Grieving for Jewish books


It was a most unusual place to grieve: the Dwares JCC, which is devoted to health, energy and strength. It was also a difficult way to grieve: amid shadows, silence and loneliness.

When entering the JCC’s auditorium, I never anticipated experiencing such sorrow. After having been alerted by an Alliance staff member, Larry Katz, I intended to select a few books from the former Bureau of Jewish Education’s former library. Hundreds and hundreds of volumes, strewn across tables and buried in boxes, were available to anybody – Jew or gentile, scholar or pupil – who might give them a new home and a little respect.

This was not the first time I had attended a wake for the Bureau’s former library, however. Earlier in the fall, a smaller selection of orphaned books, displayed in the JCC’s lobby, had also been available to any reader who might take pity on these old and sometimes feeble friends.

As my wife, Betsey, would easily argue, I hardly needed more books. At home, nearly every room, including closets, is piled high with cabinets, cases, and mounds of books. Our place, already awash with art, antiques and photographs, shelters countless volumes of nonfiction and fiction: a few from my childhood, most from decades of continual reference and other treats not yet opened.

As a past president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association, I am always on alert for old and new books that might shed light on centuries of Jewish life in the Ocean State. But the Association’s sunny new office and archives, housed in the space previously home to the Bureau’s overflowing library, is already bursting to capacity. As a result, many portions of our priceless collection have been relegated to off-site, tomblike storage.

As chair of Temple Beth-El’s library committee, I was also saddened to see the remains of the former Bureau’s former library. With a collection of perhaps 20,000 volumes, the Temple’s collection overwhelms both downstairs and upstairs stacks. Many books, uncataloged for years, await the dignity of proper shelving. Many holy texts, long denied a human gaze or touch, await a proper burial.

So why were the former Bureau’s thousand books, which had offered enchantment, knowledge and illumination to three generations of teachers and students, languishing on the JCC’s stage?  The happy news is that, thanks to a population boomlet, the JCC’s downstairs nursery school urgently needed space. As a result, even storage and nearby restrooms have become luxuries.

While the former Bureau downsized, some teachers, but many more students, have increasingly turned their backs to bindings, paper and ink. Regrettably, large numbers of readers, unable to sit quietly and focus their attention for a few hours, have denied themselves the rewards and pleasures of learning for its own sake.

How can it be possible that the People of the Book have become estranged from, indifferent to or blasé about what has always defined and sustained us?  I, for one, am unable to accept – let alone embrace – excuses.

Surely some facets of the former Bureau’s former library would never have appealed to me. Sadly, I read Hebrew poorly and Yiddish not at all. But there are so many other facets of the former library that I would feel privileged to ponder.  Alas, I regret that perhaps only a few decades remain for me to acquire several lifetimes of learning – yes, a far deeper and more nuanced Jewish education.

While combing through the books, pamphlets and leaflets atop the JCC’s stage, I imagine what this collection might have meant to countless communities where Jewish learning was once forbidden or never attainable. There still must be dozens of tiny and isolated Jewish communities – in America and abroad – where the possibility of assembling such riches is fanciful. I also try to calculate what holes will be left in our own Jewish community’s brain and heart.  What will happen to younger generations – such as those kids now taking their first steps of Jewish learning within the JCC?  Yes, they and their parents can now benefit from the PJ Library, but what, other than a few strong congregational libraries, comes next?

So which are some of the treasures that I could not resist? A scholarly history of the Reform movement in Europe and America. A recent demographic study of Italian Jewry written in Italian. A small, illustrated guidebook, written in Dutch and English, to Amsterdam’s Jewish museum. An Israeli cookbook written by a native Rhode Islander. A medieval classic, “The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela,” annotated by one of my favorite, but deceased, professors.   

Fortunately, I did not see a copy of my own volume, “The Jews of Rhode Island,” published a decade ago. Perhaps it was there, but I was blessed not to find it.

GEORGE GOODWIN is in his 11th year as editor of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes. He has also written for such journals as American Jewish Archives Journal, American Jewish History, and Rhode Island History.