My enthusiasm for collecting books on Jewish themes soared on a recent vacation that included a stop in downtown Kerrville, Texas. Dropping by a used bookstore, I found a volume I’d never seen before in decades of visits to stores and tag sales. This encounter with the printed word supported my long-time belief: you never know when an appealing tome might pop up, like a doggie in the window, just begging to go home with you.
The very name of the store, Wolfmueller’s Books, sounded promising, fragrant with an antique Teutonic bookiness. Old Mr. Wolfmueller probably shared the Texas Hill Country’s deep German roots. I strolled in and first perused the highlighted section of books by local favorite son, Jewish musician, author and feisty gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman—another excellent signal that something Judaic lurked therein.
Finally, I got down to the serious business of checking the Judaica and history sections. And there I found a doggie I had to take home to Connecticut with me: Germany’s Stepchildren by City College professor Solomon Liptzin, published in 1944 by the Jewish Publication Society of America. A clear wrapping protected the remarkably well preserved dust jacket, with drawings of the eminent German Jews, from Rahel Varnhagen to Theodor Herzl and on to Martin Buber. The design, subject matter and age made the book a natural buy, especially at a mere $10. To quote the title of a Kinky Friedman song, “Sold American!”
Had the book been more common, a title I see repeatedly at bookstores and library sales (as in, The Jewish Catalog, I would have passed on it. But if I find something old, interesting or unique, I grab it. After decades of casual browsing and grievous misses on books I should have bought, I’ve learned to take a sharp eye and an open wallet into buying situations.
I still do my book hunting the old-fashioned way. I walk around and dig through shelves and boxes. Buying on Amazon or eBay—what fun is instant gratification? I don’t even know what I’m looking for; I buy what I want without a list in mind. I want to hold a book, touch its cover, flip its yellowed pages, smell its musty journey, and imagine the social forces that drove the author to write. I like my books like I like my afikomen: hidden, desired, elusive yet still within reach, waiting somewhere if I can just find them.
I’ve been finding them for 30 years. Growing up in South Texas, I was fascinated by one of the very few Jewish books my mother had, The Wit and Wisdom of the Talmud, printed in 1923. Its aphorisms provided what little Jewish knowledge I had. Later, our landlady gave me The Works of Flavius Josephus, inscribed in 1916. My family also had the Union Prayer Book. These volumes formed the basis around which my idiosyncratic Judaica collection grew.
The collecting passion blossomed once I moved to New York after college. The place was the Garden of Eden for budget-minded fans of used media – books, records, even magazines. My Jewish collecting ranged across fiction and history, like A Treasury of Jewish Folklore by Nathan Ausubel (uncle of a Princeton classmate) and The Family Moskat by Isaac Bashevis Singer (which I had Nobel Prize winner Singer autograph when I heard him lecture at New York University in 1983).
Over the years I’ve had memorable finds, on subjects ranging from the sublime to the faintly ridiculous. I paid $1 at a summer library sale in Connecticut for an autographed 1954 copy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Man’s Quest for God.
Another favorite find, translated profiles of several dozen Jewish heroes of the Red Army in World War II, is now on a long-term loan to a friend with an interest in the topic.
The 1965 cartoon collection Fanny Hillman: Memoirs of a Jewish Madam runs riot with religious, ethnic, racial and sexual stereotypes, and even educational digs. One shows a brothel customer in a shirt from Princeton, my alma mater. The drawings were by Sergio Aragones, whose work brightened the pages of Mad Magazine.
I also enjoy a sociological wonder from 1969, The Jewish Wife by Gwen Gibson Schwartz and Barbara Wyden. Neither of the authors are Jewish, the book jacket points out, but their husbands are! The book sets out to attack stereotypes but still offers this gem of historical perspective in its conclusion:
Is it possible that Jewish wives, despite (or is it because of?) all their intensity, their anxiety, their drive, and even their occasional near-hysteria, are part of the coming mainstream of America, an America where humanism will be a stronger force than ever before? It may indeed be possible. Campus radicals, many of whose best-known leaders were brought up by Jewish mothers, may be the forerunners of this progress. For these radicals are not much like the old-time Bohemians or Communists.
Jewish books about Europe in the 1930s carry a special poignant appeal. I paid $1 for 1933’s A World Passed By by Marvin Lowenthal. A World Passed By has chapters such “The Four Polands” and “A Thousands Years Along the Rhine.” A woman named Clara Bernstein inscribed her name inside using what must have been a fine fountain pen; a few pages in, the name of Tossy Spivakovsky is stamped. That latter name carries a story in itself: Nathan “Tossy” Spivakovsky was an Odessa-born violinist who had an illustrious recording and composing career and died at 91 in Westport, Connecticut, where I now live and where I bought the book.
To this day I think about the one that got away. This happened around 1988 at a flea market on 6th Avenue and 24th Street in New York. I found a book in Yiddish, the title was Amerike: Dos Land Fun Vunder – America, the Land of Wonder in English. It was published in Warsaw in 1939, if I recall. I knew its historical significance, the invisible weight of onrushing tragedy in its pages, but it cost $25 and I didn’t want to pay that much. Penny wise and pound foolish, I walked away and lost my chance to buy the book with the hopeful drawing of skyscrapers on the cover. A quarter century has passed and I have never seen Dos Land Fun Vunder again. I learned my lesson.
The most thought provoking acquisitions took place this year. I’m divorced and my ex-wife is selling what had been our house as our son leaves for college. His absence will create two empty nests. In cleaning up, they scooped up hundreds of books to donate to Goodwill. I had the run of the boxes for anything I wanted. Peering in, I saw, with a lurch, books we had bought in our efforts to build a good Jewish home. Some on Jewish parenting I decided to donate to my synagogue. But others vibrated with compressed emotions about the Jewish life. I had even inscribed one as a Mother’s Day gift in 1998, The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah. I could not imagine strangers holding these artifacts a Jewish home that ceased to exist.
So I took them all. These Jewish books stand alone in my imagination. I call them the Chuppah Collection, just because I can. The titles include: Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days, Biblical Women Unbound, The Five Books of Moses, translated by Prof. Everett Fox, and Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality.
The price: nothing. The value: incalculable.