Finding a Hertz Chumash within the Depths of a Library

One’s personal history is filled with twists and turns. What we are now is probably much different from what we imagined years ago that we would be. There are moments that we remember with great warmth and amazement. There are some things that incite a strong sense of nostalgia. For myself this is embodied by my religious history, my relationship to which has changed dramatically over the past few years. During my teenage years and into early adulthood, I was observant and went to services at least once or twice a week. A series of painful moments and dramatic changes made me less observant. The exact reasons why things transpired as they did are not important for this space. This is just to help establish my recent discovery.

Just as the sun set last Saturday, I was wandering around the shelves of a library. I was in the Judaic section looking for new books on African-Israel political, economic and military relations. Over the previous few months, my interest in this topic, in terms of academia, had grown as it increasing becoming a possible new area on Rwanda to explore and research. As I continued scanning the different books, I noticed many had spines containing purely Hebrew writing. This sparked my curiosity. I grabbed a few and realized that all the writing within the text was in Hebrew. My understanding of the language is not at the level it used to be, but I still can read and understand a bit. These books were so interesting, because of their uniqueness at the library, whose section on Judaism is rooted more in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than on religious texts.

I found a Tanakh that I recognized from my old Chabad synagogue. I smiled at the thought that something like that would be found here. I opened the book, leafed through some pages and read a random commentary based on a line from the Book of Judges. I put the book back where I found it with a larger smile on my face. As I continued to look through the books on the library shelves I noticed something. At the end of one shelf was a book that felt like it was calling to me. The spine read, “The Pentateuch and Haftorahs” and “Edited by J.H. Hertz”. I was in complete shock. Was this a Hertz Chumash (Hertz’s Torah Book)? I pulled it from the shelf and read the Hebrew letters on the cover. Indeed it was. Tears started to roll from my eyes.

Throughout my observant years, the Hertz Chumash was the ultimate book to use during Shabbat services. I remember bringing in my own each Saturday at the Reform Synagogue I attended with my Uncle Bernie. For many participants at the weekly service, this was the best Torah book. Its translations of Hebrew to English and commentary could not be replaced by any other version of the Bible. I remember at or around the time of my Bar Mitzvah saving two or three dozen of Hertz’s Torah Books when another synagogue decided to replace them with a more modern interpretation of the Torah. The feeling I had saving those editions (they were later given to the Saturday morning minyan for all to have access) all those years ago was comparable to what I was feeling now. To all intents and purposes, I considered this book the most important text that I could ever read. It was holy and contained a level of understanding that would take a lifetime for me to grasp.

Tears coursing down my cheeks, I opened the book. It contained a familiar odor and texture. Memories flooded my mind, like how much I would look forward to reading this book each Saturday. My current lack of religious devotion did not matter as the book felt like it was calling to me and asking me to make it holy again. I immediately closed its pages and carried it with me to the library check-out counter.

When I returned to my flat, I made a cup of tea and slowly opened the pages of the Hertz Chumash. It was a Second Edition copy. The pages were a bit wrinkled and battered but all still intact. I looked at the table of contents to figure out which was the Torah portion for this Shabbat. I knew the day had ended, but it did not matter. I wanted and felt like I needed to read the week’s portion. I discovered online that the portion was Yithro from the Book of Exodus. Yithro contains the wisdom of Moses’ father-in-law as well as the ultimate wisdom of the Ten Commandants. Was it fate that I would rediscover the Hertz Chumash on the day when the reading related to arguably the most important portion of the Torah?

As I read the portion in both Hebrew and English, I found myself looking down the page to Hertz’s brilliant commentary. There are other Torah books that contain more detailed commentary and analysis. But none of them carry (for me) the magic and grandeur that is captured by Hertz. I swore that I could hear the debate about the significance of the portion that I used to participate in so many years ago. Additionally, I found myself standing when reading the Ten Commandments, as I always used do for those holy lines. All the while, the tears were rolling down my eyes. When I finished reading the portion, I placed the book on my shelf. Unlike at the library, it was in a space of its own, no books were near it. It stood proudly for me to see. It is still standing on my shelf waiting to be read again, come Shabbat.

I would be lying if I said that I truly and deeply understand why this book holds so much power for me. I do know that it brings my religious past into the present. More importantly, it reminds me that even though I might not be as religious as I once was, my religion is still a very large and important part of who I am. There are many people who have tried to remind me of this simple fact. But it was only when I found and read the Hertz Chumash that I remembered that my Judaism is part of my tapestry and always will be.

About the Author
Jonathan Beloff is a current PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies and is performing his research on Rwandan foreign policy titled, "The Evolution of Rwandan Foreign Policy from Genocide to Globalisation”. His academic focus is on economic development and international relations in the African Great Lakes Region. He previously worked for the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (Kigali, Rwanda), the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Vad Vashem.
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