The Kosher Bookworm: Books as gifts for mom


By Alan Jay Gerber

Issue of May 8, 2009 / 14 Iyar 5769

“Ish imo v’aviv tira’u …You shall each fear your mother and father.”

This Sunday is Mother’s Day. Should you by any chance forget to get mom the obligatory greeting card, the above admonition from last week’s parsha kicks in: fear.

Here is your opportunity to avoid such an unfortunate situation; my advice is to get her a book. I am here to assist you in this with a choice that will be meaningful to her, both spiritually and intellectually.

For many of us, Yiddish has been the lingua franca for over 1,000 years. In that time a whole sub-culture of literature was developed by Jewish women in Eastern Europe that included a body of liturgy and meditations, all in the Yiddish language, all designed to address the spiritual needs of women. Called t’khines, these works were to be cherished by women with the same fervor that siddurim and chumashim were venerated by men.

Lost for generations and in disuse in the English speaking diaspora for the past two centuries, a revival of both interest and usage has generated new literature that has recently been published.

Yiddish is normally absent from the modern Siddur, but the Artscroll Women’s Siddur, edited by Rabbi Dovid Weinberger of Cong. Sha’arei Tefilla of Lawrence includes in the Havdalah service the Yiddish rendition of “Gott Fun Avrohom,” attributed to Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev.

According to Chava Weissler, “Many women regarded this prayer as the female equivalent of Havdalah: just as all the restrictions of the Sabbath ended for men as they recited Havdalah… so women could return to weekday work after reciting Gott Fun Avrohom.” This Yiddish prayer would then be followed with “Baruch hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol,” thus formally ending Shabbos for those women.

This siddur would make a great practical gift to the women of your household, mothers and daughters alike as well as sisters and aunts. And don’t forget grandmothers and grand daughters. Rabbi Weinberger deserves a special “yashar ko’ach” for this unique liturgical contribution.

Recently the Jewish Publications Society issued two very unique books that hopefully will help revive both interest and practice in the kavanos and t’khines of previous generations.

These books are not just volumes containing prayers and meditations for women; rather, they are scholarly works containing detailed information on the histories of the liturgies, the personalities and the milieu in which they were written and recited.

The first, titled “Meneket Rivkah,” by Rivkah bas Meir (Tiktiner) was originally published posthumously in Prague in 1609, 400 years ago this year. Unusual for her time, Rivkah was the first female Jewish author of a comprehensive work in Yiddish and one of the few whose work survived the passage of time.

This book includes her divrei Torah that she gave to other women, including her interpretations on the Torah, and halacha as a guide to unlettered and illiterate women in matters relating to familial relationships.

The introduction to this work consists of 58 pages plus 366 notes to the introduction, followed by an English translation that is footnoted in great detail.

The footnoting helps explain phrases and language that might prove daunting to the novice reader. In both the introduction and commentary, Dr. Frauke von Rohden does a superlative job in presenting a work of high quality. The reader should know that this work was originally Dr. Rohden’s Ph.D dissertation. Currently she is a senior research assistant at the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture at Leipzig University in Germany.

The translation from the original Yiddish manuscripts done by Samuel Spinner is found at the back of the book in its entirety, reset in clear lettering.

The next book is titled, “Seyder Tkhines: the forgotten book of common prayer for Jewish women,” translated and edited with an exceptionally detailed and annotated commentary of 110 pages by Devra Kay.

This work first appeared in print in Amsterdam in 1648 and was reprinted within siddurim for several generations. The prayers include those for daily and Shabbos use, as well as for fast days and High Holiday observance. Other tkhines are devoted for use by pregnant women, niddah, as well as for other life cycle needs.

The only drawback to this volume is the absence of the original Yiddish, some of which has unfortunately been lost to time. Otherwise, this is an exceptionally valuable work reflecting a time and era that deserves greater academic attention as well as popular study.

Dr. Kay is also the author of “Elementary Yiddish,” a self-study text, and was the first lecturer of Yiddish at Oxford University. She is currently on staff at The House of Commons of the United Kingdom.

While it is popularly said that every day is Mother’s Day, it is not by coincidence that Mother’s Day is the most popular civic day on the calendar in our culture. Traffic is at an all time high, and all major sports events record the highest number of empty seats for the year. Mothers are the mainstay of our society and this is reflected in all the events that we will witness next Sunday. My wish is that in some way, this could be reflected in a literary manner, both on Mother’s Day and on any other day of the year. This is one tangible gift that if chosen carefully, will be appreciated for a long time.

Remember, we are the people of the book. Include your mothers!