A Week of Things I Like, Day 3: Old Wilensky Family Siddurim

I was at home in Austin for a week and a half and I came back with an extra suitcase–full of siddurim! What could be better? My mother is clearing some stuff out of her place so she asked me to take some things off her hands.

These books were all–with one exception–deposited with her over the course of several visits to my paternal grandparents’ house after she had announced she was going to convert. My grandpa, Sol Wilensky, was so excited about it that he would give her a book or two every time my parents visited.

These pictures were all taken with my new Canon Rebel T2i, a delightful graduation gift from my dad. I like it–and him–also.

Let’s go exploring….

This first one is the only one that’s not from my grandpa. According to a stamp on the inside cover, this one was once a part of the library of the religious school of the synagogue I grew up at, Congregation Beth Israel. It’s a 1976 publication of the Union of the American Hebrew Congregations (now known as the Union for Reform Judaism). It came out a year after Gates of Prayer, so my guess is that it was intended to help familiarize Reform Jews with Big Blue’s view of the liturgy. On the other hand, it’s not actually by GOP‘s editor, Chaim Stern, who wrote his own commentary to GOP (called Gates of Understanding), so who knows. Unlike, Understanding, this one is clearly aimed at kids.

The page on wearing talit is telling glimpse of the Reform movement in that moment in history:


In the past it was only the men who wore the talit. The reason for this may have been that only the men were obligated to pray three times a day…. This may explain why it became  custom for only men to wear the talit. There is, however, nothing in Jewish law which prohibits a woman from wearing the talit.

What do you think? Should both men and women “dress up” for worship by wearing a talit? Do you find it meaningful to wear best clothes to synagogue? Is there a benefit to “dressing up” for special occasions? …. Discuss some of these questions with friends, the rabbi and cantor, and with adults in your congregation. The differences is opinion might make an interesting debate.

In that period, your average Reform rabbi was just as likely to tell you that no one should wear a talit as he was to tell you women should wear them.

When I got these books over to my dad’s place from my mom’s, he immediately identified this Siddur Meforash: A Prayer Book With Explanatory Notes as the siddur he was required to get for religious school at Shearith Israel, the Conservative congregation his family belonged to. It’s a combination siddur and textbook, a precursor to Shema is for Real, if you will. He can remember being miffed at the time that he had to lug it with him to religious school each week, but they rarely actually used it.

I included this image, from Siddur Meforash, because it mentioned Rabbi Chaim Brecher, though this volume was compiled by Rabbi Ralph De Koven, listed below Brecher. More on Brecher later.

Here’s the illustration on the cover:

This yellow ribbon is taped to the inside front cover of the siddur, to be used as a bookmark. I’m amused because it’s affixed to the book in the exact same way that I put book marks on some of my most often used siddurim. I’m also amused by the title of this section, “Prayers Before Retiring.” I’m also amused that this is the page that’s bookmarked–the notion that my dad was ever in the habit of saying his prayers before bed seems entirely unbelievable to me.

My dad also identified this little white book as having been his. It’s a bencher.

You may notice that Rabbi Chaim Brecher appears here as well, this time as Rabbi Ch. M. Brecher. He had his hand in the editing of many of Ktav products in those days, it seems.

Now that I have this bencher, along with the next book in the post, I finally have some that are examples of prefixing Birkat Hamazon with Al Naharot Bavel, as we discussed in the comments on this post.

Another bencher

My dad didn’t have any recollections about this on, but at least we know where it came from.

I’ve always found it kind of funny to translate Birkat Hamazon as Grace After Meals, but this is just hysterical.

And here’s Al Naharot Bavel again, prefixed on to Birkat Hamazon for weekdays. I wonder if it was more common in the earlier half of the 20th Century?

This is from the back of a very decrepit bencher-sized booklet of prayers for mourners. The back has this appendix of pages where different deceased family members could be filled in, according to your relations to them. I imagine these were probably given out by funeral homes in those days. This one is from the death of my great grandfather, Sam Wilensky. It says “Who departed this Life at the age of 42 On May 22, 1933.” And check out this transliteration: “Jahrzeit!”

Though I couldn’t capture this aspect very well in the photo, this Bride’s Prayer Book has a cover made of a pearlescent opaque plastic. It also has a rather ecclesiatically purple bookmark ribbon built in. I suppose it was a gift to my grandmother, Ann Wilensky.

And guess who edited it?

Rabbi Chaim M. Brecher strikes again!

Then there’s this delightfully tacky little gem:

It’s a siddur in a plastic box!

Turn it over and…

The bottom of the plastic box is clear, so you can see the polished metal back cover of the siddur.

But nothing compares to the grandeur of the front cover once you open the box:

It seems this one was a souvenir from Israel, given to my grandparents by an aunt and uncle who had just traveled to Israel.

Presented to Ann & Sol as a memento of our trip to Israel.

Nov 1969

Aunt Cele & Uncle Sam

According to my dad, Cele’s most (in)famous quality was how little use she had for clergy. Rabbis and cantors, according to her: “They’re all ganefs!” (From the Yiddish for thief, rascal, scoundrel, etc.)

And that brings us to my favorite from this collection:

This siddur, according to both of my parents, was the one that my grandpa used around the house for kiddush and that sort of thing.

You can tell what it was used for:

My grandpa had marked the page for Friday night Kiddush with a paperclip because that’s what he most often used it for.

One particularly odd feature of this siddur is this transliteration of Mourner’s Kaddish. It was typical already in this period for siddurim to be printed with a transliteration of large portions of Aramaic like Kaddish Yatom in the back, but this transliteration “To be read from right to left.” If you look carefully, you’ll see that the English letters arranged left to right within each word, but the each word is printed directly under the Hebrew word it corresponds to!

