The love affair between Jews and books

The love affair between Jews and books

Temple Emanuel of North Jersey offers a tikkun layl Shavuot focusing on that age-old romance

Rabbi Joseph Prouser, who leads Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, is not unmoved by the idea of Jews as the “people of the book.”

In fact, he thinks about it often and in depth, and he is focusing on it for the tikkun layl Shavuot that he’s planning this year. (See box.)

“Our unifying theme is the centrality of books and literature to Jewish books and identity,” Rabbi Prouser said. “We have the ark, with the Torah inside, as our focal point in worship. We call the most accomplished Jew a talmid chacham” — literally a Torah scholar. “We are going to explore that theme by exploring books in which the books themselves are the protagonists.”

In other words, by looking at books about books.

The program will involve members of Emanuel talking about books. “It’s not about the writers,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It’s about everyday Jews’ relationship with learning and studying. About their relationship with books.”

The evening will include activities beyond talking, though.

One of the books is “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza” by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, which tells the story of the discovery of documents too full of God’s name to throw out but too worn to be used, hidden and eventually forgotten in Cairo for centuries.

Those documents were in a genizah; in Franklin Lakes, Rabbi Prouser will create another place to dispose properly of worn documents that include God’s name. A grave. “We will have dug a hole, and put a tent over it, on the grounds of the synagogue,” he said. “The evening will begin with a discussion of ‘Sacred Trash,’ and then we will have a burial service, and then come back and continue.

“Having a funeral for worn-out books really speaks to the loving, caring relationships that Jews have with books,” he continued. “You don’t just toss them out. Burying them in this way is putting the theory into practice.

“There is not a prescribed liturgy” for a book burial, Rabbi Prouser said, so instead they’ll use a creative one, amplified with reflections, bits of text, and other appropriate readings. “One of the texts is from Elie Wiesel, who really speaks about this reverence for books being a Jewish trait.

“He talks about the darkest times leading up to the Holocaust, and about the Jewish community and culture that he grew up in, and he says, somewhat famously, ‘I do not recall a Jewish home without a book on the table.’

“I’ve always thought that it was interesting that he put it that way. He didn’t say ‘a book on the shelf.’ He said ‘A book on the table.’

“He was talking about someone who was engaged in the process of reading.”

Rabbi Prouser also plans to include “a famous saying by ibn Tibbon, which is ‘make your books your companions.’”

Rabbi Joseph Prouser in his book- and journal-filled study.

(To enlarge his point, the whole quote, from Samuel ibn Tibbon, a 13th-century French philosopher, is “Make your books your companions, let your cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and myrrh. If your soul satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from prospect to prospect.”

Rabbi Prouser is an avid student of American history, so he said that it should be unsurprising that perhaps his favorite quote is by Benjamin Franklin. The Founding Father, inventor, writer, philosopher, diplomat, and extraordinary doer-of-everything is said to have written his own epitaph, although Rabbi Prouser said that many historians are not convinced that he did. But it sounds like him. Franklin is said to have written:

The Body of
B. Franklin,
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author.

“That sheds light on the spirit of the whole tikkun, which is that our love for books teaches us about our own lives, mortality, and aspiration to immortality,” Rabbi Prouser said.

The evening will include Ma’ariv, and it will end with a siyyum to mark Rabbi Prouser’s completion of a Talmud tractate, Seder Mo’ed. There will be food all evening long, and of course it will include cheesecake; there can be no tikkun layl Shavuot without it.

Merrill Rutman of Waldwick will talk about “Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books.” That memoir, by Aaron Lansky, “is probably the best-known of the books we’ll look at,” Rabbi Prouser said; it’s the story of the creation of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Lansky describes “how he’d get a call in the middle of a night, that someone saw a dumpster with Yiddish books in it, and he’d go there right away. Or he’d get a tip that someone was getting rid of their library, and he’s sit and have tea with these elderly Jews, and talk about their experiences.” That way, he’d get them to trust him, and let him have their precious books for the center, which now is an invaluable repository of Yiddish books and Jewish culture.

“The Yiddish Book Center is a beautiful place designed to look like an Eastern European synagogue. It’s a sophisticated place to hold and maintain these books. It’s a fascinating place.”

“The book is really an astonishing read,” Mr. Rutman said. “It’s a chronicle of Aaron Lansky’s travels, and about how he aspired to learn Yiddish and virtually dedicated his life to saving the language and culture by collecting the books. I don’t think he’s done anything else his whole life rather than this.

“I was laughing and crying throughout the whole book — and I was doing it simultaneously.”

He is not a Yiddish speaker, Mr. Rutman said, and he regrets that.

“The main point that Lansky makes is that Yiddish is the bridge that connects where we are today, the culture we live in today, to the world that was lost, destroyed by Hitler. He makes clear the extent and the breadth of that world.

“I’m at a loss for words to describe the weight of that culture that was lost.

“It is a shame — and that is an understatement — that we have lost all that. Yiddish literature is as extensive and as profound as anything written in English by any author. That is the value, the wealth, that is there, and is yet to be uncovered.”

The geniza was in Ben Ezra, a Cairo synagogue; the ancient building was rebuilt in the 1890s, but the geniza remained intact. (Wikipedia)

Peter Saperstein of Ridgewood will talk about “Sacred Trash.”

“There was a tremendous trove of historic documents, hundreds of thousands of fragments hidden in the storeroom of a Cairo synagogue from the sixth to the 19th centuries. That’s a huge amount of time; centuries and centuries of history. They come from all over the place — the Middle East, North Africa, Andalusia — because people traveled and brought documents, and they wrote about the places they’d been. The texts are written in various languages — Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic — and you’re got everything from rabbinic writing through prayers and poems, and also everyday community things, like marriage certificates, burial certificates, bills of lading, lists of trading materials.

“You name it, it was there. Sitting in Cairo for centuries.” It’s a puzzle that makes up a complex social history of a period about which most people, including him, know very little about, Mr. Saperstein concluded.

The other books that will be discussed at the tikkun are “Jews and Words” by the father-and-daughter team Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak, and “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks.

There will be a pounds and pounds of cheesecake on the tables at Emanuel of North Jersey that night, but there will be even more books. It’s a true romance, this affair between books and Jews, and Rabbi Prouser plans to keep it going.

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