This really begins with an obsession — that is, my brother’s obsession — with books. Over the past four decades, he’s been consumed with creating a singular library of antiquarian religious Hebrew books, or seforim. To that end, over the years, he’s bought many dozens of libraries, keeping the volumes that interested him, and selling or giving away those that did not.
About 10 years ago, he bought the library of Dr. Yosef Yerushalmi, the renowned scholar and historian, and gave me many of the novels from the collection. I read a number of them over the next few months, gave away those that didn’t interest me and shelved the remainder away in what I still, anachronistically, call my daughter’s room, thinking I’d catch up on them later. But nature and Manhattan apartments abhor a vacuum, and the room eventually filled up with “stuff.” After a while, I forgot about the books hidden behind the mounting detritus.
My wonderful and very organized daughter came by recently, and, horrified by the chaos in what once had been her well-ordered room, she immediately began to ruthlessly discard what she deemed unnecessary and uncovered the bookshelves with the Yerushalmi Library novels. She was resolved to give everything away, but there was one book I insisted on keeping — it intrigued me even though I’d never heard of it — “The Family Mashber.” The name reminded me of another book I’d loved, I.J. Singer’s “The Brothers Ashkenazi,” and the newly discovered book’s title (along with its heft) promised just the sort of multi-generational, all-encompassing read I enjoy. And the author’s name, Der Nister (The Hidden One) — what was that about?
As I rescued the book from my daughter’s determined hands, a letter fell out. It was a personal note from the English translator, Leonard Wolf, asking the esteemed professor, “Dear Yosef,” to read this “formidable book … [whose] “sheer length and Dostoevskyan mood and manner require careful, patient and sensitive readers…” Charmed by the thought of being part of such an illustrious group, I opened the book and was immediately transported to Jewish life in 19th-century Eastern Europe. The story centers on three brothers, but there is an endless array of characters, funny, tragic and surreal, ranging from then-despised Bratslaver chasidim to Russian peasants and the Polish aristocracy.
I wouldn’t say that I couldn’t put the book down — it’s a heavy book — you can’t just carry it around all day, but it’s certainly a page-turner, an extraordinarily rich saga replete with details about a Jewish world in flux and crisis (Mashber, in fact, means crisis in Hebrew). Every time I returned to its pages, I was mesmerized anew.
How had I never heard of its amazing author, Der Nister? Born Pinkhas Kahanovitsh in the Ukraine in 1884, he seems to have chosen his pseudonym because of an early affinity to kabbalistic and esoteric Jewish thought, but the pen name turned out to be sadly prescient. His magnum opus was hidden or lost for many years, and in fact, only the first two volumes survive. The third volume disappeared when Der Nister was arrested by the Soviets in the late 1940s and has never been found.
As I read more about the book, I learned that reviewers raved when the translation came out. So how had I missed it? I glanced again at the translator’s letter and saw that it was dated July 20, 1987. I know exactly where I was — cozily ensconced in that particular nesting cocoon of young and expectant mothers, taking care of my 3-year-old son and awaiting the birth seven days later of my little daughter. And so, the many years have passed…
The felicity of finding this treasure on my own shelves has made me think anew about the printed page. Until very recently, of course, printed books were treasured. Books were precious. Mishandling a book, writing in it, even bending its pages, was shameful and vandalistic. And a trip to the library was an uncurated experience — I remember the pleasure of wandering from aisle to aisle, picking books at random, starting at Aa-Az and ending when my arms were full.
These days, I generally get my books online, and once I’ve finished them, they’re gone. We live in an age where printed books can no longer even be given away. Just today, I passed a box full of books sitting on my Manhattan curb, forlornly awaiting disposal in the maws of the oncoming sanitation truck.
My brother and other collectors are bucking the tides of our time, preserving books that are generally of little interest. And of course, happily, books are increasingly digitized, so texts are preserved, but what chance is there of coming across a random gem? In truth, I love the convenience of Kindle, and it’s only Shabbat that keeps me tied to paper books at all. Still, I wonder, what have we lost? What is still hidden?
Gloria Kestenbaum is an insurance consultant, as well as a reader, writer and occasional hoarder.