Harry Friedland didn’t expect a standing ovation at the dedication of a new Hebrew-Czech prayer book he helped finance in memory of his wife, Barbara. Standing in a rebuilt synagogue in the city of Liberec on a Friday night in July, the Fort Lee resident was stunned at the reaction.
"It was incredible," he recalled. "Many of the participants came up and shook my hand and said, ‘It’s a wonderful thing you’ve done.’ They were just so exuberant, I’ll never forget it."
Thanks to Friedland’s patronage, Liberal (the equivalent of Reform) congregations in Slovakia and the Czech Republic now have a new edition of the Jewish prayer book.
Friedland’s involvement started right after his wife’s funeral three years ago, when he asked his rabbi, Norman Patz of North Caldwell, to suggest a project in her memory.
Harry Friedland at the dedication of the new prayer book.
"Norman told me about a small group of Reform Jews in the Czech Republic, which never really had its own proper prayer book," said Friedland, a retired businessman. "He said there was a rabbi in London who wanted to produce one, but it needed a sponsor. That sounded very exciting to me, because Prague was one of our favorite cities and Rabbi Patz’s, too."
Friedland and his friends and relatives underwrote the cost of the publication, which neared $5,800 and took three years to complete. "My wife would have been very proud of me," he said.
Both Friedland and Patz traveled to the dedication, which was the opening event of a regional conference of Liberal congregations. Patz called it "a milestone event in the history of post-war Czech Jewry," attended by 80 people from congregations in Prague, Pilzen, Liberec, Brno, and Slovakia.
"Hegjon Ha-Lev" ("Meditation of the Heart") encompasses ’16 pages of Shabbat prayers in Hebrew and Czech, plus transliteration of the Hebrew, said Patz. It was prepared under the direction of Tom Kucera, a young Czech-born rabbi ordained at Abraham Geiger College in Berlin, with the cooperation of Rabbi Joel Oseran of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Rabbi Andrew Goldstein of London.
At the suggestion of Patz, Goldstein chose to illustrate the prayer book with pen-and-ink drawings by the late Czech Jewish artist and book designer Hugo Steiner-Prag.
Steiner-Prag was commissioned to illustrate a Czech High Holiday prayer book in 1938, but the book was never published because of the Nazi invasion in 1939. The artist took the drawings with him when he fled the country. After the war, they were contributed by his widow to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, which permitted them to be used in the new siddur.
"The inclusion of the drawings is a ‘homecoming’ for them because the artist so loved Prague that he added its name to his own surname," said Patz, who is rabbi emeritus of Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove and president emeritus of the Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews.
The Friedlands had been members of Patz’s congregation for the 34 years they lived in West Caldwell. They relocated to Fort Lee 14 years ago.
Speaking at the gathering, Patz said, "The prayers identify the demands of our hearts, and of God, for sustenance and security, for forgiveness, for justice and mercy, and thus express our intention to be partners with God in striving to achieve these ideals in the face of the vast and troubling imperfections of our lives and our world."
Friedland, who knows just two words in Czech, said the attendees’ enthusiasm was overwhelming. "I stood there and thought, ‘This is all happening because Barbara died.’ I looked at these 80 faces, singing away, and realized that what they lost to Nazism and Communism doesn’t compare to my tragedy, because their tragedy was not natural."
Though there is not yet a synagogue to house Prague’s small Liberal congregation, Friedland said he dreams of the day when his friends and family can walk into such a temple there and see the dedication to his wife inside every siddur.
Said Patz: "The publication of this prayer book is a tangible vote of confidence on behalf of and on the part of the Liberal Czech Jewish community, a growing number of Jews who want their faith to be a vital force in their lives."