My summer book-sale prowling in Connecticut uncovered more great Jewish finds in the last month, both religious and secular. For the investment of $6.50 I bought at two library sales:

  • Miami Beach, published in Yiddish in 1937 by essayist and humorist Herman Eager of Catskill, NY, complete with a palm tree on the cover.
  • Daily Prayers Siddur, published in English and Hebrew in 1901 by the Hebrew Publishing Company in New York
  • Siddur Tefila/Israelitsche Gebetordnung, published in German and Hebrew in Stuttgart in 1862.

Each book enchants me in its own antique way. Eager dedicated his slim collection of light verse to “mein leibn fater un mamer.” The book kicks off with a poem titled “Fun Vinter af Zumer.” Another selection is titled “Miami’s Toyshvim,” or “Miami’s Residents.” (I’m glad I had my Weinreich Yiddish-English Dictionary close at hand for the translation, since otherwise I would have translated the title as something like “Miami’s Tushes.”)

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The 1901 prayerbook, compact and gilt-edged, opens with a page to be signed as part of a marriage, “according to the laws of the State of [insert name] and in accordance with the customs of Israel,” with space for the signature of the “minister.” The book brims with that archaic form of King James Bible-era English long beloved for religious texts, as in, “The Lord frustrateth the counsel of the nations; he annihilateth the devices of the people.”

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The Siddur Tefila from Stuttgart made the biggest impression on me. With its gilt-edge pages, heavy cover and crisp printing of deep-black Gothic lettering, the book dazzles with its durability and quality—genuine Teutonic craftsmanship, if I might use that phrase. Published in 1862, the book sailed through 152 years with barely a scratch. The pages are yellowed, but I have no doubt the book will easily survive another 150 years to 2164. What will that journey entail, what travels will the book make after whatever adventures brought it from the Jewish community of Stuttgart to the U.S. to the “old books” table at the Pequot Library sale in Southport, Connecticut, priced at a very reasonable $2?

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Naturally, I had to investigate the book, credited to Rabbi Joseph von Maier of Stuttgart. The 1906 entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia says this about him:

German rabbi; born in 1797; died at Stuttgart Aug. 19, 1873. He was president of the first rabbinical conference held at Brunswick in 1844, and he was also a member of the Jewish Consistory of Württemberg. In recognition of his many philanthropic activities and of his participation in all the spiritual movements of the day he was ennobled by the King of Württemberg. This gave him the distinction of being the first German rabbi belonging to the nobility (“Allg. Zeit. des Jud.” 1873, p. 585)

And a German-Jewish website listing of rabbis has this entry on him:

Maier, Dr. Joseph [von], Geburtsname Joseph Rosenthal (geb. 1798 Laudenbach, gest. 1873 Stuttgart): studierte in Fürth, Mainz und Heidelberg, 1827 Religionslehrer in Frankfurt, um 1830 Rb in Lehrensteinsfeld, 1832/34-1873 Rb in Stuttgart und theol. Mitglied der Israelit. Oberkirchenbehörde, 1844 Teilnehmer an der ersten Rabbiner-Versammlung in Braunschweig mit liberalen Ansichten; als erster Rb in Deutschland geadelt.

I reflected on all the family history that has passed since the book appeared. My great-grandfather, Lehman Michelson, was born in Posen, Germany in 1860; his wife was Esther Bath Michelson, born in Posen in 1865. They married in 1889. Rabbi von Maier’s book was still new then. Surely my great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Hayyim Schwarz, from Kempen, Germany, knew of the book from his rabbinical studies before he moved to Hempstead, Texas, in 1873. Perhaps he brought his own copy, straight from Rabbi von Maier, to Hempstead and continued his scholarly studies.

Every old book has a story of travel and survival, and this one carries the burden of history from a thriving Jewish center now gone. All I know is that Israelitsche Gebetordnung made its way to Fairfield County, Connecticut, I found it and it ain’t going anywhere without me from now on. Whomever comes in the generations to follow may forget all about me, but I’ll do everything possible to ensure they treasure Rabbi von Maier’s book when it celebrates its 300th anniversary (plus two years) in the inconceivably distant year of 2164.

Then again, 2014 sounded a long way off in 1862, didn’t it? And look where we are now.