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Dinah Berland discovered the work of Fanny Neuda, a Moravian Rabbi's wife in the 19th century, in a used bookshop in Los Angeles; when she pulled out a small volume with an unmarked spine, a new period of Jewish study and personal growth began for her. Fanny Neuda's 1855 Hours of Devotion was the first book of Jewish prayers written for women by a woman, at a time when such daily prayer books were quite popular, since women in those days were generally not taught Hebrew but wanted to fulfill the rabbinic injunction to pray at least once daily. Neuda's book was a bestseller in German for many decades, containing prayers for each day of the week, for every Jewish holiday, and for many female occasions and rites of passage ("For a Bride on Her Wedding Day"; "For a Childless Wife"; "A Daughter's Prayer for Her Parents"; "For A Mother Whose Son Is In Military Service"). It was often a cherished gift from mother to daughter. Berland became fascinated by Neuda's role as a pioneer in advocating a religious education for young Jewish women, and her heartfelt, beautifully crafted prayers. In creating this edition, Berland, a poet and editor, made the choice to format the prayers as poetry. Fanny's prayers tend to follow the traditional pattern of the Psalms, Berland tells us, "flowing from the heavens above to the earth below, from the universal to the personal." She explains, "It should come as no surprise that the relationship of poetry and prayer is as old as Hebrew scripture itself. The Torah, or Five Books of Moses, is often referred to as shira, literally 'song' or 'poem,' and the last of the Torah's 613 commandments requires that every Jew study the Torah as a shira: 'Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, so this poem may be my witness...' " Today's selection is Neuda's prayer for the first days of Passover, an appropriate reading for tonight's seder.

On the First Days of Passover

Dear God, the festival of Passover has come—
The joyful feast memorializing the days of jubilee,
When you redeemed our ancestors
From inhuman oppression and carried them
With an outstretched hand
Into the beautiful land of liberty,
From the dark dwellings of error and false belief
Into the sunny realms of knowledge and the pure,
Gladdening faith in you and your divine word.

With deep emotion and joy, we celebrate this holiday,
Which reminds us of that happy time
When you chose Israel for your inheritance,
Elected her from all nations,
Wedded her to you as a bridegroom weds his bride
And bound her to you with the ties of grace and love—
The time when your people, in return, clung to you,
As a youthful bride to the heart of her beloved,
As a child to its mother’s breast—
When they followed you, full of love and faithfulness
Into a strange, unknown land,
Followed you into a vast desert wilderness.

A long space of time has since passed,
And the heart of your people has often changed,
But your love has always remained the same.
You have been a help and refuge
To our ancestors from eternity,
A shield and a help to their children after them
Throughout all generations.
You are our guide, our protector, our guardian,
As you have been in all times.

We have passed through more than one Egypt.
Hatred and prejudice have set
A heavy yoke around our necks,
But through the darkness of misery and oppression
A ray of your grace has continually shone above us
And has at last brought a morning of redemption
In which our human dignity is recognized
And we live free and undisturbed
Under the protection of mild and just laws.
Oh, may you, O God, continue to be with us.
As in the days when you burst the chains
In which we sighed, and with an awful hand
Broke the yoke of bondage and tyranny,
So may you deliver and redeem our souls
That they may rise above all attacks
From within or without.
As you hurled the many idols and gods of Egypt
From their altars, so may your boundless mercy
Release us from the idols that attract us today,
And let every cell and organ of our bodies be filled
With your incomparable, exalted, and glorious being.
May we be thoroughly infused by faithfulness and love,
By unconditional, unwavering confidence,
And boundless attachment to you.
You are the shield and savior of every human being
As well as of whole nations.
You comfort them
In the midst of trouble and suffering. Amen.



About Dinah Berland

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Excerpt from HOURS OF DEVOTION. Copyright © 2007 by Dinah Berland. Excerpted by permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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