Dinah Berland: For Yom Kippur, “righteous” reflections from a great historical quest

This year, poet Dinah Berland is in the midst of one of the great spiritual quests of our era.
Within a few years, when her historical investigations are complete, I’m sure we’ll all be talking about her best-selling memoir of tracking down the full story of Fanny Neuda, the first woman to create a prayer book for Jewish women in Europe more than 100 years ago.
So far, Berland has recovered, revised and republished a wonderful new edition of Fanny’s prayerbook for English-language readers. Here at ReadTheSpirit, we’ve heard from Jewish and non-Jewish readers who find Fanny’s prayer book inspiring. (Click on the book cover below to read more and buy a copy if you wish — plus you’ll find more links to Dinah’s work at the end of today’s story.)
For Yom Kippur, which begins this evening, we invited Dinah to update us on her global quest in search of Fanny’s story. In place of a customary Q-and-A Conversation today, Dinah speaks to us directly in this letter. The following are Dinah’s words:

I‘ve just returned from a quest to trace Fanny Neuda’s footsteps through northern Italy, Vienna, and the Czech Republic. I’ve come back filled with fascinating stories. Plus, I’ve returned with a heightened sense of gratitude and appreciation for all the incredibly generous people in those countries who are not Jewish themselves — but who devote their lives to Jewish history, tradition, and ideas.
Much has been written about the “righteous ones” who helped save the lives of countless Jews during the Holocaust while risking their own lives. The current generation of righteous ones is a much less obvious or well-defined group — not compelled by historical crisis or moral necessity but solely by the desire to preserve the memory of the Jewish people, who lived in peace and cooperation with their Christian neighbors for many centuries.

What would motivate them in this way?
I had this question in mind when I first met Professor Josef Blaha, a writer, translator, and professor of Jewish history at the University of Prague. Although not Jewish himself, Prof. Blaha teaches visiting American students (including my own niece a few years ago) about Jewish literature and philosophy. Prof. Blaha became interested in Judaism as a boy, when his grandfather would say positive things about the Jews, and Josef began to wonder who these people really were, what they believed and thought.
On my last trip, I posed my query to Olga Sixtova, a young curator and editor at the Jewish Museum in Prague. Ms. Sixtova is also not Jewish but was spending all her time producing exhibitions and editing books on Jewish subjects. She told me that she had become interested in Jewish life and culture in high school, when she learned about the Holocaust.
Neither of these answers completely satisfied me. Were the Czechs I met simply curious about Jews in the same way that some Americans are fascinated by the “exotic” cultures of Native Americans, or did they feel some deeper connection?
Then, in 2006, I met Ludek Stipl, an art historian and conservator from Lostice, Czech Republic (formerly Loschitz, Austria), who directs Respect and Tolerance, a foundation dedicated to the preservation of Jewish history in the area.
Fanny Neuda lived in Lostice in the 1850s, when she wrote her prayer book, Hours of Devotion, the first full-length book of prayers by a Jewish woman for women. The book became a best seller, published in 28 editions in German, and translated into Yiddish and English. My modern English version — “Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayer for Jewish Women” (Shocken, 2007) — includes a great deal of research and information that Mr. Stipl and his colleagues were extremely generous in sharing with me. That includes a trip to the very synagogue where Fanny Neuda, wife of the rabbi of Lostice, was inspired to write her prayers. I promised I would return to Lostice after my book was published, which was the initial impetus for this year’s trip.

When I first met Mr. Stipl, he told me his own story — how the Czech lands were occupied first by the Nazis and then by the Communists. When the Communists announced that they were his “masters,” he decided that he had to leave. This story suggested an answer that made sense: The Czechs had been oppressed by the Nazis — not to the same extent as the Jews had been, but oppressed nonetheless. This devastation was almost immediately followed by Communist control. So, I realized, the plight of the Jews in that area  represented, in a very real sense, the suffering of the Czech people in general. Many Czechs — certainly those non-Jews whose lives are dedicated to Jewish history and education — understand and empathize with the suffering of the Jewish people because they themselves suffered under the domination of cruel regimes.
Just last week — over a dinner of trout, potatoes, fried “smelly” cheese (a regional dish), and Czech beer — I asked Ludek Stipl to tell my companion and I how he managed to flee. Ludek was a young husband and father at the time, he told us, and he tried not one but three times to get his family out. The first time, he was supposed to pick up tickets to Canada sent by a friend, but the plan failed because of a tragically missed connection, and he returned home. The second effort failed because his passport was confiscated and a ship captain who had agreed to transport the family to Italy, backed out. Again he returned home.
Finally, after several more years of hard work in Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, his work supervisor gave him permission to travel to an educational seminar in Italy, but only by himself. Ludek convinced the man that he could be trusted to take his family on a short vacation, and the third time was the charm. From Italy, he was able to escape to Canada. For twenty years, Ludek Stipl lived and completed his education there, only returning to Lostice in 2002, at almost exactly the same the time that I had begun working on Hours of Devotion — a book that survived two world wars and traveled over land and sea to begin a new life in America.

As a post-script to this tale of escape and survival, I met one more non-Jewish person on my journey whose work is focused on Jewish life — Dr. Rosanna Pruccoli, an Italian historian of 19th-century Jewish women’s history. Dr. Pruccoli lives and works in Merano, Italy (formerly Meran, Austria), the spa town in which Fanny Neuda died in 1894. Merano, with its blossom-scented air, profuse gardens, brilliant blue skies, and forested peaks is so beautiful that we decided to stay there an extra day. This gave us time to visit the town’s synagogue — the only one in the region — and its fascinating museum that commemorates a Jewish community that extends back to the 14th century.
Perhaps on this Yom Kippur, as the Gates begin to close and we hear (or only imagine) the clarion call of the shofar — we can pause to think about what the Holy One calls us to do and we can remember Hillel’s essential questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
May this season be a sweet one, and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and fruitful year.

READ OUR REVIEW — AND PURCHASE A COPY: Click on this link and you’ll jump to our ReadTheSpirit bookstore. You may also find other books and voices that will interest you. Click here and you’ll visit another section of our bookstore — a Jewish library list recommended by a number of groups.
HERE’S OUR ORIGINAL CONVERSATION WITH DINAH BERLAND: We first featured an in-depth look at Dinah’s work during Hanukkah last year.
PASSOVER REFLECTIONS AND A SAMPLE PRAYER: We checked in again with Dinah at Passover and we also shared a sample of one of Fanny’s prayers as recovered and reworked for contemporary readers by Dinah.

Today’s photos were provided by Dinah. In addition to the book cover, we have:
A stained glass window, showing the blowing of the shofar, from the synagogue in Merano, Italy.
Ludek Stipl, director of Respect and Tolerance, in the Usov Synagogue, which his foundation has helped to restore.
And, finally, the Merano synagogue, which is located in the town where Fanny Neuda died (but was built there a few years later).

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(Published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)

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