Timely appearance of brown siddur

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The article scheduled for the Nov. 9 issue of The Jewish Voice was an homage to three men who served in World War I, designed to coincide with Veterans Day. Then came the tragedy at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The timeliness of the Veterans Day article yielded to the urgency of addressing that terrible event in some way.

I chose to write a replacement article about HIAS because the vilification of that agency by the shooter and others of the same breed struck me in a very personal fashion — from my family’s history and also from my days as campaign chairwoman and then president of the Women’s Division of the former Jewish Federation of Rhode Island.

Soon after the original article was put on hold for a month (it ran on Dec. 7), my granddaughter Abby found a bit of Judaic flotsam of the kind dear to my heart. In the jumble basket at a flea market, she discovered a little brown siddur issued by the Jewish Welfare Board. The board gave them to the men and women serving in the U.S. armed forces during World War II and the Korean War.

As for the timing of her find — call it coincidence, serendipity or bashert — its appearance so close to Veterans Day reinforced the importance of that observance.

The copyright date of the little brown siddur was 1941. A revised edition, bound in black, was published in 1958. Our find was part of the first issue, a run of 50,000 copies from the Jewish Publication Society.

The right-hand page facing the reader has the Hebrew text. The opposite page has the English translation. Just 3 inches by 5 inches, it was, according to the preface, made “small enough in size to be carried in a pocket over the heart, [to] bear the spiritual message of Israel’s ancient prayers to the heart of the American Jewish soldiers and sailors serving their country.” It was to be used when “the exigencies of life in the army or navy do not permit attendance at regular synagogue services ....”

The siddur was a cooperative enterprise, as were its progenitors. An abridged prayer book edited by representatives of Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Judaism was issued to American service people in 1917. Another source was the World War I British Prayer Book for Jewish soldiers and sailors.

The three rabbis who prepared the little brown siddur took much of the text, Biblical passages and hymns from the “Union Prayer Book” and the “Union Hymnal of the Reform Movement.” Included as well were supplementary materials from Conservative and Orthodox sources.

The three rabbis were towering figures in American Jewish life — Solomon Freehof, Eugene Kohn and David de Sola Pool — learned, intellectual, charismatic leaders in their respective strands of Judaism who put aside their differences and came together for the common good. 

The copy I have shows its age — yellowed pages, bent covers, broken spine. To whom it once belonged and when he/she served, we do not know. No name is inscribed on the inside of the back cover. No military branch is named. Neither is there a specific tie to the history of the Jews in Rhode Island, save for the fact that similar prayer books accompanied generations of our community’s finest as they went off to war and offered comfort and hope for a future of peace.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360.