Local synagogues are getting their first look at the Conservative movement’s first new High Holy Day prayer book, or mahzor, in almost four decades.
The new prayer book, Mahzor Lev Shalem (Lev Shalem means “full heart”) features contemporary translations, running commentary, and symbols indicating when to bow.
It also offers contemporary Israeli and American poetry in addition to certain prayers, and Hebrew transliterations for every part of the service sung or chanted by the congregation.
It is the movement’s first new mahzor since 1972.
“This mahzor represents the best of the Conservative movement. It is deeply rooted in tradition and in contemporary life,” said Rabbi Edward Feld, who served as its chief editor.
“We wanted to show people from different backgrounds and needs that there is a place for them in tradition,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which published Lev Shalem. “We’ve created a totally unique book. Someone could begin using it as a total novice and over the course of years, develop a deep and rich knowledge of Jewish tradition and stay with the same book.”
The new mahzor took 12 years to produce, according to Feld, who worked with a committee of nine rabbis on the book. It was piloted in two phases by six congregations nationwide.
Published in April, the volume has so far presold about 100,000 copies. At least three local synagogues plan to purchase the mahzor for its members this year or next.
“The idea that over 100,000 Jews will be sitting in synagogue and their High Holy Day experience will be shaped by this book is overwhelming to me,” said Feld.
The 1972 Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was edited by Rabbi Jules Harlow, and reprinted in 1989; before that, Conservative congregations used the High Holy Day Prayer Book, edited by Morris Silverman and published in 1939.
In 1995, Prayer Book Press/Media Judaica issued Mahzor Hadash, edited by two Conservative rabbis. Although it is not considered an official movement mahzor, it provided the egalitarian alternative and contemporary approach many Conservative synagogues were seeking.
Lev Shalem’s own contemporary approach is seen in its translations.
“We tried to use everyday language, rather than prayer book language,” said Feld. “For most congregations, especially during the High Holy Days, the prayer book is not easy to enter.”
Translations are also more literal. “In the past, there was a feeling that difficulties in the Hebrew could be resolved in the English translation — that things could be made ‘nice’ in translation,” he said. “We decided that this generation of congregants wants an honest translation, and they’ll decide what to believe or not to believe in.”
There are also additional prayers addressing contemporary needs, including a Yizkor prayer in memory of an abusive parent and a prayer before Yom Kippur for a person unable to fast. The editors did not discard anything from prior mahzorim to make room for the additional material.
At 900 pages, Mahzor Lev Shalem weighs less than the Harlow mahzor; the tradeoff, however, is a font size that may have older congregants reaching for their reading glasses. The cover, too, is meant to appeal to contemporary sensibilities: it is made from 60 percent recycled plastic bottles.
Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael and Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell will both trade in their Silverman mahzorim for Lev Shalem.
“We particularly like the layout of the page and the inclusion of historical notes about when the prayer was written, and the summary of the contents, as well as the reflective readings,” said Rabbi David Nesson of MJCBY. “For someone who does not come from a knowledgeable background, it gives them a chance to see what the prayer is about and gives them a chance to pause and reflect.”
Nesson acknowledged that some congregants are reluctant to let go of familiar prayer books, and some have vowed to bring their own Silverman books to services this year.
“They are just comfortable with the ‘tradition’ of Silverman. It’s the one we’ve always used,” he said.
Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Alan Silverstein praised the new mahzor for its English translations (“eloquent and contemporary”), the transliterations (“abundant and helpful”), and the commentaries, which he said offer “enhancement for the individual at prayer.”
Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange will convert from the Harlow to Lev Shalem in 2011. Rabbi Mark Cooper said he appreciates the “flexibility of use for shorter or longer services,” and that the pages are arranged “like a page of Talmud.”
Not all congregations, though, are ready to invest in hundreds of new prayer books.
“We have Mahzor Hadash, no impetus to expend the $’s on a new one,” wrote Rabbi Mark Mallach of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield in an e-mail exchange.
Congregation Shomrei Emunah of Montclair also has no plans to switch High Holy Day prayer books.
“In general I appreciate that a new siddur or mahzor can be a helpful tool for enhancing prayer, said Rabbi David Greenstein, “but, given the range of mahzorim/siddurim already out there, I don’t think that our real challenges concerning tefilla and opportunities for meaningful praying significantly hinge on what specific mahzor/siddur one uses. It depends more on how people make use of the book, the place, and the time — and, most importantly, how they make use of themselves.”