Desert Island Texts – My Grandfather’s Forces Prayer Book

I had a piece published in the Jewish News for their Desert Island Texts series (print version here).

Interestingly, my grandfather arranged for Rosh Hashanah services to take place in Devon, supported by a good friend and Rabbi Reinhardt (of the West London Synagogue). His commanding officer apparently told him if they were to have a ‘church’ like service then they would have to parade through the streets on the way to the service – which they duly did. Apparently my grandfather gave the sermon on Yom Kippur – but wasn’t happy with it (he was only 21). There is a lovely account of his time in the Pioneer Corps in Dr Helen Fry’s book ‘The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens’.

Here’s my Desert Island text piece:

A young man in 1940, a Private in the Pioneer Corp, is issued with a “Prayer Book for Jewish Members of H.M. Forces”. The prayer book survived the war and was given to me by my grandmother. The young man in question was my grandfather of blessed memory, and the prayer book is a treasured volume.

My grandfather had relatively recently arrived from Nazi Germany. He was an Enemy Alien, by virtue of his birthplace, and therefore, initially part of the Pioneer Corp. I never talked with him in great detail about his war time experiences, though I have read some of his memoirs.

The prayer book itself is short, a reflection of the exigencies of war; the midrashic teaching, that there is a time to lengthen and a time to shorten in one’s prayers, was surely created for times such as these.  Stuck on my Desert Island, I imagine energy will be better spent saving my life in deeds rather than praying for salvation. The composition of the prayers is deeply moving; I would find it very difficult to write prayers in times of such deep crisis. Drawing on traditional motifs from the liturgy, this prayer book speaks to the inner spirit of human kind.

More than the prayers, in being cast away with this book, I will be reminded of the troubles that have befallen my people and humanity. My family witnessed the devastation of life and the blackest of nights. Yet, with great nobility, people began to rebuild. They did not despair.

Can you imagine concluding prayers for those fallen in battle, ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’ only to go back to battle? These young soldiers did and then they went on to work for peace. Such profound resilience and fortitude. I would hope that the prayer book might remind me of my own capacity for strength and resourcefulness to tend to the future once again, as my grandfather did before me.

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