if
you enjoyed this week’s
quiz, you can print it, reprint it or email the entire text it to a friend. We
only ask that you credit the quiz to “David Crumm” and
“” (If you’re new to ReadTheSpirit, we often run
quizzes on Tuesdays and you can quickly find our past quizzes by
finding the “Categories” area on our Web site and clicking on the
“Tuesday Quiz” category!)

    Tell us what you think. Click Here to email me, David Crumm, or leave a Comment for other readers on our site.

    AND: COME BACK TOMORROW for a remarkable Conversation With Dinah Berland about recovering a beloved Jewish prayer book from the shadows of history.

(Images of stamps are © 2007 USPS. All Rights Reserved.)

052: What are you reading for Hanukkah?

HAPPY HANUKKAH! This is the 1st of 5 Hanukkah stories.
Click here to read: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

If you’ve visited the Hanukkah series from our Christmas series and want to jump back to the 7 stories of Christmas, click here.

    “What else can we do to build bridges?”
    That’s the question that peace activist Brenda Rosenberg asks herself every day –- and, from our perspective here at ReadTheSpirit, that alone is an inspiring personal story to hear on the eve of Hanukkah.
    We’ll tell you more about Brenda’s work –- but, first, a word about Hanukkah:

    The Festival of Lights starts at sundown Tuesday evening. It’s considered a minor celebration in the Jewish calendar, but it has taken on much greater significance in the 20th Century for a couple of reasons:

    One reason is practical: Hanukkah sometimes is lifted up as a Jewish alternative to the Christmas season –- a time for Jewish children to receive year-end gifts and a time for neighbors and co-workers to exchange year-end holiday greetings in a religiously diverse way. Retailers have jumped onto the diversity bandwagon in recent years, as we all can see this time of year.
    It’s the second reason that’s more important to us: Hanukkah is a celebration of religious liberty and the freedom to fully proclaim one’s religious identity in the world. The story from more than 2,000 years ago, in a nutshell, is that Judaism was threatened with extinction by a ruthless ruler. This ruler was forcefully replacing Jewish religious practices and culture with Greek-inspired culture. Judaism itself was endangered.
    Finally, a brave band of Jewish loyalists reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem and re-lit the temple lights. Not only was this a heroic moment for religious freedom –- but, as Christians and Muslims, if the story of Hanukkah had not unfolded, then we wouldn’t have had an environment for Jesus to emerge eventually -– as a savior for Christians and as a great prophet for Muslims.
    So, as Christians and Muslims, we’ve actually got a tiny share in this traditional Jewish celebration, as well.
    AND, hopefully, whatever our faith may be, we all can agree that the world is a better place when we are free to express ourselves religiously. That’s the basic message celebrated in this holiday season today.
    It was true thousands of years ago. And it’s profoundly true now.

hat brings us back to Brenda Rosenberg’s story, because all of Brenda’s work is focused on shaping our various religious expressions to build stronger communities, not to destroy them.
    Her latest idea –- which she developed with the Michigan Chapter of the American Jewish Committee –- is shaping up as a tremendous pilot program that could be picked up by communities all across the U.S. and, potentially, around the world.
    It’s called Building Bridges Through Books.
    Now, as the founding Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I have to say: I know! I know! That sounds like our motto at ReadTheSpirit — building bridges through books!

    But, Brenda has a fresh approach to this idea. She has raised money to purchase sets of books (she refers to this as “a small Jewish library”) that she presents to Muslim leaders who welcome this addition to their congregational libraries.
    This is a natural bridge to build -– because Islam has a rich tradition in the literary arts. Islamic book design and calligraphy always rank among the world’s cultural treasures in any complete overview of world history. Even if we are not Muslim ourselves, we collectively have Muslim scholars to thank, some centuries ago, for preserving major portions of our human knowledge in books about about math, science, geography and other disciplines.
    So, building a bridge by giving Jewish books to a people steeped in the rich heritage of the literary arts –- well, it’s a brilliant connection to make.

This isn’t the only thing Brenda does –- and this is another reason that she represents an important spark of light in the interfaith realm.
    “The reason that I ask myself that question about building bridges every single day is this: There’s never one answer to bringing peace and understanding into our world,” Brenda told me in an interview about her book program.
    “People’s hearts are opened in different ways,” she said. “Some people find it very easy to do service projects together like building for Habitat for Humanity or feeding the hungry. Other people like to study together and find their real connections through scholarship. Other people connect through the arts. Others like to talk face to face with another person.
    “Not too many people want to do all of those things. So, we need to find lots of different strategies to connect people.”
    And these libraries of Jewish books –- just waiting there on the shelves of Muslim centers for people to thumb through the books and learn about Judaism at their own pace –- is a great new strategy.

    If you want to see this collection of books, we have gathered most of the titles in our online bookstore. Here’s how to browse that area of our store: CLICK on the book covers (above) and you’ll jump to the Jewish Library within our store.   

    ALSO –- Throughout this week, as Hanukkah starts, we’ll be celebrating Jewish faith and culture. Later this month, we’ll be celebrating Christmas on ReadTheSpirit, as well.
    And -– in January –- do not miss our special month-long series –- and our first book published by ReadTheSpirit — in the 1st Annual National Interfaith Heroes Month! It’s January 1 through 31, 2008, and you won’t want to miss this historic observance!

We always want to know what you think. Leave a comment with this story (if you’re reading this via our free daily Email service, click on the headline and you’ll find a “comment” link at the bottom of this story on our Web site). Or, you can Click Here to email me directly.

Happy Hanukkah!