After years of effort, Oakland synagogue publishes own siddur

At one point while crafting his new Shabbat siddur, or prayerbook, “Shirat Avraham” (“Song of Abraham”), Rabbi Mark Bloom turned to a time-honored editing technique: the sticky-note method.

For months on end, the rabbi of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham asked congregants to review early drafts of the siddur, and stick Post-It notes of comments on the pages.

He got plenty of notes.

“It was brutal,” the Conservative rabbi said, laughing. “Lots of people were looking at it. We would find doz-ens of mistakes every week for years.”

Rabbi Mark Bloom

That’s all behind him now. The mistake-free “Song of Abraham” is finally done. It made its debut as the synagogue’s official siddur at a June 2 dedication.

The project originated in the wake of congregant grumblings about the Conservative movements’ siddur, “Sim Shalom,” first published in 1985. Those complaints included everything from an absence of gender inclusivity to tiny print and lack of Hebrew transliteration.

The revised version of “Sim Shalom” in 1998 didn’t fare much better (Bloom joked that some of his congregants called it “Slim Shalom” because of its relative brevity). “For all those reasons,” he said, “we needed a new siddur.”

The synagogue’s ritual committee considered using other editions, and though many had good qualities, none fit the description the rabbi and Beth Abraham congregants sought.

That’s when Bloom recalled the old adage: If you want something done right, do it yourself.

Although “Shirat Avraham” sticks closely to the traditional liturgy and order of service, Bloom made bold design and content decisions. The layout is simple, with one prayer per page, along with prayer explanations, Hebrew transliteration and line-by-line English translations to lock in the meaning.

The siddur included the imahot (mothers) along with the avot (fathers) and employs the term “sovereign” rather than “king” in translating the Hebrew word melech. But for the most part, rather than take creative liberties with the text, Bloom went the other way.

“We wanted a translation that was accurate and not overly interpretive,” he said. “Most siddurim are more poetic in the English. I wanted interpretive accuracy.”

Throughout, Bloom added pass-ages from the classic talmudic text, Pirke Avot, usually as footnotes.

When it came to “choreography” (as he put it), the directions are clear. Bloom even inserted a little Magen David symbol to indicate when the service leader is supposed to speak.

He also chose to reinstate passages standard in Orthodox siddurs, but usually deleted from those compiled by more liberal denominations, such as references to the sacrifices held in the original temples in Jerusalem.

Bloom drew on a Temple Beth Abraham fund and individual donations to pay for the initial run of 550 copies. He says he’d be thrilled if other synagogues choose to use it, but for now he’s content to have the book be the mainstay at TBA.

Though it took three painstaking years to bring the siddur to fruition, Bloom noted that the experience was rewarding in more ways than one.

“This was a great exercise as a rabbi,” he said, “using  part of my brain I don’t always use. Rabbis are supposed to focus on scholarship, but most of my rabbinate has been the customer service aspect.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.