Were you surprised at the success of The Book of Blessings?
Yes and no. A great deal of anticipation had built up before the book’s publication. It took me thirteen years to write The Book of Blessings, and over the course of that time, word-of-mouth spread among communities and individuals who had read my articles in magazines or heard me speak. By the time the book was published, in 1996, “The-Book-of-Blessings” had become a household word in progressive and feminist Jewish circles. But I was surprised at the breadth of the reception: it wasn’t just progressive Jews who wrote to say that they were using the book in their homes and in chavurot. I received letters from self-identified “secular” Jews, who told me that the book gave them access to Judaism, which they had previously felt shut out of. They said blessings gave them a way to participate in Judaism with integrity. Word also spread within the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Movements, and in the years following publication I was asked to speak at many synagogues across North America and in Israel. Ultimately—most surprisingly—blessings and poems from The Book of Blessings were reprinted in the prayer books of all the non-Orthodox movements of Judaism.
Did you get a backlash from other Jewish movements that see prayer differently?
The backlash wasn’t from the various movements per se so much as from individuals, some of whom seemed to find it threatening that I had replaced patriarchal God-language with other ways of speaking about the sacred. Initially, I was criticized—in some cases attacked—for my refusal to refer to God as “He.” Today, gender-inclusivity in God-language is widely accepted in the non-Orthodox world. I’m told that The Book of Blessings was responsible in good measure for this sea change in practice and in attitude.
Do you know if the original book reached beyond Judaism? Have you had interest from other religious groups?
Yes. I have been contacted by diverse Christian religious organizations and churches. I’ve spoken about The Book of Blessings at an Anglican church in Calgary, Canada; in several Catholic women’s organizations, including the Grail; and in Unitarian congregations across North America, among other places. The book was reviewed in several Christian publications and in a Buddhist journal.
And recently I received a surprising email from an acquaintance:
“Yesterday was my mother's 18th yahrtzeit [anniversary of the death] and I went to Kehilla Synagogue to say kaddish. Rabbi David had just gotten back from a peacekeepers trip. He told us a story about leading a Shabbat service in a village near Bethlehem, where they read your prayer "Loving life / and its mysterious source . . ." [the re-creation of the Sh’ma in The Book of Blessings] and how transformative it was for everyone there. One of the Palestinian villagers who had been displaced from his home said that he didn't realize until then that Jews believed in peace and justice. This led to a wonderful conversation. You probably hear stories like this often, but I thought I'd share it with you. After the rabbi told the story, we all of course read your prayer together.”
Needless to say, stories like this make it all worthwhile.
When did you start thinking about these poems, these blessings?
I’ve been writing poems for as long as I can remember being able to write, but I only started thinking about writing blessings in the early 1980s. It came about as a crisis of faith, when, as a feminist, I found myself standing silent in synagogue every week, unable to pray to the Lord-God-King of the traditional liturgy. Then, in 1983, I was teaching at a national Jewish learning institute and was asked to compose introductory meditations for the blessings of the Havdalah, the ceremony that closes the Sabbath. Caught off-guard, I blurted out that I couldn’t write these meditations because, for some time, I had been unable to recite the traditional prayers. “So write your own blessings,” was the blithe response of the man organizing the ritual. Lacking his bravado, I blanched at the idea. My own blessings? They’ll stone me! “They won’t stone you,” he responded with obvious exasperation.
I went back to my room that Friday afternoon and wrote my first four blessings, in Hebrew and English. The next night I recited them, with trepidation, before a congregation of 400 Jews of diverse denominations. I waited for the condemnation—how dare I replace the traditional prayers with words of my own?!—but none came. Instead, to my astonishment, I heard the congregation say Amen. And so it began...
What first inspired you to begin writing the book?
I never planned or expected to write a whole book. I just found myself experimenting with individual blessings for various occasions. The first such occasion after the maiden voyage of 1983 was a conference on Jewish women’s spirituality in the fall of 1984, to which I was invited to give a keynote address. I decided to write a new kiddush (the blessing over wine that is recited at the onset of Sabbaths and holidays) for the occasion and to use the speech to explain why and how I had composed it. At the end of my talk, when I lifted a glass of wine and recited my kiddush, the audience rose up as one and said Amen. That’s how I learned of the hunger for new liturgy that existed among feminist Jews.
Soon after the conference, Moment magazine approached me to write an essay based on my lecture. That essay, published in March of 1985, occasioned the greatest number of letters the magazine had ever experienced. That’s when I began to see that it was not only feminists who sought prayer that spoke to contemporary visions, needs, and concerns. Jews of all denominations, unaffiliated Jews, progressive Jews, humanists, even self-identified secular Jews, were searching for greater meaning in their spiritual life. My blessings began circulating by word-of-mouth (this was in the days before the internet) and word got back to me from all sides. Prodded and encouraged by my readers, I began writing what was to be a “slender volume,” like a book of poetry. But the book took over and burgeoned on its own. In 1996, thirteen years after I’d composed my Havdalah blessings, the 500-page Book of Blessings appeared in print.
© Marcia Lee Falk.