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Why a High Holidays prayer book is still going strong after 70 years

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06.09.2021

JTA — When a local Orthodox synagogue asked me to lead Yom Kippur prayers six years ago, one aspect of the request stood out: Was I comfortable using the “High Holyday Prayer Book” translated and edited by Philip Birnbaum?

The archaic spelling of “Holyday” is a tipoff to the book’s longevity. First published in 1951 by the Hebrew Publishing Company, this Hebrew-English prayer book, or machzor, has been used by multiple generations of worshippers in Orthodox and, to a lesser extent, Conservative synagogues. It is the prayer book I used as a child; my earliest High Holidays memories include counting the number of pages in the Birnbaum machzor until services would end.

In the ensuing years, a bounty of new translations has appeared, with modern typefaces, helpful commentary, user-friendly language and supplemental readings meant to “open doors” into prayer for the uninitiated or easily distracted.

Yet come Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I will lead the services from a Birnbaum covered in brown paper and penciled notations of what to say and what to skip. Remarkably, 70 years after its publication, the Birnbaum Machzor is still here, outlasting its publisher, author and even its own copyright. On the occasion of its anniversary, we ought to consider its remarkable longevity and what its future might hold.

Philip (or Paltiel in Hebrew) Birnbaum immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1923 at the age of 19. While teaching Hebrew school in Birmingham, Alabama, he obtained an undergraduate education at the Southern Baptist-affiliated Howard College (now Samford University). After moving to the East Coast, he received his doctorate in Jewish history from Dropsie College in Philadelphia in 1942.

Throughout his career, Birnbaum forged connections with rabbis and academics affiliated with both the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Orthodox Yeshiva University. In 1944, the Hebrew Publishing Company — a fixture on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that printed everything from prayer books to greeting cards to Yiddish translations of........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)


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