10/21/2006

Book Review – Tzir Kissufim: In the Land of Prayer

[This will be cross-posted on the Lookjed educators' discussion forum; the book is available here; if you order it, please enter 'ADDeRabbi' in the comment section of the order.]

Book Review – Tzir Kissufim: In the Land of Prayer

Edited by Daniel Gutenmacher

Translations by Toby Klein Greenwald

The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 inaugurated a period of unparalleled religious ferment which expressed itself in numerous ways, for better or worse. The Gaza disengagement of 2005, we are starting to see, has similarly inspired a wealth of religious responses, and it remains to be seen what the ultimate effects of it will be. It is safe to assume that the introspection it inspired and the fact that it forced an entire movement – the Religious Zionist movement – to endure the shattering of its dreams will continue to generate creative tension for a very long time.

A particular manifestation of this ferment is the re-invention of an art that had been almost forgotten by the Jews – that of prayer writing. Personal and liturgical compositions are available from every era, but the sheer volume of those written in response to the Hitnatkut qualify as an explosion of prayer-writing. Dozens of Tisha B’av Kinot for the Disengagement have been penned, and several collections of prayers have been published in Hebrew. Daniel Gutenmacher and Toby Klein Greenwald have now made some of these writings available to the English-speaking public in the form of the book Tzir Kissufim: In the Land of Prayer.

The task that the translator and editor set before themselves is a daunting one. Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer, and the compositions in this collection, though new, are constantly alluding to elements of Hebrew scripture and liturgy. There are terms that have specific meaning within the context of the Israeli experience which are lost in translation. This is in addition to universal challenges of translating poetry, with its ambiguities, double entendres, rhyme, and meter.

I’m sure the translators themselves would agree that these prayers are far less inspiring in English. Therefore, the value of the translation is similar to its value for any translated siddur – to help the reader understand what he’s saying in the original. The translation is up to this task, though it would have greatly benefited from notes which refer to the scriptural and liturgical allusions and explain the poetic devices employed by the writers.

In addition to the translation, the compositions are divided into thematic sections, each section prefaced by an introduction to the theme and a preview of the contents of the section. They also include photography, art, and prose that are linked to the theme being introduced. These introductions are helpful in that they frame the mood of the upcoming prayers, but are sometimes too conspicuous, such as when the introduction to the section is longer than the section itself (Section VII). The topics range from very general (Section III: To Be Enveloped in Divine Light) to specific (Section VIII: Happiness in the Shadow of Pain: Shabbat). The artwork that is interspersed throughout the volume lends another dimension to the feelings that the writers are trying to capture. This visual medium succeeds so well that it makes one wonder why more religious art is not included in siddurim.

The prayers themselves form the centerpiece of the volume. Many of the prayers in the collection deal directly with the Hitnatkut and its aftermath, some more generally with the ‘situation’ in Israel, and a number address universal religious concerns. The writing of Ruchama Shapira consistently alludes to Biblical events (‘Akedah’ – pp.8-13) and verses (‘Bloodshed, Crisis, and Rebirth’ on pp. 24-29 is loaded with Biblical and Rabbinic references), and transposes them onto the very real experience of the Disengagement, in which she was evicted from her home. Ido Levinger’s prayers, on the other hand, tend to address the universal human concerns about faith(104-5), apathy (78-81), and redemption(58-9), though they can easily be read against the backdrop of the events in Israel. These two writers contributed fourteen of the thirty-five prayers in this collection.

In general those writing from direct experience are more gripping than the writing of those whose experience is second hand. The prayers are also at their best when the writers are not straining too hard to be inspirational (or trying to borrow too heavily from Rav Kook’s elevated writing style), but are trying to sincerely chronicle their own conversations with God. Prayerful simplicity, in the tradition of R’ Nachman of Breslov, is the most successful way that these writers convey their raw feelings, without injecting philosophy, politics, or theology. I found the most moving prayer to be the one entitled ‘The Soldier’s Lekha Dodi’ (98-103) penned by a yeshiva student to relive his personal Kabbalat Shabbat while on guard duty, after a particularly difficult week. Toby Klein Greenwald’s ‘Grandmother’s Prayer’(32-3) is another whose simplicity tears at the reader’s heartstrings.

On the whole, the prayers in this collection display a range of literary power and technical quality. For someone in the market for a good poetry collection, there are much better ones out there. The value of this book is in its presentation of contemporary prayers written by living Jews during events that we have all experienced first, second, or third hand. The writers walk amongst us, are us. Thus, as an introduction to the world of Jewish prayer-writing, to help individuals find their voice in prayer, for educators to initiate their students into the world of prayer-composing, with the hopes that they may recover the personal elements of their own prayer and perhaps even compose their own prayers, this slim volume (159 pages) can be a valuable tool.

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