Library book sales typically are strong on mysteries, romances and children’s books. That’s what people like and discard. They rarely excel at Judaism, because the relative population of the People of the Book is small and I like to think families hang on to Jewish books.
The Westport, Connecticut Library Sale that started this weekend surprised me with the best Judaica section I’ve ever seen, running at least 30 linear feet, tables brimming with books. You can guess the selection: Anita Diamond, Bruce Feiler, an antique Jewish Caravan, the Union Prayer Book, Primo Levi. I thought about rescuing some books from whatever fate awaits books ignored at such sales; I felt saddened at the discarded JTS Pentateuch inscribed to a bar mitzvah boy, but since I already had the volume I passed on it.
My previous advice for book buyers – you see it, you want it? You buy it – served me well. I snapped up something I’d never found before, My Models were Jews, by Lionel S. Reiss, from 1938. Reiss, a Polish-born artist, traveled through Eastern Europe and British Mandate Palestine sketching scenes and faces from Jewish life. He wanted to capture the diversity of Jews, going beyond the stereotypes. He worked at the same time, and some of the same territory, as photographer Roman Vishniac, although as far as I can tell he garnered less attention. The book included scholarly essays to back up Reiss’ thesis. The icing on the kugel: the book was printed in a limited edition of 1,200 and mine was no. 362, signed by the artist. It was mine for $5.
One essay, by Prof. Franz Boas, professor emeritus of anthropology at Columbia University, on the topic “Is There a Jewish Type?” has this passage:
The farther afield one goes the less is it possible to speak of a Jewish type. The Jews of India and China have types of their own, largely due to an unacknowledged intermingling with their neighbors.
The detailed study of the bodily features of Jews of various countries shows a considerable degree of similarity with the people among whom they live which must in part be due to mixture. The Bokharan Jew looks like a Mongol, the Yemenite like an Arab.
I also bought Prayers, Blessings and Hymns, a compact book cmpiled by Rabbi Ch. M Brecher. I already have a copy, a relic from my Texas upbringing. I saw a well-preserved copy of it and decided to keep it at my office or even stow it in my backpack so I can review the morning and evening prayers, which I still don’t know beyond the first line, on my daily rail commute. For instance, I’ve never learned Modeh Ani in full, only the beginning, which my son learned to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine” while a student at Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford. I learned it from him and never got farther than that. The time’s come to push ahead with my Jewish learning. Putting myself into the mindset of a child learning the prayer, I found it comforting to read the lines
O God, the soul You gave me is clean. You made and created it; you breathed life into me, and keep me alive. I know that some day You will take life from me, but only to continue it in another world. So long as my soul lives, I will give thanks to You, O Lord my God, God of all who came before me, ruler of all things formed about me, and Master of all souls. Blessed are You, O Lord Who can return life even to the dead.
The low prices encouraged me to scoop up historical books I could probably find in the library, but I decided to grab them anyway. One Enemy at the Gates by Westport resident William Craig, about the Battle of Stalingrad. I’ve read other accounts of that clash on the Volga but not this one. Flipping through it, I liked, for lack of a better word, excerpts from letters written by German and Russian soldiers.
The same battle concerns one entry in the enormous, millennium-spanning Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, from 1988. It brings together snippets of reportso n historical events, told by people where there. It includes the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE by Josephus, Nazi Extermination of the Jews in the Ukraine, October 1942 by Hermann Graebe, Stalingrad: December 1942 by Benno Zieser, and reports on Maidanek and Belsen.
The most pleasant surprise of the day, however, was a travel book called Tuscan Cities by William Dean Howells. He was . What made the book irresistible to a romantic history buff like was the inscription: “To my dear old chummy wife, Philadelphia, Oct. 24th 1899, Many Happy Returns of the Day.”
The language, the cultured, cursive handwriting, and the topic of book itself strongly suggested that the writer and his dear old chummy wife were people of means and education. Why he wrote the location and not their names escapes me – I would like to know who these people were and what their lives were like, before and after that delightful autumn day in 1899. A single page of scribbled notes in the back of the book, far less legible, yielded no more clues.
Their names and lives will remain a mystery, except for a bright dot of a day of a happy marriage.