by Patricia Scully FCRH’25
The Prayer Book for Jewish Members of His Majesty’s Forces in Fordham’s Judaica Collection (SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1941 2) was published in the middle of World War II in 1941 (5702) in London. It was approved by the Chief Rabbi of Britain for the use of Jewish soldiers in the British Armed Forces. Written in both English and Hebrew, the book also opens differently than Western books written in Latin script do; instead of turning the pages from right to left, they are, as is true of Hebrew books, turned left to right.
The prayer book, which contains traditional prayers, was printed by the H.M. (His Majesty’s) Stationery Office, which also published other issues of the Prayer Book for Jewish Members of His Majesty’s Forces, including in 1940 and 1943. The fact that this printer produced two other editions from years both before and after this specific prayer book was published suggests that there was a demand for Jewish prayer books for Jewish soldiers throughout World War II, that Jewish soldiers were an important part of the British Armed Forces, and that the Jewish community made an effort to provide Jewish soldiers with compact prayer books as they went to war.
The back of the title page notes that the 1941 edition was issued in 15,000 copies. That was in addition to the 50,000 copies published in the 1940 edition.
The H.M. Stationery Office had published similar prayer books during the Great War, over 20 years before. In fact, the note of the Office of the Chief Rabbi stated that this version was “substantially the same” as the edition “issued in the latter part of the Great War.” The first edition was published in 1914, with 16,000 copies and with other editions in 1917 and 1918, presumably those mentioned in the note.[i]
The fact that the British government was involved in the publication of Jewish prayer books means that they acknowledged the existence of the Jewish soldiers in their armed forces risking their lives for the British Empire. According to Yad Vashem, about 30,000 Jewish citizens served in the British Armed Forces.[ii] Other works that the H.M. Stationery Office published include both governmental reports and correspondence between the United States and Great Britain. Examples of other publications from the H.M. Stationery Office are Further Correspondence with the United States Ambassador and Reports of Visits of Inspection Made by Officials of the United States Embassy, both of which are from 1916.
This copy of the 1941 edition of the Prayer Book for Jewish Members of His Majesty’s Forces in Fordham’s collection measures only 15.2 by 9.8 centimeters and could easily fit in a pocket or bag. Only 76 pages long, it has several different types of prayers inside: festival prayers, patriotic prayers, mourning prayers, including prayers for “the sick and wounded” and a memorial prayer “for those fallen in battle,” alongside morning and evening prayers.
On the first few pages, there are inscriptions indicating previous ownership of the book. On one page the words, in French, “Pour Alex”-“For Alex” are written. The name “Alex” likely refers to Alexander Birenboim, whose full name and his address in “Pardes-Hanna, Palestine,” appears on the cover page of the book. Palestine had been under British rule since 1917 until after the Second World War, but this particular soldier appears to have been given this prayer book by a French speaker.[iii] In his book, Jews and the Military: A History, historian Derek Penslar writes, “Palestinian Jewry’s contributions to war industry were portrayed as part of world Jewry’s commitment to fight for Britain and against Hitler by any means necessary.”[iv] The Jewish sacrifice that was displayed by Jewish men who fought in World War II is linked with the rise of Zionism and the continued nationalism that many Jews expressed during the early 19th century. These two diverging viewpoints of Jewish people, Jewish Nationalism, or Zionism, which was the wish that all Jews will return to Israel, and European Nationalism, Jews remaining in the countries of Europe and staying loyal to those countries, gave Jewish communities a reason to become involved with the war effort. If the Allies won, Jewish people would be able to survive and escape the Nazi regime, thus having the ability to ether migrate to Palestine or stay in Europe.
When looking at the physical book in Fordham’s archives, one can see that the spine and cover of the book are missing. The size of the font is not too small considering that this prayer book is so tiny in both page number and in area. For soldiers on the front lines, the font size is big enough to read in dim light, but condensed enough to fit full prayers on each page. This particular copy of the Prayer Book for Jewish Members of His Majesty’s Forces has pages that have been stained with water or maybe sweat and the binding is fragile, signifying that the book had been used frequently by its owner.
Since the Prayer Book for Jewish Members of His Majesty’s Forces is composed of prayers for the Sabbath and certain Jewish holidays, soldiers were perhaps able to celebrate and participate in the Sabbath and religious festivals even away from home. For the soldiers using the Prayer Book for Jewish Members of His Majesty’s Forces, the destruction of European Jewry was in the forefront of their lives since they were fighting against the Nazis in order to liberate and save those in concentration camps. Although these Jewish members of the British Army were unable to be with their friends and family during wartime, the publication of this book indicates that the British Army understood the needs of Jewish soldiers.
Patricia Scully is an undergraduate student at Fordham College-Rose Hill. She wrote this essay during her first semester at Fordham in Professor Magda Teter’s class “Jews in the Modern World.”
[i] Prayer Book for Jewish Sailors and Soldiers. H.M. Stationery Office, with the Authority of the Chief Rabbi, 5678.
[ii] “Jewish Soldiers in the Allied Armies,” Yad Vashem, 2021, https://www.yadvashem.org/holocaust/about/combat-resistance/jewish-soldiers.html
[iii] “Memorandum by His Britannic Majesty’s Government presented in 1947 to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine Published at Jerusalem, 1947,” The Political History of Palestine under British Administration, 1947, https://www.un.org/unispal/document/auto-insert-185776/
[iv] Derek J. Penslar, “Chapter Six: The World Wars as Jewish Wars,” in Jews and the Military: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 216, ProQuest Ebook Central.