Fanny Neuda: A pioneer of women’s prayer

The first Jewish prayer book for women was written in Czech Lands

Seder Avodat Israel, Schocken, 1937, the National Library of Israel collections (photo credit: UDI EDERY)
Seder Avodat Israel, Schocken, 1937, the National Library of Israel collections
(photo credit: UDI EDERY)
To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Czech Republic, it gives me great pleasure to present a remarkable story – a narrative that reflects the long-standing and
deep-rooted ties between our two countries.
Fanny Neuda (1819-1894) was a Czech-Jewish writer who lived in the small town of Loštice, Moravia, near Olomouc – today, about three hours’ drive from Prague. In 1854, she wrote a prayer book –  the first Jewish prayer book written for women, by a woman. Her landmark work included dozens of personal, emotion-laden prayers relating to multiple facets of women’s lives, offering spiritual food and thoughts for the ordinary woman. Her labor of sorrow and love not only dignified the commonplace events of women’s lives, enabling their recognition of moments of transition – it empowered her fellow women in prayer, bolstered self-esteem, and created consciousness of their social role.
Hours of Devotion first appeared in 1855 and rapidly became the standard women’s prayer book of its time - not only in the Jewish world but also within the Czech lands and the German-speaking world, spheres with which Neuda was very familiar and where she was well-known.
After I discovered this extraordinary prayer book for women and girls, I set out to find out more about Fanny Neuda, seeking answers to my questions as to the motives and processes leading to its appearance in Czech, of all languages and localities. These and many other questions came to frame my imaginary conversation with Neuda’s story and messages as I labored over the Hebrew translation over the course of a decade.
An Extraordinary Woman of Her Time
The work drew its origins from Fanny’s own life. Her husband died young, leaving her a widow at age 35 with three small children. It is nothing short of amazing that, as someone who knew how to give voice to her ideas, Neuda resolved to set down her contemplations in writing and – possibly intentionally – to transform those words, thoughts, and concepts into prayers, to reach out and support so many others like herself. What a triumph of willpower this must have been for her – not least when she learned that her messages resonated with others and that society was eager to receive her devotions and hopes. It became a best-seller and was reprinted more than forty times, proving that her innermost convictions and hopes rang strong and true.
Fanny Neuda, an author living in an era when rigid perceptions about female roles prevailed, gave women a voice as she articulated and published a work of tremendous spiritual and social significance for women and young girls. Two critical reviews by members of the clergy applauded Neuda’s capacity to touch people’s hearts and emotions, which explains its appeal to a wide audience. The compelling appeal of her work has not been diluted by time, but calls to us now from an era where far fewer women received a Jewish or general education. Indeed, the concepts in this work and its popularity offer a prism of valuable light into everyday reality and bear witness to the hopes of generations of women who read it – Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
To mark the bicentenary of Neuda’s birth, I chose to translate her work into Hebrew, publishing it in Israel – a labor of love, learning, and conviction that spanned a decade.
A Heritage Revitalized
My initial quest led in 2008 to a first visit to the Czech Republic, where I encountered many individuals who revealed that Fanny Neuda had touched their lives. They sought to transmit to others the unique, transcendent gift she had bestowed upon them. One of these special people isLudek Štipl , whom happenstance placed in my path. Ludek founded an amazing organization called Respect and Tolerance, housed in the reconstructed Loštice synagogue. He became deeply involved with the Fanny Neuda project: the modern Czech translation would not have seen the light of day without his unfailing support and endeavors.
After being elected as a Member of the Knesset, I approached Daniel Herman, then the Czech Minister of Culture, to seek recognition by the Czech government for the destroyed Synagogue in Loštice.  During a moving ceremony attended by the Minister, the Israel Ambassador, the Mayoress of Loštice, and many other distinguished figures, a plaque dedicated to Fanny Neuda was unveiled at the entrance to the building, with an inscription in Hebrew, Czech, and English.
One hundred sixty years after its first publication, Neuda’s Hours of Devotion has now appeared in contemporary translations in Czech, Hebrew, and English has been restored to its rightful place on our bookshelves. The volume’s widespread popularity also bears witness to the strong, neighborly, cultural bonds once shared by the Jews with the Czech people, long before the Shoah darkened their lives; these ties have now been granted a new lease on life.
You are welcome to share Neuda’s voyage of personal discovery. Her book is not merely another voice from the past: it is a lifelong companion that speaks to us all today – an enduring gift of self-fulfillment and life from a remarkable woman to her contemporaries and generations in the future.
This article was written in cooperation with Donath Business & Media s.r.o.