If you’ve come here from the Jewniverse email that went out on 9.27.12, welcome!
Though the Jewniverse thing directed you here, I highly recommend just going straight over to my new blog, davidamwilensky.com. Everything from this blog, including this very post, is there too!
You could pretty easily divide the world of benchers into two categories. On the one hand, there are totally perfunctory versions that exist as a mere vehicle for what their editors consider a fixed collection of blessings and prayers and a smattering of songs. On the other hand, there are a few benchers that are not mere vehicles for your embossed name and the date of your wedding, bris, bar mitzvah, or whatever. These are generally more liberal in their attitude toward the content and tend to contain some amount of commentary.
Yedid Nefesh, a new bencher from Joshua Cahan, a rabbi from the Conservative tradition, falls into the latter category.
The bencher itself has a larger page size and ends up a tad thicker than your average bencher, but not so big that it becomes useless as a highly portable collection of songs and blessings. The page size is larger to accommodate Hebrew text, translation, transliterations and a lot of original commentary from Cahan himself, which far exceeds the bits of commentary and functional instructions that normally permeate a bencher.
Most interesting to me, as a self-proclaimed cataloger of liberal liturgies, is that the bencher proclaims itself to be egalitarian. According to the YN website, this means that “in some places additions or alternatives are provided that counter some of the gender imbalance of the traditional texts.” Unfortunately, these attempts are marred by the usual Conservative discomfort with doing that. For instance, on page 15, in the middle of the Birkat Hamazon, we get this:
…our ancestors (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah,) Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…
The Talmud does not present a fixed text for Birkat Hamazon. Rather, it describes the basic themes of the four blessings and notes key terms that must be included in each. The length of the text that developed around those themes has led scholars in many generations to compose shortened versions which pare back the text to its original components.