“San Francisco is home to about a dozen egalitarian congregations, yet Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in the Inner Richmond, is the only one that provides the essential community service of a daily minyan. I say it’s essential because of the Jewish practice of saying Kaddish daily for 11 months after the passing of a loved one, a practice more common among liberal, egalitarian Jews than one might assume.“
We’re proud of our minyan. Many members describe it as our congregation’s “beating heart.” Our regular daveners (prayer participants) join the minyan because they want to be there for every person who needs to pray, recite the mourner’s Kaddish, or recall the anniversary of a loved one’s passing with communal support. CBS is the minyan‘s home, providing space, financial support, and leadership, but the minyan is literally and figuratively “made” by those who participate – people like congregant David Malman.
Years ago, David and his wife, fellow congregant Ellen Shireman, read an issue of CJ Voices, the magazine of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), that included a feature about an East Coast minyan that presented a personalized siddur (prayer book) to individuals who came regularly to say Kaddish for a loved one. Ellen and David were inspired by the lovely tradition, and decided that CBS should and could offer the same.
“The people who come [to say Kaddish] do it to honor their parent or loved one,” David told me recently, “but the rest of the minyan deeply appreciates it. It’s a kind of symbiosis – the minyan supports the mourners, but, through their regular presence for those months, the mourners support the minyan.”
In 2008, David approached Rabbi Micah Hyman, then the spiritual leader of CBS, and proposed that CBS adopt the siddur gifting tradition. Once Rabbi Hyman was on board, David bought a calligraphy pen and obtained a number of siddurim and label stickers from the CBS office. The next step? Learning how to create calligraphy for the bookplates David would place in the front of each siddur.
“When we read that [CJ Voices] article, I thought about it and said to Ellen, ‘I know how to do this!’ I’ve been fascinated with letters since I was a kid.” As a teenager, David practiced writing calligraphy in English and even dabbled with some Hebrew. Later, in his twenties, when the art career of David Moss took off, he was reminded of how moving calligraphy and Judaica can be. “I was looking at these insanely beautiful ketubot…and [the work] broke my heart.” David considered picking up the practice again, but his calligraphic impulse lay dormant until he and Ellen decided to get married in 2005. “When I started thinking about our ketubah,” he recalled, “I felt I should do it – create the calligraphy.” And so he did. Today, the ketubah that David created, which incorporates both English and Hebrew text, hangs in their home. “I guess it worked out!,” he said with a smile.
The labels David used for his first CBS siddurim bookplates were small, and fewer lines of text could fit; as a result, only English text was included. As his calligraphic confidence grew, so, too, did the label size. Today, each bookplate features an English inscription as well as the name of the memorialized individual in both English and Hebrew. The date on which the deceased passed away is also included, using both the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars. David points out that the date serves a practical purpose – whenever the siddur owner wants to double check the date of their loved one’s Yahrzeit, they need only crack their prayer book.
Since 2008, David has created approximately 20 bookplates. His process and specific approach continue to evolve. Currently, David is trying to find the ideal label stock. The original, smaller labels took the ink well, with little bleeding. He hopes to find a larger label that does the same. The personalized siddur gifting practice has also spread; David and Ellen are evening minyan regulars, but the morning “minyan-aires” learned of the practice through the CBS grapevine and soon adopted it.
What hasn’t changed in almost a decade is the bookplates’ purpose and the hand creating them. Each is crafted with care by David, placed in a siddur, and presented to a minyan participant who completes the 11-month period of mourning. (Occasionally, if the last day of Kaddish is missed, the presentation will occur on the first Yahrzeit of the deceased.) David describes this presentation as “a tiny ritual, maybe 20 seconds long,” but its brevity is not a reflection of its meaningfulness or sincerity.
Each bookplate is a handsome artifact. David, ever humble, attributes this to the art of calligraphy rather than his particular hand. He thinks that the Hebrew letters, in particular, are “extremely beautiful,” and not just aesthetically. “We’re the People of the Book. Our letters are the atomic particles of our civilization. When you look at these pieces, you might think, ‘Oh, they’re just bookplates,’ but they’re not. Each one is a little brick in the greater Jewish building.” This is true with respect to language – David points out that including both the English and Hebrew helps Hebrew literacy – but also klal Yisrael (all of the Jewish people). “Fundamentally, this is a community building enterprise. It enriches our community and it enriches the history of these books – it’s all about continuity. When these become ‘feral’ siddurim, set out into the wild, someone will open these prayer books and see names and a date, and know a bit more about where this book lived and whose lives it touched. That’s important.”
It is, indeed. Kol HaKavod, David! Thank you for this wonderful mitzvah!
CBS encourages all community members to sustain and strengthen our twice-daily minyan through participation. As David points out, ours is the only egalitarian minyan “between Los Angeles and Vancouver, and perhaps west of the Rockies with the exception of Phoenix [and the aforementioned cities].” Pick one day of the week (or even just one day a month), and commit to joining the minyan for davening in the morning, evening, or both. Not only will you sometimes have the privilege and honor of making minyan when a mourner from outside the community has come to CBS to say Kaddish; you might even find yourself surprised by the value of a regular commitment to Jewish prayer.