New Reconstructionist machzor draws high praise

As they gather for the High Holy Days this week, many Reconstructionist Jews — and some independent congregations, as well — will be using a new prayerbook.

Approximately 30,000 copies of the Jewish Reconstruction Federation's new machzor have been purchased by congregations across the country, including Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville and Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati.

"I think it's brilliant," said Rabbi Dan Goldblatt of independent Beth Chaim, which bought 500 copies of the prayerbook, titled Mahzor Leyamim Nora'im. "It includes insights and commentaries and meditations and poems.

"And the best part is the transliterations. The Conservative machzor is wonderful, but it's not really the best one for us, because if you don't read Hebrew, you were out of it. This machzor really brings people into the service."

The 1,275-page prayerbook's "user-friendly and inclusive" liturgy balances "deep respect for 3,000 years of Jewish tradition and the honest struggles which contemporary Jews have with that tradition," according to a Jewish Reconstructionist Federation spokesperson.

In addition to traditional Hebrew texts, the Reconstructionist movement's first new machzor in 51 years contains new gender-neutral English translations by poet Joel Rosenberg and a variety of contemporary commentaries.

"There will be some text or a prayer, and then there will be a line underneath followed by some notes about where it came from, or about the author, or some anecdote — or what the prayer is intended to be used for or how you should focus your mind while saying it," said Rabbi Elisheva Sachs of Ner Shalom. "Just having the words [of the prayer or text] is not always helpful. Here, there are different bits of commentary about different ways of looking at the text."

The machzor also features writings by both Jewish and non-Jewish authors, including Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel, Annie Dillard, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Maya Angelou, Walt Whitman and Marge Piercy.

Meditative texts are laid out to look like Jewish and Hebrew symbols or pictures. "The formatting is beautiful," Sachs said.

Her one complaint: "It's too heavy," she said of the 3-pound book, of which her congregation purchased 300.

The book offers service leaders the choice of three options: a more traditional service; a shorter, more innovative one; or another that emphasizes English readings.

"It has traditional teffilot [prayers] and modern teffilot — all throughout there are different themes and options," said Goldblatt, whose congregation has been using the Reconstructionist Shabbat prayerbook for four years. "There are ways of making the teffilot accessible to a very diverse gathering…which is very apropos for the congregation that comes to services with us."

The last Reconstructionist machzor was published in 1948, and in recent years many of the movement's 98 congregations have been compiling their own prayerbooks or using those published by other movements.

Although approximately 50,000 American Jews identify themselves as Reconstructionist, there are just two Reconstructionist congregations in Northern California — Ner Shalom in Cotati and Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto.

There are 10 Reconstructionist congregations in California, including Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, which purchased 2,025 copies of the new machzor. University Synagogue in Irvine ordered 1,000 copies.

Launched in the 1930s by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the Reconstructionist movement defines Judaism as an "evolving religious civilization." Jews are encouraged to study tradition anew and reformulate ancient beliefs and practices in light of their own understanding of Jewish teachings and ideals.

It was the first movement to celebrate the bat mitzvah and to reject the idea that Jews are God's chosen people.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.