I love the Simon & Garfunkel album, “Bookends.” In particular, I love the song that finishes the first side of the album: “Old friends” — “Old friends, sat on their park bench like bookends…”
But, what do you do when your old friends are, in fact, books?
What do you do when you are about to retire from the full time congregational rabbinate, and will suddenly no longer have an office resplendent with book shelves?
How do you do a literary Unetaneh Tokef — “Who shall wind up on the sparse shelves in my condo? Who shall go into a carton that will live in a storage unit? Who shall be given away?”
Or, worse — condemned to a dumpster?
Millennia ago, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote: “Of making books there is no end.”
For me, that is certainly true. Toni Morrison once said: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” There have been ten books that I wanted to read, and no one else had written them, so — well, there you have it.
I have often thought of the legend of the man who dreams of books, standing at attention, surrounding his bed. He asks aloud: “What are these books?” To which a voice (God?) responds: “They are yours — if you choose to write them.”
Yes, I chose to write them.
But also, for me, the upgrade of Ecclesiastes was: “Of buying books there is no end.”
Barnes and Noble; Borders, of blessed memory; my favorite independent bookstore, The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, and Politics and Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington. Then, there are/were the Judaica stores, like J. Levine Co., of blessed memory, in New York. Jerusalem is its own kingdom of books. Ludwig Mayer in Jerusalem is one of my first stops on any pilgrimage to that city, wherein I wish the proprietor, “Bon jour, Marcel!” and we catch up on the last year in our lives — last July and the current July being our bookends.
The last forty years of this joyful indulgence — book obsession — now come to judge me.
I have two weeks to go in this chapter [sic] of my professional life, and I am surrounded by cartons of books.
I picked up each book in my library, and ask myself these fateful questions: “When was the last time you read this book? Have you ever read this book? Does this book represent something that really interests you? If you needed to, could you get the information in this book online?”
So, it has been a painful shalom to many of my old friends, who loyally sat between bookends.
This is what I have learned about books, and Jewish literacy, in the last few weeks.
No one wants my books.
Synagogues? Nope. Jewish day schools? No. Assisted living residences? Yes, some will take them, Oh, yes, one or two colleagues have requested some of them.
I am worried — because the fact of the lack of book hunger might point to something bigger, and more disturbing, in American Jewish life.
We are rapidly migrating away from that classical view of the Jewish people as a “people of the book.”
- There has been a shrinkage in the number of independent Jewish publishers, and the willingness of publishers to publish books of quality non-fiction.
- There has been a shrinkage of book stores. Yes, apparently, Barnes and Noble has enjoyed a certain revival of late. But, smaller, independent bookstores are experiencing challenges. That is a pity, because those are the intellectual centers of communities. The people who work know and love books. As convenient as Amazon might be, I would much rather smell the paper and hang out with other bibliophiles.
- There has been a shrinkage of the number of books on shelves in Jewish homes.
- There has been a shrinkage in the use of synagogue libraries. My colleagues report that fewer people enter those libraries, and that synagogues have been (I cannot believe that these words are leaving my keyboard) getting rid of books.
Here’s the other issue. I find myself saying: “OK, if I need the information that is in this book, I can go online.”
Note what I have said: information.
But, that’s not it.
I don’t need books just for information.
I need books for wisdom.
And, when it comes to my books that contain wisdom, those were the books that I refuse to ditch.
Yes, I worry. A Twitter-dominated world of communication means locking wisdom into a prison of 140 characters, which will mean the death of depth.
As a colleague recently said: “People don’t want to hear talks or speeches. You need a thirty second segment. That’s it.”
OMG. This is not only the shrinking of the Jewish book.
This threatens to be the closing of the Jewish mind.
The trend of bibliophobia is following us into synagogues, and into synagogue board rooms, and into rabbinical search committees.
Two months ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner died. His books lit up the world.
But, that is not what every congregation seeks in its rabbi. A rabbi recalls the saddest moment of his career: when the placement director of the Reform movement advised him to remove his list of publications from his resume – lest congregations deem him too intellectual; lest they fear that he might challenge them too much.
Bibliophobia is following us into the sanctuaries. Some synagogues no longer use siddurim, but display the service on screens.
Granted, COVID created its own technological revolution, born out of necessity.
But, this was happening long before COVID. My synagogue has been doing this for years. But, it is a hybrid approach — prayer books, enhanced by the prayers on the screens for those who prefer to access them that way.
Yes, it is efficient and often attractive. It allows the worshipers to look up, rather than down, which does have a certain acoustical advantage. You get to lift your head, and the songs come out better, with more gusto.
But, there is a drawback to this.
When I go to synagogue, I often like to flip through the siddur, pray at my own pace, and linger on prayers that I like.
A screen-centric service does not allow the worshiper to pray at his or her own pace, and perhaps even get lost within the words on the pages themselves.
This is what I know: Judaism needs books. A Judaism without books — without the written word — is not Judaism.
A tale from the Talmud, which is, perhaps even more than the Torah, the quintessential Jewish book.
When the Romans tortured and killed the sage Hananiah ben Teradion, they tied him to a stake, bound by a Torah scroll. They set the scroll on fire.
As Hananiah was dying, his students asked him: “Our teacher, what do you see?”
His reply: “The parchment is burning, but the letters are returning to heaven.” (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 17b).
Judaism relies on the faith that words ascend to heaven, and return to earth – that the words, themselves, are eternal.
May there always be a place for those words, and may those words always find their places on our shelves, and in our hearts and souls.
Now, it’s back to saying farewell to old friends, and saying to others, l’hitraot, until we see each other again…
And, packing those cartons.