The Story of a Broken Spine


 I love my Mishkan Tefillah, the blue Shabbat siddur(prayer book) we use every week of the year. It’s the standard size of every other siddur in the sanctuary. But it’s a special edition, made with a stronger binding. And, get this: the page edges are gilded in gold. It has the look of an antiquarian treasure and the heft of the holy. 

Over so many years of regular hard-core use, my siddur has come to conform to my hands. The balance point on its spine is perfect. It never feels too big or unwieldy. The book knows what page I’m going to next. It opens at all the places we pray from. The oil from my fingers has left darkened corners on the pages with prayers I’ve opened to a million times, like Aleinu (pg 586or the Kaddish (pg 598)

I’ve spent real quality time with my siddur, at services large and small. Cold snowy Friday nights when we’re lucky to have a minyan (including a Torah or two…), big b’nai mitzvah celebrations with 250 people in the sanctuary, opening a Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah – the list goes on. The beat goes on.

I love my siddur. So you can imagine how I felt when someone, somehow, took my siddur out of the sanctuary, something I NEVER do, my deluxe siddur with the gilded pages, and used it to copy some prayers. If that were all, dayeinu – it would’ve been enough. But it was far worse. While putting it in the copier, the culprit placed it on the glass surface of the machine. They then clearly pressed the siddur down hard to copy both sides of the book. I saw my siddur in the copy room next to the paper cutter and wondered why it was not in its proper place. I opened it and could instantly tell that it had been damaged. The offender inadvertently cracked the binding.

I was crushed. I felt violated and was almost in tears. My siddur, my source of strength, the sacred vessel with which I led the congregation in prayer and celebration, was broken. You might say, “Well, Rabbi; we own a few hundred copies of the siddur. Just grab one of those, or buy another one.” I didn’t want to take one out of congregational circulation. It would somehow not be kosher to use it. The siddurim are yours, not mine. 

I did call the CCAR to inquire about the availability of a special edition. The head of the CCAR Press personally searched high and low, but there were no more special editions for sale. They had sold out years ago. 

I decided I would simply carry on using my gilded, injured siddur. But it didn’t feel the same in my hands. It felt fragile. Whenever I turned the pages, I could feel the broken spine. It didn’t naturally open to the usual pages anymore. I had to open it cautiously to avoid turning to the wrong page. It was not ideal, but what else could I do? 

Then, a moment of reckoning. During a Jazz Shabbat service, when I turned to the Amidah (pg 164), two pages came loose. The spine had failed. I was heartbroken. What was I to do now? 

We had decided last year that with so many of our congregational siddurim in disrepair, we needed to send them to a bindery for restoration. So, with a heavy heart, I realized that I would have to trust my siddur in the hands of an unknown bookbinder. With God and Doug Ball as my witnesses, I taped a note to the cover of my prayer book. It read, “This is my beloved siddur. Please be kind to it.” It came back about two months later. It looked good! The binding was restored, maybe better than ever. I was mightily relieved and most grateful. But it’s not quite the same siddur it was ten years ago. We’ll need to get reacquainted. 

As the river pulls us all along, as we approach the rapids of a new year, we acknowledge that nothing is perfect, nothing stays the same. The pressures of work, infirmity, conflict, reversals in love and work and life, crushing disappointment in us and others – all the stuff that makes adult life so hard can cause us to break, just like the spine of my siddur. Amid adversity, what are we to do?

Giving up or giving in is sometimes the path of least resistance, but that’s rarely the best path. In the end, all we can do is to trust others to help us mend what is broken in us. This isn’t easy. There’s nothing carefree about it. We have to take a step towards health and believe there are those out there ready to catch us when we falter and fall. Nothing returns to the way it was. The past is accessible through memory but not through spirit.

My beautiful siddur is the same – but different, just like me. That may be one of the hardest truths about aging, about our victories and our losses. We’re precisely who we’ve always been. And we’re not. The river changes us – and I’m not just talking about wrinkles. 5780 will be here soon. I’m excited to face a new year knowing I don’t – I can’t! – face it alone. I’ve got my family, my friends, and my colleagues – and, thank God, I have you. So let’s embrace it all together: finitude and eternity, loss and new life, endings and beginnings, laughter and tears. With patience and humor, we can help each other mend our souls.

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