Sunday, August 22, 2004

Why I Love Jewish Books

I love Jewish books the way some women love shoes.

When I was in the ninth grade, I told my English teacher that I was generally in the midst of reading five or six books at any given time. Rather than applauding my insatiable appetite for books, she told me that my claim was ludicrous because nobody could keep the details of that many books straight.

I kept doing it anyway.

Books have always called to me in some inexplicable and inescapable way. My earliest book memories are of my mother and grandfather trading library books back and forth. Each visit to my grandparents’ apartment in the Bronx saw my mother schlepping a navy blue vinyl bag filled with titles like, “The Hospital,” or “Nurse Amy and Dr. White.”

Okay, so my mother and I don’t share the same taste in books. But a love of reading. That I got from her.

My first instinct, when my curiosity gets tickled about any new topic, is to find a book about it. So when I got interested in Judaism some 20 years ago, I turned to books.

I recall stepping into an old Jewish bookstore in New York and being utterly overwhelmed. Nothing was familiar. I had no ability to focus on a particular book because I lacked the capacity to distinguish among all the books in the shop. I was embarrassed, initially, that I was a Jew in a Jewish bookstore and I had no idea how to begin.

I got over that feeling of paralysis and went to Pratt library to check out my first Jewish books. I remember, 'What is a Jew?' by Morris Kertzer principally because my housemates teased me by asking, 'Nu, vat iz a Jew?' The other book was, 'The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism' by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin. Thus began my insatiable fascination with Jewish books.

Eventually, I began to buy Jewish books. Now, I can't seem to stop buying Jewish books. It's a delight, an exhilaration, an absorption and an obsession all at once. And it's really not helpful that I married a rabbi who also has the syndrome. Together, we own thousands of Jewish books. And we buy new ones all the time.

I take comfort in the fact that we're not alone. Perhaps because people who love Jewish books are naturally drawn to each other, I know lots of other Jewish book junkies, and I asked some of them why they love Jewish books.

Some spoke of Jewish books as a statement of Jewish identity. Social worker Rhoda Posner Pruce says: 'I like to have them in my house where they are visible because it helps my home reflect my Jewish identity.'
Elie Wiesel said: 'I do not recall a Jewish home without a book on the table.'

Some love Jewish books precisely because they cover familiar ground. Joyce Levitas, of PBCS Marketing, says, 'I love to read Jewish fiction because I can relate to the characters' experiences and feelings.' Amy Gross, senior planner at the Associated, finds that 'the struggles that people have with their Judaism validate my own.'

Others prefer to read Jewish books that introduce them to unfamiliar Jewish lives. 'The Jewish books I savor are the ones that help me question stereotypes, and enrich my perspective about the diversity of Jewish life,' says Susan Kurlander of Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister League.

The most important reason people gave for loving Jewish books was, of course, learning from them. 'I love Jewish books because they contain the wisdom and the memory of the Jewish people,' says Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov of She'arim in Jerusalem. Rabbi Morris Kosman of Beth Shalom in Frederick says, 'I love books. I want to learn from books. I know that I have to go to the basic texts so that I experience directly from the fires that warm all Jewish literature and Jewish experience.'

Ultimately, for me, being a Jewish book junkie is inexplicable. In the end, I love Jewish books because I'm a Jew and Jewish books both capture and reflect who I am in the world.

Maybe I should write a book about it.

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