(New York Jewish Week) — The competition started in the elevator.
On Wednesday night, around 5:40 p.m., a woman lugging an empty suitcase across the ground floor of the nondescript 520 8th Avenue office building in Manhattan yelled, “Hold that door!”
She was hoping to get a prime spot in line at the event happening on the fourth floor — the Jewish Book Council’s annual “Raid the Shelves” event, which, for $25, allows members of the public to take home as many of the nonprofit’s spare books as they can carry.
An awkward silence ensued in the elevator, as the woman eyed a father and daughter who were also carrying suitcases. Early entrance to the event was about to begin: For an extra $30 —$55 in total — attendees could get a 15-minute head start.
The Jewish Book Council, which was founded in 1945, describes itself as “the longest-running organization devoted exclusively to the support and celebration of Jewish literature.” In addition to running the National Jewish Book Awards, the nonprofit organizes writing seminars, publishes a literary journal, runs other events and writes reviews of notable Jewish-themed books. As such, the council receives hundreds of books a year from publishers hoping to earn reviews, nominations for awards or inclusion in a program.
The Raid the Shelves event began in 2009 as a treat for alumni of a literature-themed Birthright Israel program that the JBC had coordinated. Opened to the public in 2011, the event attracts hundreds of bibliophile New Yorkers annually and has grown each year. Last year’s event featured the most books ever because it was the first post-pandemic lockdown edition — so the council had three years of leftovers to give away.
“You see some people and you’re not sure how they’re getting home,” Miri Pomerantz Dauber, a JBC staff member, told the New York Jewish Week, referring to the stacks of books many people try to amass.
Standing in line on the fourth floor on Wednesday, everyone was polite. But at 5:44, a quiet tension simmered; one minute later, when early access opened, dozens of people speed-walked into a large room and began perusing the piles of books organized by genre —everything from fiction to history to memoir to children’s literature.
Though the books all had Jewish themes, not all attendees were Jews. Luke Hughett, for example, a 46-year-old creative director who works in advertising, heard about the event from a friend. “I was surprised at the sort of feverishness of it,” he told the New York Jewish Week.
Hughett said he was also surprised at the selection. He took books on history (“Holocaust-adjacent things”); graphic novels for his daughter, who loves the Holocaust novel “Maus”; and even poetry collections.
Standing no taller than 5 feet, Hannah Zaves-Greene, a Jewish history professor at Sarah Lawrence College, was busily filling a bag nearly half her size. She said she will use some of her finds in her classroom — including “The Baron: Maurice de Hirsch and the Jewish Nineteenth Century,” a biography of a prominent Gilded Age philanthropist.
“The selection is fantastic,” Zaves-Greene said.
This year, around 150 people attended, at times filling the room to capacity. The JBC offers whatever is left after one of these events to building staff and to other companies in the building, JBC Executive Director Naomi Firestone-Teeter said.
“It’s like our little mini-Hanukkah in the summer,” she said.
Firestone-Teeter said that she met some acquaintances via the event, people she sees only once a year. “I know exactly what books they like, I know what genres — I take them around… [and say] ‘This one’s for you! And this one’s for you!’” she said.
Just 20 minutes after the event’s official start time of 6 p.m., the crowd had mostly dispersed, leaving just a few books behind in their wake.
Attendees employed different strategies. Adi Elbaz, 35, who said she especially loves contemporary books in which authors draw from Jewish folklore or ancient themes, balanced well over a dozen books in her arms.
“I’m just kind of grabbing things without investigating,” she said. “Whatever looks good, I’m like, ‘Yes, give it to me!’”
Ken Shept, 76, a novelist and children’s book author, was looking for inspiration in the Jewish philosophy text section, which included titles such as “God Said What??” and “Dear Rabbi.”
“I’m looking for books that will make me a better writer,” Shept said.
He summed up the event as “a kiddish without the food, basically,” referring to the social food spreads offered after Shabbat services.
The JBC’s Pomerantz Dauber agreed, saying, “It’s like TJ Maxx, for books!”