The Birnbaum Siddur — who among us has never heard of that iconic prayer book? Yes, iconic, inasmuch as it was among the most popular siddurim of the mid-20th century. But who was Birnbaum?
A good question, ad one that was recently answered in a beautiful biographical essay in the latest issue of Jewish Action, entitled “The Most Obscure Best-Selling Author: Dr. Philip Birnbaum,” by David Olivestone.
In this informative essay, we learn of the quiet and modest life led by Birnbaum, an anav in every sense of the honorable title. And yes, he made history — in the very style and composition of both a siddur for year-round worship, and a companion machzor for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, both published by the Hebrew Publishing Company on New York’s Lower East Side, the leading liturgical publisher of its time.
The essay details his personal background, the religious and cultural background of the community that gave the siddur its popularity, and its eventual demise with the rise of the ArtScroll revolution in the late 1970’s.
Fast forward to today and the recent publication of a new siddur, Siddur Avodat Halev, [RCA, 2018] that was reviewed, twice, in this column this past month.
Many inquiries were generated by those two columns — especially inquiries as to the editor of the new siddur, Rabbi Dr. Basil Herring, a former classmate of mine at Yeshiva University in the 1960’s. I spoke to Rabbi Herring about his worthy and holy efforts.
“Working on this siddur as its editor has actually transformed my own prayer experience,” he said. “Even though I had been a communal rabbi, author, and university lecturer for many years, I was not prepared for the richness, range, and inspirational quality of the literature surrounding the traditional siddur.
“These include halachic authorities, as well as yeshiva leaders, Kabbalist masters and Chassidic leaders, mussar scholars, poets and … even communal rabbis. They all each played important roles in the development of our prayer traditions and experiences.
“As a result, I have come to see that what may appear as dry words on a printed page, actually contain a vitality and an inspirational wisdom just waiting to be rediscovered by each and every one of us today.”
Rabbi Herring concluded his heartfelt sentiments by stating, “It is our hope that some of this is reflected in the pages of the new RCA Siddur, Avodat Halev. That instead of recital by rote and habit, and rather than merely discharging one’s technical prayer obligations, with the help of this siddur, more of our fellow Jews — no matter their educational level — will find it easier to daven with deeper feeling, greater kavanah, and a more informed understanding of the intricacies, structures, history, and laws of tefillah, prayer.”
Most of these sentiments can be found, in spirit in the introduction by Dr. Birnbaum to his works of close to 75 years ago. A tradition birthed by his scholarship has found itself revived in the new RCA Siddur.