Is it possible that we are not the people of the book, but the people of the library?
I began pondering this question after I was asked to moderate a discussion in celebration of the 30th anniversary of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Library, part of the city’s Bureau of Jewish Education. This conversation was to revolve around the value and future of a Jewish library in an age of proliferating Jewish choices and rapid digitization. But before I could ask any practical questions of myself or anyone else, I found myself with a dilemma: How does one define a Jewish library?
On the face of it, it’s easy: a collection of Jewish books. But just like explanations of Jewish culture, defining what makes a book Jewish takes us further down the rabbit hole. For instance, is a Jewish book a book written by a Jew? About Jews? For Jews? In a recent essay in the journal Sh’ma, professor James Young, editor of the forthcoming 10-volume Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, described the questions that needed to be answered in creating this Jewish library in miniature. Was the goal, he asked, to “know what is essential to Jewish culture? Or what distinguishes it from other cultures? Do we want to know in order to celebrate all the cultural creations of Jews as essentially Jewish? Or to be able to weed out the supposed non-Jewish elements from it?”
His answer: “We have chosen to allow such questions to remain embedded in the multitude of entries to be selected by individual volume editors and their expert advisory boards.” Although it might seem like Professor Young is passing the buck, his solution is one that the redactors of the Talmud, struggling to corral an amorphous, cacophony of insights, might have understood.
This idea helped me sharpen my own definitions. So here they are: A Jewish book is one that comments on other Jewish books. And a Jewish library is a place where those books, as well as their readers, can talk with one another, without their having to be an answer as to what constitutes a Jewish book. Moving from the abstract to the concrete, it became clear to me that San Francisco’s BJE Jewish Community Library is the perfect embodiment of this thirst for conversation, and for the productive intellectual and literary friction that moves Jewish culture forward.
For starters, the library beautiful new quarters are housed in the city’s non-denominational Jewish Community High School, a context that emphasizes the literal connection between a library and people, between a Jewish institution and its multicultural city, and between the past and the future. The fluidity between categories is clear in the large space at the front of the library, which is used for private reading in the morning, high school Talmud study in the afternoon, and a range of Jewish cultural activities in the evening, many of them of a decidedly secular bent.
Even in the library stacks themselves, the many explicitly Jewish books that make up the majority of the collection are interwoven, like Jews scattered throughout the world, with the volumes on math, history and other literatures that make up the research materials for the school’s secular studies. (So one can find “Hotel Bolivia: The Culture of Memory in a Refuge from Nazism,” a classic Jewish story of survival and renewal, next to “The Incas,” an introduction to an indigenous, pagan people.)
I recently attended a Jewish genealogical society meeting at the library that added a final piece to my understanding: Jewish libraries represent our cultural DNA. For we are raised not just by our relatives, but by the family of Jewish books that live in our homes and communities. Marco Roth, in his new column for Nextbook.com entitled “My Father’s Library,” makes this conflation of book and experience, teacher and father, and library and home his focus. And one could add into this mix last year’s Nobel Prize lecture by Orhan Pamuk, called “My Father’s Suitcase,” which interpreted the elder Pamuk’s small collection of unfinished writings as a symbol for the history of the Turkish people.
Over the long exposure of Jewish history, Jews lived and died as Jews by the library, or suitcase, they carried around with them, as if they were still the Israelites carrying the Tabernacle through the desert. It is a strange but not unpleasant irony that just as the digital revolution makes the entire Jewish canon available to every lone, lonely Jew, our non-virtual Jewish libraries will sharpen the conversations, between books and between people, that are the first draft of the next chapter of our history.
Daniel Schifrin, a writer and editor, is a visiting scholar at Stanford University.