The Mystery of My Mother’s Prayer Book

It started with an email. The subject line: “Sylvia Kanner’s Siddur.” Kanner was my late mother’s maiden name. Siddur is the Hebrew word for prayer book. I was, to say the least, intrigued.

The sender explained that she had purchased several Judaic items on eBay. One was a small, leather-bound prayer book. On the inner flap she found the name Sylvia Kanner, written in pencil. Curious, she searched and discovered my mother’s obituary, identifying me among her survivors.

She kept digging. With more online digging, she found my profile and email link on the website for Rutgers University, where I am a part-time instructor.

In the email she stated her intention: “I would like to return all of the items to you and your family.”

The email included a photo of the page with my mother’s name. The careful script was unmistakably my mother’s hand. The address under the signature was familiar, too: 169 Hewes St., Brooklyn, N.Y.

I did some searching of my own and confirmed that the sender was legit. In an exchange of emails, we established that she lives in Highland Park, just across the Raritan River from the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick.

I suggested a meeting near her home; she did me one better. Her neighbor happened to be the assistant to the dean at the School of Communication and Information, where I teach. And so, the next Tuesday morning, I walked up two flights from my ground-floor journalism lab and was handed my mother’s siddur.

It was like touching a holy grail. Yet it seemed out of character with everything I thought I knew about my mother.

I grew up in Queens, in a decidedly secular family. Our neighborhood was largely Jewish, but we didn’t belong to the nearby shul. My parents had affixed a mezuza to our front door jamb, but we didn’t light Sabbath candles, nor did we fast on Yom Kippur. Other holidays were special, but only because my mother would fill the table with traditional food.

Unlike most of my boyhood friends, I did not attend Hebrew school. At 12, to pacify my father’s father — my last surviving grandparent — I took a cram course for my bar mitzvah from a rabbi in Bayside who tutored unaffiliated boys like me in his basement.

As far as I knew, my mother’s upbringing was similarly lacking in religious fervor. While my grandmother was renowned for her homemade gefilte fish, my maternal grandparents were not, to my knowledge, particularly observant.

For my mother, Jewishness was more a matter of pride than practice. She made sure my older sister and I shared her sentimentality. Watching old movies on TV we were informed whenever a Jewish actor appeared. Edward G. Robinson? Real name Emanuel Goldenberg. John Garfield? Jacob Garfinkle. Lauren Bacall? Betty Joan Perske. Dinah Shore? Also, a Yiddishe meydele. (My mother’s brothers even made up Jewish names for our baseball heroes. Mickey Mantle became Mickey Mendel.)

But that did not explain my mother’s siddur. Never had I seen her read Hebrew, much less recite a prayer.

That morning in New Brunswick, the siddur was turned over to me inside a wine-red Tallis bag. Nestled alongside it were a threadbare Tallis, two nondescript yarmulkes (one black, one white) and a single piece of tefillin, the small box with leather straps that orthodox men wrap on their arms and head during prayer. (The Tallis bag only contained the arm piece.) None of the items provided any identifying marks, other than my mother’s siddur.

I was overjoyed, but mystified. How had these sacred items worked their way through eBay to this woman’s hands? When did my mother own this siddur? Where had it been all these decades? And were the other items from my family, too?

The initial clues appeared on the prayer book’s inside flap. First, I investigated the address. From conversations I had had with my mother, I knew her family had moved to Hewes Street around 1922, when she was 5 years old. From the 1930 census, I learned the family had relocated to a new Brooklyn address on Lafayette Avenue.

I could now surmise that my mother was given the book at some point before 1930, when she was perhaps 10 or 12. Below her address, she had written a poem:

I pity the river

I pity the brook

I pity the one

That steals this book!

Most likely this was something my mother had seen in an autograph book upon graduating elementary school. It was hardly original; it was certainly the work of a child.

The book itself is a treasure. Measuring about 5-inches tall by 3-inches wide, its leather binding is embossed with an elegant geometric border. On the front cover and spine are the words “Daily Prayers.” Inside, the title page reads, “The Form of Daily Prayers According to te [sic] custom of the German and Polish Jews.” Each page in Hebrew faces a page in English translation. Published in Vienna in 1857 by Jos. Schlesinger Library, it was probably created for the American market.

Another possible clue: One of the siddur’s 675 gilt-edged pages is dog-eared at “The Memorial of Departed Souls.”

Eager to learn more, I went back to the eBay listing and messaged the seller. She replied within minutes with a significant clue. The seller had acquired the Tallis bag and its contents at an estate sale at “the Kanner home in Garden City.”

Another bolt from the blue! This was the home of my mother’s older brother, Dr. George Kanner, and his family. Rather than travel some circuitous route through multiple owners before landing on eBay, the prayer book had been in my family all along, in a house where I had spent many childhood sleepovers with my cousin David.

I contacted David immediately. After the death of his parents, he and his sister were overwhelmed by the task of cleaning out the family home. They sold the house with all its contents to a new owner who subsequently held the estate sale.

Now I had proof that all of the items could be traced back to my family. That made sense — except for the tefillin. Could it have been used by my mother’s father or any of her three brothers? It didn’t seem likely.

Then I remembered the photos of my maternal great-grandfather, Benjamin Sass, a pious-looking old soul with sad eyes and a biblical beard. I knew that Benjamin’s wife, my great-grandmother Rebecca (known as Becky), died in 1932. Perhaps they were the ones who gave the little prayer book to my mother.

A picture began to form. I can see my little-girl mom, walking hand-in-hand to shul with her bearded grandfather. He is carrying my mother’s siddur in his Tallis bag. Finding a seat in the shul, he dons his holy accouterments and together they chant the memorial prayers for the departed Becky.

Now, 90 years later, my mother’s siddur has come home, a long-forgotten relic restored to loving hands. Somewhere, Sylvia is kvelling.

Ken Schlager is a lecturer in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.