Cousins

These two similar looking prayer books came into my life recently but from two different places. The smaller one came from my in-laws home.It was published in 1921 in New York, by the Hebrew Publishing Company, and is known as a "Kol-bo" which means all inclusive. It has nearly all of the prayers you need to live a Jewish life. The prayerbook comes with a complete English translation. This prayerbook was probably given as a presentation piece, perhaps it was a bar-mitzvah gift given to either my father in law or his brother. But given that my in-laws were pack-rats it may have just ended up in their home.The prayer book is in pristine condition, I don't think that it was used very often.

The larger prayer book predates it's smaller cousin by  thirty years and was printed in Europe. It too is a Kol-bo. It has beneath the Hebrew text, a complete Yiddish translation. A friend who collects old Jewish books, gave it to my older son as a gift to mark a big life decision my son had made.

The covers of both books share the same theme, the image of the ten commandments in brass, surrounded by a double layered border of pierced tin over- layed with pierced ivory. I love how despite the fact that the workmanship is actually crude, the over all effect is light and delicate.

I wondered why two books produced on different contintents would have the same covers. The smaller prayerbook had the answer in the inside of the back cover. A little sticker reads " bound in Czecho- Slovakia". I guess that this sort of decorative book binding was a Czecho-Slovakian specialty industry.



Aside from the decorative covers, the real reason I love old prayer books is what is inside. Although the core of the prayerbook is pretty much standardized from prayer book to prayerbook, there is a fair amount of variety at the edges. The older book, which is called Korban Mincha, which means  grain offering,the offering that even the poorest could present in the Temple, begins with some beautiful meditative prayers about prayer, for one to say before you began the traditional prayers. The smaller prayerbook, called S'phat emet, Word of Truth begins with a prayer formula for little children.It is just one version of several that I have seen.


We live at a time where people trying to find meaning in ritual, are creating new ritual and clumsily writing new prayers. What I love about old prayer books is that by reading closely  and digging trhough the back corners of the prayerbook you can find beautiful, graceful attempts to do the same thing that are from within the tradition. Seeing older attempts to deal with the same issues that we face as people trying to take the tradition seriously is indeed powerful.

I look forward to using some of those alternative texts in my work.




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