At a recent meeting of people involved in Jewish life, we began by introducing ourselves with our names and the titles of the books we’re now reading. There was very little overlap (other than a few parents of young children who admitted their last book was “Good Night, Moon”), with mentions of fiction, history, business, works of Jewish content, even cookbooks. After everyone spoke, the buzz was that we all wanted a copy of the book list we had created.
Books form community; they expand identity. Even as bookstores are shutting their doors and reading has less to do with turning pages than touching a screen, the reading, writing and publishing of books remain central to Jewish life. Our contributors this month take a look at the idea of books from a variety of angles.
Miriam Intrator writes about post-World War II book-related efforts — getting books safely out of Europe and getting books to survivors still in Europe; David Ruderman studies an unusual 18th-century best seller; Yehuda Kurtzer reflects on expanding the canon. Turning to contemporary work, Paul Zakrzewski explores the popularity of memoirs and their connection to Jewish memory, and Eric Herschthal reports on the e-book revolution. Writing personally, Rabbi Debra Orenstein looks at books and identity, as she moves her expansive library across the country. Jerome A. Chanes probes the nature of the Jewish book.
We’re pleased to welcome Tablet’s books critic, Adam Kirsch, to these pages with his essay on Robert Alter’s translations of biblical works. We are also delighted to feature an excerpt from an upcoming title, “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza” by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole (Nextbook, Schocken).
For Israeli artist Jack Jano, whose work is on the cover (and to the left and on page 4), “books contain the mirror of culture.” In his sculptures, he often uses books from outdated libraries, synagogue shelves and religious learning centers, places that he always felt at home in, although he didn’t participate because of learning difficulties. “I use books in my art,” he says, “because they represent to me my heritage.”
Jano, who lives in a village in the Western Galilee in a house he built, was born in Morocco in 1950, came to Israel as a child and later graduated from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy. On our cover, the towering piles of books are the foundations for synagogues and religious structures, all formed with words.
We also feature the work of Naftali Rakuzin (page 6), who was born in Moscow in 1948, immigrated to Israel in 1974 and now lives in Paris. The son of a book illustrator, he trained as a book jacket designer. In those days he would add images to books, and now he creates images based on the volumes in his ever-growing private library. For Rakuzin, a book is like a window, a frame through which he views the world. “If I wasn’t afraid of seeming pretentious,” he says, “I would say my compositions are an intellectual ‘Still Life.’”
On April 3, the Center for Jewish History is hosting a symposium, “The Jewish Book: Past, Present, Future,” where many of the themes in these pages will be explored further by leading scholars. We’re grateful to the Center for lending two of the striking historical book pages (pages 3 and 12), now on view in the exhibition “Zero to Ten: First Decades/New Centuries,” along with manuscripts, art and ritual objects from its collections.
I remember visiting and revisiting another extraordinary book exhibition, shown at the New York Public Library in 1988-89, “A Sign and A Witness: 2000 Years of Hebrew Books and Illuminated Manuscripts.” Along with a Dead Sea scroll, Geniza fragments and all sorts of remarkable pages, on display was a three-volume manuscript lent from three different institutions — the companion volumes were united as a set for the first time since the Middle Ages. In a recent exchange, Arye Gold, then chief librarian of the Jewish Division of the NYPL, who curated the exhibit, spoke of “traffic in ideas,” suggesting books and their contents travel widely in all directions, inspiring journeys within, as well as among cultures.
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