While shopping I recently came across something that I found both beautiful and ugly at the same time. It was a book that had been made into a purse. The book was an old Nancy Drew mystery that had been hollowed out and cute handles attached to the side. It was beautifully made and totally funky and charming. In theory, totally my kind of thing. But oh the horror, to mutilate a book that way. To cut out its heart and discard the words inside and make it a prop. It was just about the least Jewish thing I’d ever seen.
I’ve spoken here before about my love of books and by books I mostly mean the real thing with a cover and pages in between – that smell a little musty and have a comfortable weight when resting on your chest. Books are on my mind this week because Jewish book month began on Thanksgiving.
Jewish Book month is observed during the month preceding Hanukkah. In 1925 Fanny Goldstein, a librarian at the Boston Public Library set up an exhibit of Jewish books and used it as a focus for what she called Jewish Book Week. In 1927, the event was adopted by Jewish communities around the country. During its first fifteen years it was scheduled to fall around Lag BaOmer or Shavuot holidays of scholars and learning. In 1940 it was moved to the month before Hanukkah as a way to promote books with Jewish content as Hanukkah gifts. Jewish Book Week became so popular and filled with activities that in 1943 it was extended to a one month celebration, which it remains as even until today. [The Jewish Book Council]
Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers says, aseh lekha rav u kneh lekha haver. Get yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend. [Pirkei Avot 1:6] The great Biblical commentator Rashi says that when it talks about a teacher it is referring to a book because books are your best friends, your closest companions. Many of us introverts agree wholeheartedly with Rashi, some of our happiest hours are spent in the company of books. Their pages bent, their characters happily imagined and brought to life. Rashi’s comment is repeated a century later by the Spanish Jewish scholar Judah Ibn Tibbon who expands poetically, “Make books your companions, let bookshelves be your gardens.”
This is something that Jewish people have done from earliest time. The historical context of the book of Deuteronomy is the reign of King Josiah when a scroll of Torah was discovered during repairs of the Temple in Jerusalem. During a time when so many of their countrymen had been killed and when they were afraid that the same fate would befall them, they took refuge in a book. This became the pattern of Jewish behavior in dark times: the Torah emerged in its final form from the ashes of the first Temple, the Tanakh in final form from the ashes of the second Temple, the Mishnah from the bloody Bar Kochba rebellion and down through the centuries Moses Maimonides, Joseph Karo and Emanuel Ringelbaum in the Warsaw Ghetto. It was the written word that brought comfort and assurance that there was a larger ideal, a greater value that would endure. [Ismar Schorsch, Canon Without Closure, p.600]
There is a stereotype about Jews and books that’s absolutely true. We are called the People of the Book for good reason. But Judaism does not have a monopoly on love of text. In Geraldine Brooks marvelous novel, People of the Book, she tells the story of one book and the lengths that people across the centuries go to to save this one book. It happens to be a Jewish book, the Sarajevo Hagaddah, but what Brooks does so beautifully is show how every great religion shares a love of books, of reading, of knowledge. The individual texts may be different, but reverence for books is what we all have in common. Books are what bring all the different people in the novel together, Muslims and Jews and Christians. Everyone in the book goes to extraordinary lengths to save this one book – but this one book really stands for all books. [Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club, p.110]
Nowadays, any person who has the desire and the funds can publish and print their own book. But for much of human history, the privilege of printing your own books was the mark of an independent, sovereign people. It was akin to minting your own currency. You did it to assert your religion, your culture, your society. To propagate the ideals of a people. And for centuries, that was a rare freedom. Most Jewish books were printed because of permission granted by others. From the beginning of the printing press, Jews were not allowed into German printing guilds and licenses to publish Hebrew books were granted and revoked on the whim of local rulers.
I imagine that is part of the reason that so many great Jewish books emerge from the ashes of tragedy and persecution. They were attempts to affirm the values and teachings of the Jewish people.
This is also the reason that in many places, Jews were pioneers in the use of the printing press. The first book ever printed in Turkey in 1493 was Jacob ben Asher’s Code of Jewish Law the Arba Turim. The first book ever printed in Africa was in Fez 1516, a Hebrew book about prayer. [“A Lifetime Collection of Texts in Hebrew, at Sotheby’s, The New York Times, 2/12/09
But I’m not suggesting that you read those books for Jewish Book month.
So how should you celebrate Jewish Book Month? You should read other Jewish books. And you should give Jewish books. Here are a few of my suggestions for the totally subjective Some of Wechsler’s Favorite Jewish Books:
To have great books, said Walt Whitman, there must be great readers. This month let us celebrate great Jewish books, great readers of Jewish books and let us be them.