Friday, February 22, 2013

In honor of Purim, let's parody 19th century Reform prayerbooks

Or so this is. Here is a hilarious parody of a siddur review for Purim 1875 in the American Hebrew (February 19, 1875/ 14 Adar 5635). It's long, but in my opinion entirely worth reading.

The background is that in those times there was a glut of new siddurim, each purporting to be a new minhag, or liturgy, that somehow improved on both the traditional siddur and all the competing reformed versions. Although my guess is that two or three volumes of equal size can be written to exhaustively discuss the topic, especially to include America, the definitive work is Petuchowski's Prayerbook Reform in Europe: the Liturgy of European liberal and Reform Judaism. From reading that work, one thing which cannot fail to escape the reader's attention is that however sympathetic one may be toward the concept of prayerbook reform, if one is, the unavoidable result is dozens if not hundreds of liturgies. As far as I can tell, this was not the desired goal of any of the prayer book reformers. Many of them surely must have rationalized that there wasn't really a traditional liturgy anyway, but there were dozens, and indeed in polemical discussions this was often pointed out. However, these new siddurim were so different from one another that the unintended effect of all of them was to render the synagogue service unfamiliar to all. 

So here we have a review of "Pulver's New Prayer-Book." Although there was a Louis Pulver in Australia who produced books for Jewish children, he never produced a prayer book. This review is completely fictional, as are the other names and periodicals and so on which appear in it. It appeared, as I said, in 14 Adar edition of the American Hebrew.

So Caleb, the reviewer, says that he is grateful to receive such a beautiful book, and he is sure it will became famous, unlike the siddurim of Joram, Dumsprach, Kleinfuss and Swartzkopf (all fake). He hopes Pulver will succeed better in the "minhag making business" than his predecessors. Then he pulls out the knives and enumerates all of the shortcomings of this new siddur, the Prayers for the Congregation Men of Uprightness.

There's no point in rewriting the review, but one sentence is worth pointing out: 
"Look here, Pulver, in what respect does your prayer book excel the old Roedelheim tefila? It is more adapted to the spirit of the age, you think. Don't be a fool. Speak out what you mean. It has less Hebrew, yes, and more doggerel English and German."
In short, it is humorous, but a very serious statement and a sign of the times.


  1. Is it possible that Joram, Dumsprach, Kleinfus and Schwartzkopf are fictional references to actual siddurim?

  2. Chanting Hallel to the tune of "See, the conquering hero comes!"

  3. Ouch. Looks like it got serious toward the end, which I was disappointed to see. Did the "prominent English Jewish minister" really exist?

    I loved the periodical names, but it was a bit of a letdown to read about Solomon Levy's _Lecho Dode_ because that is a real person and a real poem.

  4. anon:

    the initial reference to men of rightiousness is clearly a swipe at minhag america of IM Wise. official title of his siddur was tefilot bene yeshurun, after the name of his shul (and the boards were gilt embossed with an image of the shul).

    "two or three volumes of equal size can be written to exhaustively discuss the topic, especially to include America"

    eric friedlander wrote a diss on 19th c. american reform prayer books (and some other articles). there is a also a book on hebrew printing that treats individual prayer books.

    "the unavoidable result is dozens if not hundreds of liturgies"

    well of course each individual editor thought that *his* liturgy was the best one and would be adopted in all shuls, eliminating the need for other liturgies. (although this isn't entirely true and it's clear some editions were published just for a particular shul.)

  5. have to think more, but other names may just be appropriate literary devices. e.g., dumschprach = dumb language.

    "jewish eagle" could refer to samuel adler (one of the earliest american liturgists), but he didn't have a journal

  6. The American Hebrew was published be F. de Sola Mendes, rabbi of the reform congregation Shaarey Tefilla, who composed (imho)some pretty lame hymns (
    Ques: the Jewish Encyclopedia states he founded it in 1879?

  7. Towards the end, the author makes clear what his revisionist siddur would look like. I'm not so familiar with these things -- would that be what today we would call "conservative"?

    1. I don't think so, if you mean the kind that he says the English rabbi mentioned. Much more radical. Kind of Karaitic, actually. The Conservative siddur is fairly close to the Orthodox.

    2. My understanding is that they keep to the tradition, except where they find it objectionable, such as prayers for restoration of the avoda. I think that's what this author wants (and no waltzes to hallel, please)



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