Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

My first observations about the Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur

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!


When I first posted this siddur trailer (!) over a year ago, I wrote that it was coming later in 2010. Since then, Amazon has emailed me like three times to tell me the release was being postponed. Well, it’s finally here. This morning, I played around with my new toy in shul. Here are some initial observations:

The Rav meets Sir Sacks:

There’s a lot of Modern Orthodox star power in this volume. Rabbi Joseph “The Rav” Soloveitchik did more in his lifetime to shape Modern Orthodoxy than anyone else ever has. This siddur includes his commentary throughout, as well as a number of great introductions and forewords about him and about his views on Jewish prayer.

At the same time, it’s still a member of the Koren Sacks family of siddurim because it still features the translation used in the Sacks siddur.

It’s yet another (mostly) beautiful Koren product:

Yes, it has the usual beautiful Koren typefaces and layout, but it doesn’t have the bookmark ribbons that some of their other recent siddurim have had, which is a little disappointing. And then there’s this:

In my copy of the Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur, page 441/442 has some issues. The corner of this page arrived pre-bent. If it’s not totally apparent from the image above, here’s what it looked like when I unfolded it:

So that’s special.

It’s hard to read English from right to left:

It’s a recurring problem: A siddur should open from right to left, but anglophone siddurim have forewords and commentary printed in English, which makes for weird reading. Reading an introduction, when you get to the bottom of the page, you have to keep reading by looking at what would be the previous page in an English book. Koren has a clever way of helping you wrap your mind around this:

In lighter print, they indicate that you should continue reading on the next/previous page with the direction of the arrow and they tell you what the next English word will be. Koren is very focused on using visuals, rather than instructions, to help the user navigate the siddur. This is one of many cases in which they do this very well.

But I came across a problem today: They don’t do the same thing for a piece of commentary that lasts over multiple pages. For example, let’s say you there’s a piece of English commentary in the middle of the service that starts on the left leaf of a two-page spread (we’ll call it page 2). If this piece of commentary is long enough that it stretches over two pages, they run it on the next English page, but the previous Hebrew page, if that makes sense (we’ll call it page 1). If it’s longer than that (I found one like this in this siddur today), it then jumps two English pages back or two Hebrew pages forward (we’ll call it page 3). You with me? The point is, it’s downright confusing and Koren ought to use little arrows to help us through it.

It would be cooler if it wasn’t just Soloveitchik’s commentary:

In one of the introductory sections, Hanhagot HaRav, we get a list of his personal prayer practices. For instance, in Birchot Hashachar, he used to replace the word “goy/nation” in “shelo asani goy” with “nochri/stranger” because the Tanach sometimes uses the word “goy” in reference to the Jewish nation. He also used to omit “hanotein laya’ef ko’ach” because it wasn’t listed in the Talmud. Yet this siddur includes it as well as the word “goy,” as you can see:

It would be a lot cooler if it was the siddur according to Soloveitchik, rather than a siddur with his commentary.

Some new nikud?

Koren isn’t alone in this, but they like to indicate the difference between the two types of the shva vowel. They indicate which ones are vocalized and which ones are truly silent by making the dots of the vocalized shva a little bigger, as you can see in the word “hamevorach” from my copy of a different Koren siddur:

You can see that the shva under the mem is bolder than the shva under the final chaf. That’s what I’m talking about.

But in the Mesorat HaRav Siddur, they’ve got a new, more obvious way of marking the vocalized shva:

Now, they leave the shva itself alone so that both types appear the same. But they add a line above the letter that has the vocalized shva. The advantage is that it’s way more obvious. Plus, in the example above, you wouldn’t now that the shva in “barechu” is vocalized because there are no other shvas at that type size to compare it with.

That is all. So far. Shabbat shalom.

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Shabbat Notes, 9/24/2011: Dad’s visit; Gospel music in musaf

My dad is in town. He and I usually talk on the phone at some point on Shabbat to fill each other in on any particularly excellent bits of chaos we witnessed in shul that morning. He’s also a reader of this blog, so his visit would not have been complete without a visit to Beth El. He rightly told me that he approved of the level of chaos.


In musaf this morning, the Christian gospel tune, “Lord Prepare Me,” was on the march again. I’ve previously discussed the tune’s increasing use in Jewish worship here and here. I’ve encountered the use of this melody several times, though this use of it is new to me. Today Cantor Perry Fine used it for the musaf kedusha. Eschewing the usual call-and-response-and-repetition style, he led us through the prayer in unison to the tune of “Lord Prepare Me,” from the beginning–“Na’aritzecha venak’dishecha…”–through “Baruch kevod Adonai mimekomo.” Then we proceeded to the the tune of “Erev shel Shoshanim” for a while.

Also, I had an aliyah. More on why that happened sometime next month.

