Books tell tales. That’s not just their content, but their very presence can suggest a backstory of how a book journeyed from one owner to another, and why. Haunt enough Judaica sections at used book sales at libraries and you can sense the stories behind donations. The kids left for college and the books of youth go in the donation bin, even the Torahs and Tanachs from bar and bat mitzvot and high school graduations. Clean up the corner of the empty nest and send those reminders of weary days at Hebrew school to the jumbled volumes on the tables.
An example: I spent a mere $3 for the Torah with the commentary of Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut of the Union for Reform Judaism at the Westport, CT, Public Library. A marker on the inside said it was from a local temple for a high school graduate just a few years ago. So the student barely left college before the Torah went away.
That disturbed me, the quick jettison of a Jewish connection.
Other books, however, hint at the opposite emotion. Somebody fiercely held them across borders and decades. Even as eyesight failed and the language of the books became more ancient, an owner treasured them, as long as possible.
That’s what I thought at the Pequot Library sale in Southport, Connecticut, when I found several Yiddish books. Based on their pre-war publication dates and other evidence, I realized they must have arrived on the table as a group. As an avid rescuer of orphaned Jewish books, I needed only to decide on my purchase. A fellow book enthusiast, my friend Dr. Dina, joined me for the rescue mission. We make a good Judaica book-rescue team – she excels at reading Hebrew script, while I have some basic ability to read Yiddish (thanks to a 1981 course at the Workmen’s Circle in New York).
While Dr. Dina happily selected a Hebrew edition of Robinson Crusoe, I worked through the authors and titles of the two Yiddish volumes that interested me. Novelist/playwright David Pinski wrote one of them, with what looked like multiple titles. The cover page said “Meshihim” (Messiahs) but another page called it “Der Eibiker Yid” (The Eternal Jew), and I found a reference to that as a play he wrote in 1906. To my frustration, the book did not have a publication date, although it had been printed in Poland by “Farlag Ch. Brzoza, Warsaw.”
On the plus side, Dr. Dina could read an inscription, addressed to “Friend (or Comrade, I’m now told) Dr. Yitzhak Grossman,” from David Pinski himself. A middle line of Yiddish remained elusive. Fellow students in a prayerbook Hebrew class couldn’t read it, nor could friends on Facebook, although several passed a photo of the inscription to others. I finally sent the photo of the writing to Philip “Fishl” Kutner, publisher of the Anglo-Yiddish newsletter Der Bay, for which I once wrote about Jewish film. He immediately called me to say the middle line read “Mit tifer dank [illegible]keit.” With deep or profound thanks . . .” But it still remained incomplete. Finally, a friend in Canada found a Yiddish speaker who said the daunting middle line was “mit tifen daynken libskeyt,” which means “with deep thanks and affection.” Finally! Here is the actual inscription — read it for yourself.
The other book had the unmistakably ominous aroma of a book from the Soviet Union – I can tell with a sniff the place of publishing. The title page told me it was written by poet Peretz Markish, and published in Kiev in the horrible year of 1938. The book clearly contains poetry. I could read the title, “Faterlekhe Erd,” but the meaning eluded me until I pulled out my English-Yiddish dictionary and translated that as “Fatherland Earth,” although that must be missing some nuance.
The connection between the books became obvious when I found a postcard tucked into the Markish volume. One side showed a Moscow “wedding cake” skyscraper; the other side, in English, was addressed to Dr. I. Grossman, 297 E. 10th Street, New York 9, New York, dated July 18, 1959. The stamp was remarkable – showing writer Sholem Aleichem and commemorating his centennial, 1859-1959. The card read,
Dear Folks, I am leaving Moskva today. We are always going places. I enjoy every minute of it. But at the end of the day my ankles are swollen, through the night it gets better. For this reason I will not extend my tour and will be back in New York as planned. Love, Mary.
So one book had the inscription, the other had the postcard addressed to the same man. Clearly, the books had belonged to Dr. Grossman at least since the 1950s, probably much earlier. I know nothing else about him. Still, I imagine he fiercely loved Jewish learning and culture and prized the works of Yiddish writers. In his honor, I will give Peretz Markish and David Pinski a good, caring home for decades to come.
And after that . . . I can only quote the Yiddish proverb, “Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht,” or “Man plans and God laughs, or, in my case, “Van plans and God laughs.” I’m not worrying about it.