Our Libraries, Ourselves


Years ago, I met someone who only owned one book at a time: the book he was reading. When he was finished, he found it a good home and acquired another book. I was fascinated by this discipline. Ever since middle school, I have been in the middle of several books at once. Some books decorate my shelves for years before I read them, but I couldn’t imagine parting with them. Judah Ibn Tibbon, the 12th-century scholar and physician, famously advised his descendants, “Let books be your companions.” I, for one, have taken that advice to heart — perhaps to a fault.

An overweening library is an occupational hazard for rabbis, but I hadn’t minded — until my family moved. Six months ago, we relocated to the New York area after 20 years in Los Angeles. Transporting my library was our biggest burden. Was it worth the money and the schlep? And what would we do with all those books at the other end?

It seemed fruitless to give up just a few books, so I tried to eliminate whole categories. Would I really need all my “feminist curriculum” books? I rarely refer to the volumes. My research on integrating women into the rabbinical school curriculum was completed in 1991. But in the end, I brought those books with me. They validate my experiences as a relatively early co-ed at Princeton and as a member of the first class at The Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School to include women. Just seeing “The Myths of Co-Education” by Florence Howe on my shelf reminds me of my sense of discovery when I read her work. I never met her, yet I think of her as a mentor.

I considered parting with my play collection. The plays come from a time in my life when I was studying in a conservatory program for actors. They remind me of meaningful and joyful experiences: meeting with the audience, following performances of Chekhov comedies in homeless shelters; improvising on stage with Sandy Meisner. The plays call to mind what I love about the process of acting: following instincts, listening deeply and responding truthfully. Of course, I could remember without hard-copy evidence, but the sensory experience of a book will occasionally take me on an unexpected journey. Seeing one particular play on my shelf, I am reminded of a friend from Los Angeles, now 98, who acts regularly, and I can imagine a similar “retirement.”

In general, books are not just about the past; they also hold promises for the future. Collecting books is a way of collecting dreams. Sometimes, this is almost literal; you globetrot with the help of travel books. But other times, a subject area reminds you, in more subtle ways, of adventures you want to cultivate or contributions you wish to make. A library reflects not just one’s interests, but also one’s ongoing development. I notice that, recently, I have collected books on gratitude and happiness; I hope that bodes well.

You can see where this is going: I didn’t give up many books. I am capable of some pruning. I was able to let go of novels that didn’t make a deep impression, outdated guides, a few duplicates and some humor books that no longer held surprises (sorry, Dave Barry). But most books made the trek with me.

This shouldn’t really be surprising. When I studied in England one summer and brought just two suitcases, I still took my Bible and prayer book, a poetry collection and the complete works of Jane Austen.

The weightiest share of my library (literally and figuratively) consists of sifrei kodesh (holy books). Yes, you can get the whole Talmud and more on a single CD-Rom, but I feel grounded when studying from my paper-and-ink volumes (some with pinholes from feats of memorization performed by previous owners). Collections of midrash, an array of commentaries and a few editions of the Mishnah and Gemara have traveled to and from Los Angeles with me. I could have borrowed holy books from libraries and bought individual volumes as I needed them. But the value of the books extends beyond their usefulness. A Jewish library is comforting, inspiring, inviting — and symbolic. It conveys a sense of identity and belonging.

Libraries carry a sense of history, too — and not only in terms of content. Many sifrei kodesh were handed down to me from my father, grandfather and great-grandfathers. Some of my earliest memories are of entering my great-grandparents’ house to see my zeydie standing over a lectern and studying Talmud. In tribute, because I always saw him in that position, I bought a similar lectern. It gave me unspeakable joy, when my son, at age 2, dragged a chair over to the lectern so he could “read” the book that lay on top of it.

My old Encyclopedia Judaica is just that: old. It was an ordination gift to me from dear friends. Since my ordination, the publisher has put forth 20 years’ worth of supplements, not to mention the online searchable edition. But I shipped my 17 volumes across the country. I love the blue binding. I love the memories attached to these particular books. Every time I see the EJ on my shelf, I think warmly of my uncle whose (literal) encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish life is attributable, in part, to his reading these volumes from cover to cover, marking the siyyum (summation) of each letter with alliterative celebrations: bubbly beverages, bagels and babka were served when “B” was completed. The unwieldy encyclopedia reminds me that even an oversized body of knowledge can be mastered with daily discipline applied over the course of years.

At our new home in New Jersey, we have been adding bookshelves. Our splurge was custom-built shelving surrounding the fireplace. There, my husband and I put some of our most prized possessions. To a stranger, these must look like a random selection. They include volumes written by friends and relatives, a favorite songbook from Camp Westward Ho, and books that were inscribed to us or to people we love. Among sifrei kodesh, collections of poetry, how-to books and memoirs, is a large-print novel by Belva Plain that I dedicated to my grandmother z”l (of blessed memory) for her birthday and a copy of “The Analect of Confucius” that my father inscribed to my mother when they were dating. The collection holds special value for those who know how to read our family, as well as the books we own.

Among the books in our basement is “Freakonomics.” I enjoyed the book, but probably wouldn’t have held on to it, except for the kinds of idiosyncratic reasons that prevail when we compile our libraries: it was given to me by a close friend who died a short time later in a car crash. It predicts that “Aviva,” a Hebrew name that happens to me my sister’s, will be the hot new moniker; and it validates my tendency to collect books. The authors quote from the government’s “Early Childhood Longitudinal Study,” which shows a correlation between lots of books in the home and children doing well in school. Aha!

These days, I am enjoying the fruits of collecting — and paying the price, too. My parents are contemplating downsizing, and I am helping them go through their library. My mother, like me, is considering giving up whole categories. A public defender, she used to teach Russian history and advocate for refuseniks. But does she really need all her Sovietology books, now that even “FSU” (former Soviet Union) is an antiquated acronym?

As I reflect on the attachment to books, I realize that the books we want to keep closest are those that represent people: ancestors, audience members, friends, mentors — and earlier (or imagined) incarnations of ourselves.

For now, my mother is keeping her Russian books. And I am hanging on to as many of my parents’ sifrei kodesh as I can imagine lifting onto a lectern to read, one day, with my kids. I wish I had the room to keep every one, but, like my acquaintance of years ago, I am on the lookout for some good homes, where treasured books can go for the next leg of their journey.

Let me know if you have the shelf space and the heart space available.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Israel in Emerson, N.J., editor of the “Lifecycles” book series (Jewish Lights Publishing) and a frequent scholar-in-residence. Her popular essay, “The Five-Minute Miracle,” and many other free downloads are available at RabbiDebra.com.