Andy Bachman strikes again: “regrettable” that Reform truncated Shma

Andy Bachman, senior rabbi of the Reform Beth Elohim in Brooklyn always has smart things to say at his blog, Water Over Rocks. I saw this post from him this morning about the Reform excision of the second paragraph of the Shma. Here’s part of it:

In Reform Judaism, for the better part of the last century, Reform Jews have recited the Shma while standing as a public expression of faith, doctrine, pronounced creed.  And Reform prayerbooks have, additionally, eliminated from the liturgy the paragraph following the Shma (the original Torah text of which appears in next week’s Torah portion) mostly because in its articulation of why one ought to observe God’s commandments, there is an explicit articulation of the Biblical doctrine of reward and punishment, to wit, if you follow My commandments, I will give rain in its proper season, God warns; but if you don’t, the earth you hope to cultivate for sustenance will not yield its fruit in its proper season.

It’s always struck me as a regrettable loss that the early Reformers excised such ideas, depriving generations of Reform Jews the opportunity to engage prayer and Torah text as metaphor, and especially in our own day with fears and threats of global warming, of engaging the notion of how we treat the earth with a sense of the sacred.

Here’s the rest of it.

Shabbat Notes, 7/30/2011: Three Kaddish Yatoms!

This is a short one, but I just have to mention this:

This week, we actually had a minyan when we got to the Kaddish Yatom that we usually flip backwards for before the Torah service. So we did it then. Fine.

Then we got to the Torah service… and did it again. Of course, we also had the one at the end of the service.

For a grand total of three Kaddish Yatoms.

Shavua tov.

Kippot and my commute, part II; New Jersey Jewish News, part II

Kippot and my commute, part I

New Jersey Jewish News, part I

This morning, as I emerged in Penn Station from my New Jersey Transit train from South Orange, a woman and her grown son stopped me and said, “Excuse me, are you the guy from the New Jersey Jewish News?”

“That’s me,” I said.

We had a rambling conversation while I was on my way into the bowels of Penn Station to hop on the subway. At one point, the woman told me that she’s a scout leader and that she was recently leading an all-Jewish troop on a trip at some camp. At the same time they were at she was there with her all-Jewish troop, there was also a group of Messianic Jews Jews for Jesus Christians at the camp. Some of them wore tzitzit, but no kippah. As I do. And as the article in the New Jersey Jewish News described. She had to explain who these weirdos were to her scouts.

Yesterday, she told me, they saw me on the train and wondered if I was another such person. Later that day, however, they saw the NJJN and figured it out.

I don’t just write the news–I am the news!

The New Jersey Jewish News has honored me with a profile and a really great mugshot.

Johanna Ginsberg, one of their staff writers (and a member of Beth El–these people are over the place!) stopped by one morning last week to interview and photograph me for it. It was lovely and it’s a nice piece.

Things relevant to themes on this blog (the parenthetical bold bit is mine):

At 22, David A.M. Wilensky appears full of contradictions: He wears tzitzit but not a kipa. He embraces Reform Judaism but attends a Conservative synagogue.

[…]

Perhaps it’s all in the eye of the beholder. “I go to a Conservative synagogue because I like the services better, but I live a personal life that’s informed by what I learned growing up in the Reform world,” he told NJJN in an interview on the patio of his South Orange apartment. “Is that any more of a contradiction than people who belong to a Conservative synagogue and don’t keep kosher and never come to services?”

[…]

…addressing his religious garb, he said, “Wearing a tallit katan and wearing a kipa are separate practices, with separate origins and rationales, so I don’t see that as contradictory either. Unusual? Yes. But not contradictory.

“Maybe that says something about my generation, but to me it all just makes sense,” he concluded.

[…]

A patio table is scattered with the accessories of his single Jewish post-collegiate life: a hookah, an ashtray filled with cigarette butts (the cigarette butts are not mine, by the way, just for the record), a Kiddush cup, half-melted Shabbat candles, and a bottle of Febreeze. Behind him, several freshly laundered tzitzit hang on a rack to dry.

Wilensky is confident about the future of journalism, but remains uncertain about his own future.

“I’m obsessed with liturgy right now. Maybe I’ll get a PhD in liturgy and that will be my thing,” he said.

But he’s certainly got a journalist’s instincts. “Why don’t Jewish papers ever put federations under the microscope?” he asked. Maybe he’ll blog about it.

Maybe I will!

You can read the whole article, which really is terrific, over here.

 

A post about me, Beth El, this blog and Trotsky

After services this morning, as people were milling around, in the aisles and generally preventing everyone who wanted to get out of the sanctuary from doing so, Rabbi Roston introduced me to someone who said, “Oh,” in a knowing fashion. The rabbi turned to me and said, “She’s read your blog.”

