Unable to find a perfect prayerbook, retired rabbi writes his own

Rabbi Jerry Danzig dislikes prayer. Not the act. The term itself.

He says the Latin-derived word has a connotation of expecting God to reach down and solve problems. That notion undermines the Judaism he has come to believe in.

And that explains, in part, his motivation to compose “T’filotai,” his new self-published siddur, or Jewish prayerbook. For him, it’s all about empowerment (and no, he doesn’t like the term “prayerbook” either).

“I was a pulpit rabbi for 40 years using the traditional Conservative siddur,” said the retired former rabbi of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga. “A lot of the prayers and blessings no longer match reason. And then you start apologizing [for] what some prayers mean. You’re talking to an intelligent group of people. They don’t believe it literally, either.”

That includes concepts such as the resurrection of the dead and the coming of a messiah, notions that did not make the final cut in “T’filotai.” What he included, he said, “were those things that bind me to the people Israel.”

Rabbi Jerry Danzig

Danzig’s siddur began to take shape after he and his wife, Joy, moved to Santa Rosa in 2005. Because of the sparse Jewish community there, Danzig, 81, began to daven,  or pray, alone at home, which in turn caused him to reflect more deeply on traditional siddur prayers.

“The last few years I’ve been restudying my theology,” he said. “I started thinking about my relationship [with] God, and what God means to me.”

Like most siddurs, Danzig’s includes Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday night services), Shabbat morning, Musaf and Yizkor services, as well as prayers for home worship. The traditional order, and most of the original Hebrew, is preserved, certainly when it comes to Torah passages, which he considers inviolate.

But Danzig felt free to revise — or “transevaluate,” as he called it — traditional siddur prayers as he saw fit.

“I looked at translations of some siddurim, and they are awful,” he said. “I designed this as a siddur of empowerment. God doesn’t bring forth bread; He creates the resources.”

The word “empowerment” (h’etzim in Hebrew) pops up frequently in the Danzig siddur. And when something from the original didn’t quite work for him, he replaced it or offered an alternative. Even in the Mourner’s Kaddish.

His alternate Oseh Shalom in English reads: “One who brings peace to the heights, inspire us to bring peace for all Israel and the world…”

Although fluent in biblical Hebrew, Danzig asked his Israeli son-in-law, Dan Epelman, for help with the modern Hebrew renderings — giving him clear orders.

“His philosophy is God doesn’t do anything; He enables the people to do things,” Epelman noted. “It was a big undertaking, both from a theological and a logistical standpoint. It required he articulate a certain worldview and philosophy in the siddur.”

Danzig hails from a long line of esteemed sages. His 18th-century forebear, Avraham Danzig, was a noted Polish-born rabbi and codifier of Jewish law whose works became sources for halachic study.

He grew up Orthodox in New York, and attended yeshiva there throughout his youth. He came relatively late to the rabbinate, having served as education director and later executive director of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland in the 1960s before attending seminary in New York.

He went on to serve as rabbi at Beth David and co-found Yavneh Jewish Day School before a 14-year stint at Valley Beth Shalom in the San Fernando Valley.

For nearly 30 years, Danzig has lectured in the continuing education program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He has taught at Sonoma State University, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute near Los Angeles and many other institutions. He and his wife moved to Santa Rosa to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

Epelman was not the only family member who pitched in on the siddur. His wife, Joy, served as chief editor of the English passages, while his son, Aaron, designed the look and layout. His daughter, Adina, offered editing suggestions, as well.

Though Danzig wrote the siddur primarily for himself, he published it for anyone to enjoy and use. It’s for sale, though he recommends inquiring minds read his introduction first (av-ailable by email request), which explains his goals for the siddur.

Meanwhile, whenever Danzig davens these days, he has his own siddur in hand to guide him through.

“What it boils down to is our partnership with God,” he said. “I love the notion that the rabbis [of talmudic times] had, that we are co-partners with God.”

“T’filotai: A Siddur of Empowerment” revised and authored by Rabbi Jerry Danzig (156 pages, self-published, $20). For information, write to tfillotai@gmail.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.