by JL Wall
While I was home last week I had the opportunity to see (and use) the new Reform siddur, “Mishkan T’Filah.” And, quite frankly, it’s gorgeous. In terms of design, printing, typeface, paper quality, understanding of how to use blank space (using blank space for effect in a prayerbook!) it simply blows every other siddur I’ve used out of the water.
I’ve seen some truly beautiful prayerbooks before — several Passover haggadot come to mind particularly, though they’re not the norm because: a) they’re expensive, b) there’s this weird devotion to the Maxwell House edition, and c) using the nice book during a service when you know someone’s going to spill a glass of wine all over the table at some point? But, regardless of denomination or religion, prayerbooks seem printed with a primarily utilitarian purpose. Even though there have been times in my life when I truly appreciate having instructions printed in my siddur along with the prayers, it was quite a relief to see one that tried to be beautiful rather than an instruction manual.
While I suppose it’s efficient, cost and space-wise, to print a book with column after column of black text that all looks the same in a fairly boring, fairly standard, generally bland font, it leaves something to be desired. And there’s certainly never blank space. That’s the most striking – and possibly the most beautiful – element of the book. Robert Bringhurst, not talking about siddurim:
A sentence, for the same reason, needs some unclaimed thinking room, and a page needs empty space: a moment of cognitive silence, for all the words we cannot speak or read. (“Boats Is Saintlier Than Captains,” Everywhere Being Is Dancing, p. 193.)
It’s probably evident by now, but just to be clear: it isn’t a picture-book. There is little – if not nothing – other than the words and the page. This is what makes the work so beautiful.
It is simple to sleepwalk through prayer, especially once one is too familiar with it. But when the page itself demands one acknowledge the beauty of the prayer, it becomes harder to forget one’s purpose in being there. To turn the page and see the single line of the sh’ma unfolding in curving text across the page two full pages – just the letters alone, the space around them blank – is to be reminded visually of the striking nature of that prayer.
All printed things should be done with care and treated as art – or at least a true craft. But books of prayer – itself an act of beauty, love, devotion, praise – especially have need of care and visual beauty. There’s plenty the Reform movement and I don’t agree on, but something has truly been accomplished with this new siddur – something of which the makers of any future book of prayer would do well to take note.