“Is there anyone left here who hasn’t?” I asked. She said a few older people probably haven’t. “So people who don’t know how to use a mouse?” I asked. She laughed. She also said she read the post about the old family siddurim and liked it.

Then, once I was at kiddush, a guy called Avram (or Avrum or Abram–I’m not sure of the spelling) introduced himself to me and asked if I was the Reform Shuckle guy. He’s been reading for about a year (hi!) and he also reads Jewschool and New Voices.

He said he likes the reviews and was looking forward to what I would say about services this morning. But I told him (as per my ongoing battle with foot-in-mouth disease) that I’m trying to avoid detailed posts about Beth El. Of course, then I went off and wrote this post, so we can all see how well that’s working out.

On a more random note, I also met Beth El Rabbi Emeritus Jehiel Orenstein this morning. He told me about how his father was a Romanian who worked for Trotsky, touring Russia by train with a film that was used to recruit men when they were creating the Red Army. So that was insteresting.

Shabbat Shalom.

P.S.– So that whole Week of Things I Like idea didn’t totally pan out. I trust you’ll all live.

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:

WHAT ABOUT WOMEN?

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:

A Week of Things I Like, Day 2-ish: Beth El

On Sunday, I said this week was gonna be A Week of Things I Like on this blog, that I would only say positive things all week and that I would post once a day this week.

Here we are on day three and I already missed the second day’s post. And, as regular commenter Larry Kaufman points out, I was also unduly self-critical in the first post.

Anyway, I like Beth El, my new shul here in South Orange. Here are some of the things I like about it:

  • I like that, as I pointed out in my first post about Beth El, their spirit of welcoming is great.
  • I like that they make extensive use of lay leaders in all their services. Initially, based on a sample size of only two weeks, I assumed that Shabbat mornings were more lay-led and and Friday nights less so, but they’ve already got me signed up to lead a Friday night service in August.
  • On a related note, I like how well-trained their lay leaders are. They all really know their stuff and they come from a broad range of ages, which, if I had to guess, is indicative of a great religious school.
  • I like Rabbi Francine Roston and Cantor Perry Fine. By the end of the first Shabbat morning I spent there, Rabbi Roston had reached out to me and asked if I wanted to help lead services ever. By the end of my second Friday night at Beth El, Cantor Fine had also asked.
  • I like that, according to this JTA article that I can’t seem to find anywhere other than at the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, when Rabbi Roston was hired in 2005, Beth El became the largest Conservative shul ever to hire a female as their senior rabbi. (According to the article, Beth El had 575 member families at the time.)
  • I like that, according to Google Maps, it’s a four-minute walk from my apartment–if that.
  • I like that there are a number of rabbis in the congregation. As I’ve previously mentioned, the head of ARZA is a member. Beth El’s rabbi emeritus is also in regular attendance every week and so is the provost of JTS.
  • To continue my reportage on my chronic case of Foot-in-Mouth disease, I like that a number of them seem to have found this blog and have called me out on things I’ve said here. Most recently, one member of a group of men I previously identified as “the peanut gallery” jokingly informed me that I had assessed them incorrectly. Actually, he told me, they are “the judges panel.” I like that too!
  • I like that I’m feeling challenged by Beth El. It’s good to feel comfortable within a routine at a synagogue, but it’s also good to feel a little challenged. So, to turn my whinging about wearing a kippah on its head, it’s good that going to Beth El is forcing me to wear one because it’s challenging.
  • I like that going to Beth El is forcing me to confront the fact that there are things that I like about Conservative Judaism… which may make a whole post of its own later this week.

To make up for my laziness yesterday, I’m gonna do another post tonight for day three of A Week of Things I Like.

If I stick my foot in my mouth and there is no one around, do I still make an ass out of myself?

Last week, in the first of what is quickly becoming a lot of posts about Beth El of South Orange, NJ, I incorrectly identified one of the service leaders as “Abigail, who I’m guessing is like 15 years old.”

She pointed out to me during services yesterday that she is not Abigail, but Sharon. And that she is 20, not 15. For a 22-year-old who still doesn’t need to shave every single day to look clean-shaven, that’s quite an idiotic assumption on my part.

I apologized to Sharon when she pointed it out to me and then made fun of myself a little bit. I thought I’d go ahead and do that here too. I’ve also corrected the original post.

The good news is that I didn’t pull the name Abigail totally out of my ass. Sharon’s younger sister is named Abigail and she is–you guessed it–actually 15. She’s also, like her sisters, an accomplished Torah reader.

In other news, I’m on a train to Baltimore right now. From there, it’s on to whatever The Conversation NY is. While I’m there, I hope to figure out why something called The Conversation NY is being held in a place that is decidedly not New York.

I’m back in Jersey on the 14th. The next day, it’s off to Austin for about 10 days.

Shavua tov.