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Rabbi Jules Harlow, 92, Dies; Helped Redefine Conservative Jewish Prayer

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Rabbi Jules Harlow, a liturgist who brought a poet’s sensibility and a musician’s cadence to the style of prayer in Conservative Judaism for much of the second half of the 20th Century, died on Feb. 12. He was 92.

His wife, Navah Harlow, said the cause was aspiration pneumonia. She did not say where he died.

For a time, Rabbi Harlow’s major works — prayer books for daily, Sabbath, festival and High Holy Days use — became the standards for worship in Conservative synagogues in North America. Several of his books sold well over 100,000 copies each, according to the Rabbinical Assembly, which published them.

Conservative Judaism, which occupies a middle ground between the more liberal Reform and the more traditional Orthodox, was the largest movement in American Judaism until Reform surpassed it in the 1990s.

Though Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer, Rabbi Harlow aspired to make the prayer book accessible to those who did not speak the language. He did this through elegant, if not always literal, translations into English that often captured the rhyme and meter of the original texts.

At a funeral service for Rabbi Harlow in Manhattan on Feb. 14, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, called him “the resident poet of the Conservative movement.”

Jewish liturgy, Rabbi Schorsch noted, is often “burdened with an excess of words.” Rabbi Harlow wrote and translated prayers and excised more than a few.

“He taught us that fewer words well spoken go farther than many words we no longer understand,” Rabbi Scorsch said. “He taught us that less is more.”

Many of Rabbi Harlow’s liturgical innovations were in “Siddur Sim Shalom,” a daily and Sabbath prayer book published in 1985.

When “Sim Shalom” was published, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, then the vice president of the rabbinical organization, said it was the first prayer book to “incorporate the creation of the State of Israel as a theological reality and the Holocaust as a moral tragedy.”

In an interview with the weekly publication Long Island Jewish World in 1986, Rabbi Kelman said, “What Jules managed to do is not only produce a book with liturgical beauty and a beauty of design and translation, but produce a book which traces the evolution of Conservative Jewish theology.”

The volume also included several original poems by Rabbi Harlow, among them “Changing Light,” which was offered as an alternative to parts of the evening service known as ma’ariv:

Resplendent skies, sunset, sunrise
The grandeur of creation lifts our lives
Evening darkness, morning dawn
Renew our lives as You renew all time.

The full poem was even set to music, by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. The piece had its world premiere in Helsinki in 2002, on the first anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, and its American premiere at Carnegie Hall in 2003.

On a smaller scale, one of Rabbi Harlow’s liturgical innovations included the single Hebrew letter “vav.” He added the letter — which, in this context, meant “and” — to one of the blessings said over Hanukkah candles. The original prayer thanks God “who accomplished miracles for our ancestors in ancient days, in our time,” usually understood as referring to the season of the year. With his addition, it reads “in ancient days, and in our time.”

In a Hanukkah message from 2020, Shuly Rubin Schwartz, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, embraced the change as a way to acknowledge the daily miracles of life, although most prayer books do not include the additional letter.

Rabbi Harlow worked on “Sim Shalom” for 11 years, studying the history of Jewish liturgy going back to the Middle Ages. He published the book in 1985, the same year the seminary first ordained women to the rabbinate.

It was not, however, a feminist text; Rabbi Harlow was a traditionalist. In his volume, God is still called “King.” More inclusive and gender-neutral language appeared in later editions of “Sim Shalom” and in the subsequent Conservative prayer book, “Lev Shalem.”

Jules Edwin Harlow was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on June 28, 1931, to Henry and Lena (Lipman) Harlow, who ran a small grocery store together. One of his greatest influences was a high school teacher, Vera Banks, who encouraged him to develop his writing talents. “You could be a great writer,” he recalled her telling him. He was also influenced by his grandfather Sam Lipman. who took him to study Talmud every Saturday when he was a child.

After graduating from Morningside College (now Morningside University) in Sioux City, he enrolled in the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he wrote long letters to his grandfather detailing his studies, right down to the page of the Talmud he was reviewing.

One day he got a call that his grandfather had died and rushed home to Sioux City. When he arrived, he found a Talmud in his grandfather’s house, opened to the same page that he had written about in his most recent letter. It was only then that he learned that, although they were separated by so many hundreds of miles, his grandfather was still studying Talmud alongside him.

Once ordained in 1959, Rabbi Harlow took a job at the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis; he remained there until he retired as the director of publications in 1994. Over his 35-year career, he left his imprint on several of the movement’s books and magazines. One, the “Mahzor for Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur” (1972), a special High Holy Days prayer book, became widely known as the Harlow Mahzor.

In addition to his wife, Rabbi Harlow is survived by his son, David; his daughter, Ilana Harlow; and five grandchildren.

After his retirement, Rabbi Harlow and his wife became involved in international Jewish causes. They championed the cause of the Sephardic Bnei Anusim, the descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the 15th and 16th centuries in Spain and Portugal. The Harlows prepared more than a dozen members of the community for conversion to Judaism and accompanied them to the conversion ceremony in London with the European Masorti Bet Din, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement. They also spent time in Sweden, where Rabbi Harlow served as rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Stockholm for two years.

Rabbi Harlow was also a student of the clarinet. He took up the instrument in junior high school and played in bands in high school and college. He took his clarinet with him to rabbinical school, and friends at his funeral remembered him sitting in on sessions at the nearby West End Bar. He also led classmates on trips to Manhattan jazz clubs.

When houses of worship were closed during the pandemic, Rabbi Harlow spent hours with his clarinet, his wife said. She recalled that he often played a Duke Ellington standard, “Solitude.” One Friday afternoon, he recorded the song on the clarinet, then spoke the lyrics:

In my solitude
I’m praying
Dear Lord above
Send back my love.

He sent the video file to the friends at his synagogue, or minyan. In his rendition, he changed the last lines to “Dear Lord above/Send back my minyan to me.”

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