It’s remarkable that it was in regular use well into my life, given its age. It’s unclear how long he had it, but it was published in 1924, when he was 8:

It’s possible that it belonged to my great grandmother:

The cursive here says “Mrs. S. Wilensky,” which could refer to my grandmother or to my great grandmother, both of whom were married S. Wilenskys, but my dad thinks the handwriting resembles my grandmother, Ann.

At first, the significance of the date December 17, 1892, written on the inside front cover as shown above, was unclear. But then I found this:

This is a list of birth dates of a bunch of Stillmans, my paternal grandfather’s mother’s side. (Dad, correct me if I’m wrong on that one.) So here we can see that December 17, 1892, our mystery date from above, is the birth date of Sarah Stillman, who I believe is my paternal grandfather’s mother. (Again, Dad, correct me if I’m wrong.)

Why there’s a list of birth dates written well after all these people were dead, I don’t know.

The inside back cover of the book, with the list of Stillman birth dates clipped on the right:

On the right, he clipped a little supplement of Chanukah material:

Notice how he has put a big H next to the Hebrew and a big G next to the English. This must be from a Chanukah spent with them before my mother converted. The G indicated that she, Glenda, was to read the English and the H indicated that he, Harold, was to read the Hebrew.

I leave you with a final image of it:


14 responses to “A Week of Things I Like, Day 3: Old Wilensky Family Siddurim

  1. Great stuff! Looking again at the inside back cover of your grandfather’s siddur, I think the Mrs S. Wilensky referred to there is your great-grandmother Sarah. Although the “W” is very similar to your grandmother’s (Ann) handwriting, the “y” is very different. So I deduce this must be Sarah’s.

    And yes, the list of names and birthdays tucked into that siddur are all Stillmans. They are your great grandmother Sarah’s siblings.

    You are correct in assuming that I did not say nightly prayers from Siddur M’forash. I’m not sure why there is a paper clip rust stain on that page. Perhaps there is something of interest on the other side of the page. Or maybe I just wanted a paper clip in my siddur because my dad had one in his.

  2. David, Ps. 137 is recited before Birkat Hamazon on WEEKDAYS, and Ps. 126 on SHABBAT. Shabbat is a taste of the redemption, weekdays are, well, a grind. Ps. 137 is about the grind, Ps. 126 is about being so surprised by the redemption that you think you’re dreaming.

  3. Ok, I now read the comments on the post mentioned and I understand the issue. Ps. 137 will appear in a benscher like iBenscher (or whatever it’s called) for the reason mentioned. Ps. 126 will appear in a benscher meant to be used on shabbat. Apparently the printer/publisher of your benschers expected the users to only use them on Shabbat and Holidays – an expectation growing from ignorance, probably, not from expecting that they have the electronic version in their iPod…

    • Apparently the printer/publisher of your benschers expected the users to only use them on Shabbat and Holidays
      Perhaps. However, let’s take the example of the NFTY bencher, first published while I was in high school. The NFTY bencher is used at camps and at NFTY events where birkat hamazon is regularly said after dinner every night, not just on Shabbat. But the NFTY bencher does not include 137. One might be inclined to assume that this is just a part of the Reform movement’s propensity for brevity, but the NFTY bencher includes the shortened Reform birkat hamazon as well as the fuller version.

  4. I join in your surprise at the 1976 coverage of the talit — which almost seems to suggest that the big issue was not whether or not it should be worn, but whether it should be worn by women.

    At the time of my stepson’s bar mitzvah, in 1977, b’nai mitzvah observances themselves were not taken for granted across the Reform movement — Confirmation was still the standard. And our congregation was in the early stages of its transformation from Classical to mainstream. We asked the rabbi if it was OK for Aaron to wear a talit, and his answer still resonates: Of course he may; and I hope he’ll wear it again the following week, when he comes for his friend’s bar mitzvah. It is not a bar mitzvah uniform.

    The other interesting inference from Rabbi Fields’ discussion: in what you quote, he talks about the talit as the sign of “dressing up” for services. Without checking the history books, I don’t know if he (Rabbi F) was already at Wilshire Blvd. Temple (and the rules were always different in southern California), but certainly there would have been little discussion in a northern city about non-ritual dress codes. Coat and tie would have been taken for granted; our HHD ushers were instructed to wear dark suits; and in fact the associate rabbi was roundly criticized for wearing a light gray suit on Yom Kippur.

    • the big issue was not whether or not it should be worn, but whether it should be worn by women.
      That’s probably because of the part I chose to include in the post. Most of it was more general background on the practice.

  5. How would you transliterate “Jahrzeit”?

    • Larry Kaufman

      I take Jahrzeit not as a transliteration, but as an appropriation into English of a German word. If pressed to transliterate from German, I would substitute a Y for the J; if from Yiddish, I would also put a t before the z.

      Davar acher. In reference to David’s amusement at Grace before Meals being the caption over n’tilat yadaim and motzi, paralleling the frequent use of Grace after Meals to introduce Birkat Hamazon, I’m going from memory here, but I believe that the Maxwell House Haggadah translation of Rabotai Nevoreich is (was?) Gentlemen, let us say Grace.

      • I take Jahrzeit not as a transliteration, but as an appropriation into English of a German word.

        the Maxwell House Haggadah translation of Rabotai Nevoreich is (was?) Gentlemen, let us say Grace.

  6. Pingback: A post about me, Beth El, this blog and Trotsky | The Reform Shuckle

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s