March 09, 2023
These are not our books. But they could be.
Miles of books. Paper bags full of books. Boxes full of books. Loaded one by one into a car and driven away, or in some cases stashed in the cupboard labeled "genizah / for burial." In recent days I've been meeting up with my synagogue board president to sift through the books that had accumulated in our storage room, books that had piled up in every office, books that had been dropped off at the door anonymously like those extra zucchini that get hidden in people's cars or left on their front steps.
It's common, at synagogues. (Churches too, maybe?) We accumulate books the way children accumulate memories. And some of these books are themselves precious memories. And some are useful. But many of ours are now Goodwill-bound. I wonder what the local Goodwill staff must think, sorting this vast and sudden influx of books about Judaism. Books on Jewish history and thought. Books on Israel. Books from the 1950s on the critical challenges facing American Jewry "today."
Old college textbooks from religion classes. (Okay, a few of them were mine. Will I ever again need that textbook on the Protestant Reformation? Probably not.) Hardbound Hebrew-English dictionaries. Old translations of Jewish texts, typeset in tiny print. We also have a full synagogue library packed with books that no one ever borrows, and that's in addition to these stacks of tomes and piles of texts. Someone dies or moves away, and next thing we know another pile of books has sprouted...
Old siddurim and holy books go in the cupboard to be buried in the sanctified ground of our cemetery. Once they are tattered from long use, we treat them with reverence and lay them to rest along with our beloved dead. But the secular books get stacked and bagged, or boxed, and hauled to the car, and taken away. It's hard to let go of books. We're the People of the Book! And yet there are so many books that haven't been touched in years. Books we'd forgotten we had. Books we just don't need.
I like to imagine some Jewish college student, maybe, browsing the bookshelves at Goodwill and exclaiming at some of these finds. I always loved finding Judaica in used-books stores or on the bookshelf at a thrift store. It felt like a little gift from the Universe: I see you. A reminder that Jews have lived in all kinds of places... including the small towns around New England around which my beloved ex and I used to drive, searching for quirky secondhand things like those old church pews.
Now the shul storeroom is manageable. We can find the Pesach dishes, the yarhzeit candles, the box of graggers for Purim. Some of my colleagues are establishing a "no donated books" policy -- all of our shelves overflow. It makes me a little bit sad, but I get it. I hope these books land in the hands of people who want them. And having joined in cleaning out my own parents' possessions after their deaths, I'm aware of how our objects persist, moving through the world long after we are gone.