My Pakistani Muslim friend was right


So when did I become a bibliophile? Long before I learned the meaning of that word!

Though always curious, I’m certain that my evolution as a reader had nothing to do with a little monkey who stole my name.

I imagine that my lifelong enjoyment of stories has had something to do with religious school, or “Sunday School,” as we called it. My twin brother, Teddy, and I began our studies there in kindergarten. In the first scrapbook that our mother compiled, some drawings show our fascination with biblical heroes.

I remember both our grandmothers reading stories to Teddy and me, and later to our younger sister, Betty. A great-aunt and a great-uncle, without children of their own, taught us the pleasure of browsing in bookstores.

I think, however, that Mom and Dad were somewhat less flexible or adventurous. Yet, in addition to practicing our musical instruments and taking painting lessons, we were always expected to be reading – not only for school assignments, but for our own enjoyment. This frequently included the Los Angeles Times, Sunday’s New York Times and such magazines as Life, Look and Holiday.

Needless to say, time spent watching our clunky black-and-white TV, located in “the study,” was considered a distraction or a waste of time.

In elementary school, while much enjoying biographies, I became smitten with mysteries. But I also remember that my sixth-grade teacher, Miss Kivel, reprimanded me for reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. It seemed to me more than a goofy pastime, however, because all we knew about Dad’s law practice was that he worked long hours, wore nice clothes and carried a heavy briefcase. (Indeed, by the second grade of Sunday School, Theo and I, dressed as miniature lawyers, schlepped our own leather briefcases!)

Dad belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club, and I have saved a few of these volumes (along with other relatives’ high school and college yearbooks). But the oldest book of my own, which occupies a place of honor in my collection, was an introduction to art. Thomas Craven’s “Rainbow Book of Art,” published in 1956, included a photo of Eric Mendelsohn’s design of B’nai Amoona Temple, in St. Louis, which I visited a half-century later.

Craven’s book was prophetic, for I majored in art history and earned graduate degrees. Indeed, in 1987, I organized the only American celebration of Mendelsohn’s centenary, at his Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Betsey and I were members.

I taught art and architectural history for several years, but I have never ceased teaching myself, especially through travel. In addition to works of art, our home in Providence is overflowing with beautiful books. Betsey and I are contemplating the construction of an additional room, which would be used primarily as – what else? – a library.

As readers of Jewish Rhode Island may already know, my book collection includes more than 100 photo albums. They form far more than a documentary record: the images of people, places, things and events often reveal what I treasure.

I still harbor a deep love of fiction. It surely accelerated in junior high school, when I was introduced to, among others, Conan Doyle, Dickens, Hemingway and Steinbeck. And my embrace of fiction gained further momentum in high school; in addition to my U.S. history and art history textbooks, I still own the thousand-page anthology, “Man and His Measure,” that was assigned reading in 11th grade.

I regret, however, that none of my teachers ever acknowledged, let alone proclaimed, that literature wasn’t all from the past. Indeed, the future will inevitably bring forth new generations of masters. And some of these writers might even be Jews, as well as authors who write in many languages.

Did I ever think of myself as an author? No, not even in 1975, after completing my dissertation. But I did become responsible for the creation of about two-dozen volumes. These were edited and bound transcripts of lengthy interviews that I conducted with artists, art collectors and museums officials for UCLA’s Oral History Program. In some sense, perhaps, these manuscripts were “talking” books.

Nearly a decade after completing my doctorate, while enrolled at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, I wrote a master’s thesis, partially based on interviews, that was as lengthy and perhaps more accomplished than my dissertation. HUC’s Henry-Francis Library also astonished me.

Over the past eight years, feeling perhaps that I could help gather and protect similar treasures, I have chaired Temple Beth-El’s library committee. The Providence temple’s Braude Library is one of the best congregational libraries in New England, and probably beyond. Accordingly, Betsey and I were proud to establish a book fund to benefit future generations of readers, on the assumption that books and bibliophiles will never disappear.

In other ways, the Ocean State has enriched and facilitated my love of reading and, to a lesser extent, my enjoyment of writing. I have written for some local and national academic journals, and a few articles for The Encyclopedia Judaica, but in 2003, while president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association, I hatched an idea that led to the publication of an anthology, “The Jews of Rhode Island” (University Press of New England and Brandeis University Press, 2004). After serving as its co-editor, I was asked to edit RIJHA’s annual journal, Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, upon which the anthology was based.

Though I initially felt unqualified to assume such a leadership role, I recently completed my 19th annual issue of Notes, or more than 4,000 pages of texts and photos. Thanks to so many writers and supporters, there is no other state in New England – and few in the entire country – where so much has been published about its Jewish history.

Over the past eight years, while Fran Ostendorf has been the editor, I have also been pleased to write about 50 articles for Jewish Rhode Island. Readers beware, for I am now looking forward to writing more frequently.

While studying at HUC, I was required to earn another master’s degree, at the neighboring University of Southern California. I remain astonished by what a fellow graduate student once said to me. This Pakistani Muslim, who became a friend, told me, “You Jews are the People of the Book.” Amazingly, I had never heard such an utterance. But through my small and continuing efforts, I hope to honor and help fulfill such a bibliographic mandate and accolade.

GEORGE M. GOODWIN, of Providence, has edited Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes for 19 years.

Musings, George M. Goodwin, Community Voices