The Arty Semite

A Dutch Monastery’s Jewish Prayer Books

By Menachem Wecker

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Photo: Menachem Wecker

For the past three years, mid-March has meant for me a pilgrimage to the southern Dutch town of Maastricht to cover The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). Undoubtedly one of the world’s finest, the fair offers (for a hefty price) everything from Greco-Roman antiquities and Rembrandts to Warhols, photography and modern sculpture. The best metaphor I can think of for navigating the fair’s 275 galleries is an ice cream headache that comes from too thoroughly tantalizing the eye with too many artistic treasures.

I have also, for the past three years, walked several times from my hotel to the intersection of Maastricht’s Sint Pieterstraat and Achter De Oude Minderbroeders streets, the latter of which is Dutch for “Behind the Old Franciscans.” There, I thumbed through Jewish books at a former Franciscan monastery dating back to the 13th century.

The reading room of the Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg, Limburg’s regional historic center, has the soaring, vaulted ceilings and stunning windows one would expect of a monastery. Like many in Holland, the building changed hands when Frederik Hendrik, the prince of Orange, conquered the city in 1632. The church heads were beheaded, and the building became an orphanage, military hospital, jail and even sauerkraut factory.

But as Johan van de Walle, the head of library, led me through the halls and archives, it seemed always to have been a center of learning and intense study. Like across town at TEFAF, there was always too much for me to possibly take in, so I focused my attention on older Hebrew books, which had been recently discovered hidden under the roof of a Maastricht synagogue.

The first book I studied was, according to its Hebrew title page bearing twisted and vine-encircled columns, part one of an Ashkenazi machzor for Sabbath, holidays, and Rosh Chodesh. The date on the title page suggested the enormous and heavy book had been printed in 1709. Handwriting throughout the book eluded interpretation, but I noticed several publishing decisions. First, the name of God was never fully spelled out (to avoid desecration of the divine name); instead, it was depicted in a hybrid, pseudo-letter most closely resembling the Hebrew tet.

On page two, I sought variations in the morning blessings, and I discovered, “Blessed are you God, king of the university, for not making me a Cuthite.” I noted with interest that the prayer book featured not only illustrations, but figurative ones, typically around initial words. Many of the illustrations seem to follow Zodiac signs (which also appear on the title page), and some of the figures are semi-nude.

A second book, an 1882 copy of Genesis, featured six figurative illustrations on the title page. Atop the page, Moses (with horned rays of light) sits alongside his brother Aaron, in full high priest-regalia, each holding onto the 10 Commandments. An unusual artistic program of the binding of Isaac, the revelation at Sinai, the burning of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, Moses striking the rock, and Moses giving of his “honor” to Joshua line the bottom of the page.

The title page of a third book, dated to 1856 Prussia, identified the work as “The Voice of Crying” — a prayer book for the fast of the 9th of Av. The small German and Yiddish book, which began with laws of the fast, quickly turned to the rituals and readings of the day.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of the graphite underlining appearing prominently on many pages. (Another book that I saw, a 1568 book of Isaiah had pencil-drawn flowers, or windmills, in the margins.) But then the former Torah-reader in me was revived. What I was seeing, I realized, was a window into how Dutch Jews prayed more than 150 years ago. The pencil lines were guides for the cantor, indicating which lines to read out loud to the congregation.

I noticed many similarities between the sections that prayer leaders recite aloud in congregations today, as well as variations. In a section for the evening prayer, the graphite dictated that the hazan recite a verse I wasn’t used to hearing out loud in synagogue: “And we will be joyful in the words of Your Torah and in Your commandments forever.” Certain sections were sliced through by pencil lines, which revealed to me that no Kaddish was recited by the hazzan before the Amidah of the evening service.

In the book of Lamentations, I noted with interest that square brackets alerted the chanter when to adopt a different tune for the particularly devastating details of the book, which not only bears my name quite a few times, but also details the sack of Jerusalem and the ensuing destruction.

And in the dirges (kinnot) that followed after the book, something timeless emerged. Several of the songs of mourning had a familiar pencil line crossing them out. In the mid-19th century, there was evidently also a need to get on with the prayer and cut some corners here and there.

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