We are still the ‘People of the Book’

“Have You a Jewish Book Shelf in Your Home?” What a good question! I have it in print: the title of a small pamphlet from the Jewish Publication Society. It’s double-good: full of good words and good advice, starting with this: “A love of books and learning has always been a distinguishing characteristic of our people. Today, perhaps more than ever before, we need the spiritual stimulation of our own rich tradition and eternal faith…”
I’m happy to say — or maybe embarrassed to admit — that I have more than one Jewish book “shelf” in my home. The entire house has become something of a Jewish library, with piles of books of all kinds to be found just about everywhere. The shelves and desktop in my office have long-since been filled; the “overrun” is stacked on and under tables, and on several chairs and one ottoman dedicated to that purpose. Books also surface in living and dining rooms and on a kitchen shelf that holds several cookbooks — not well used, I admit, except for the two I will never part with: Sara Kasdan’s “Love and Knishes” from 1969, which taught me how to make the easiest and best chicken soup ever, and a 1941 gem by Mildred Grosberg Bellin called, quite simply, “The Jewish Cookbook — According to the Jewish Dietary Laws.”
My father started me off as a serious book collector when I moved from grade school into junior high. I‘d been reading for years, even before I started school, but he put the necessity into what he wrote in my “slam book,” that personal autograph-type album we students passed around so we’d always remember our classmates as we moved up and out of one educational setting into another. In contrast to the usual lighthearted remarks on its pages, Dad offered this: “Education is not a mere means to life; education is life itself.” And so I read on…and on…
I can’t stop adding to my ever-growing collection, but I’ve stopped worrying about it: I give many books that relate in any way to the Holocaust to the Ackerman Center at UT-Dallas, to be used by students of the Shoah. And I will give all the rest to the new Legacy Midtown Park, now under construction, whenever it opens for occupancy. Because I hope to move there myself at that time, I’ll know that in its library — one of the promised residents’ amenities — I can find any book I would want to reread. Good planning, yes?
JPS is quite specific about how every family should begin taking part in its “Jewish Books in Every Jewish Home” effort. The first essential volume must of course be a Bible. Second is “History of the Jews: From the Earliest Time to the Present,” a six-volume set that could fill up most people’s shelves all by itself! The author, Heinrich Graetz, is credited with being first ever to tell our people’s story from a Jewish perspective.
But now, time for “true confessions”: This is not a recent pamphlet I’m referencing. It’s dated 1936 (when I was 2 years old!) and offers an array of books for sale to JPS members at special reduced prices, so that almost everyone would be able to stock a family shelf even so soon after the Great Depression: $1 for most adult titles, 75 cents for children’s. Yellowed and with crumbling edges, my treasure recently surfaced as I looked into an accordion folder I hadn’t even looked at for many years. But a quick peek on Google shows me I can still buy Graetz’ six-volume history of Judaism from earliest times to the author’s “present” (which was more than 120 years ago), published between 1891 and ‘96 and still in good condition, for $75 to $100.
I’m sure today’s Jewish Publication Society would deem this collection a worthy addition to my own overflowing, space-consuming “Jewish Book Shelf.” And maybe my ancient pamphlet would be welcomed into its own collection…?
Harriet Gross can be reached at harrietgross@sbcglobal.net.

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