It’s funny, the way the human desire for novelty often is at war with the desire for the comfortingly familiar.
When it comes to the Shabbat siddur — the Sabbath prayer book — usually the need for familiarity wins.
Liturgy, of course, does not change as much as it gradually grows, as if it were a luminescent pearl, in many parts of the Jewish world. How, why, if, and how much it should or does change is a question for theologians, philosophers, linguists, and historians.
But the way the book looks — that’s a different matter.
Typefaces and layouts change as technology changes; at the very least, they become larger, clearer, and more easily readable. Translations change as language changes.
Nehalel be Shabbat, a new Hebrew-English Israeli production, is something else again. It’s an illustrated Shabbat siddur; it combines the absolutely familiar — the liturgy — with photography that illuminates those words, highlighting phrases as surely as if with a spotlight.
The liturgy is straightforward Ashkenazi Orthodox, meaning the text is not the one used by chasidim, Sefardim, the Mizrachi, or the more liberal streams.
Each page of Nehalel includes text in Hebrew and English; most pages have photographs, as well. On each page that has a photo, the text the art illustrates directly is printed in a color — most of the rest of the text is black or white — that makes it jump. Most of the photos are in color; some of the historic ones are stark in black and white.
The idea admittedly could be cheesy, or at best juvenile; instead, the photos have been chosen and matched with text in ways that are smart, insightful, deeply moving, and at times profound. One of the early morning blessings, the one translated here as thanks to the God “who engineers the stride of man,” is alone on a two-page spread. One of those pages shares the text with a silhouetted picture of a diaper-clad toddler, arms bent and taut, taking an early, shaky step; the facing page is of an astronaut leaving footprints on the moon, its surface at his feet and reflected on the glass of his helmet.
Much of the liturgy calls for photographs of created glories — of the earth from afar, of canyons and forests and planted fields and mountains and sunsets. Those photos are lovely, at times surprising in their beauty. Some are of people — mostly people dressed in ways that identify them as Jewish or in Israel, but at other times, in the more universalistic prayers, people who might be Jewish, but just as likely are not.
Other photos are wrenching. Continue reading “A Siddur to Send Spirits Soaring”