Attention: Our synagogue does not want any more of your old books for our library.
I promise that it does not matter what synagogue you attend: I am speaking on behalf of all synagogues everywhere. Do not bring us your old Jewish books and ask us to take them off your hands. We have plenty.
Here’s a different idea instead: This Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah, turn them into gifts for your children and grandchildren.
Three stories: The first involved a deeply connected family whose family matriarch and patriarch passed away. The second was a Jew whose sole daughter became messianic and had no Jewish descendants. The third was perusing a family bookshelf at his parents’ house.
In each case, these folks encountered books belonging to their ancestors after they were deceased. In two of them, they turned to me, the rabbi, “the keeper of old Jewish books.” Did I want them?
In the first instance, the Jewish library was vast. I kept two of the older, rarer, books; not so secretly, I am saving them for their grandchildren as wedding presents. In the second case, I suggested that the deceased’s seven-year-old great-great-grandson, who was privileged to know his sole Jewish ancestor, keep her Tanakh. He is not Jewish, but one never knows when a Jew could return. The third person found an old siddur belonging to a grandparent. Its sudden discovery was profoundly moving. It was sitting nearly forgotten on a family bookshelf. I told him to ask for it and take it home.
In 2017, Time Magazine reviewed a book on a topic called Dostadning. Dostadning is a “death cleaning” practiced by people in Sweden. While Swedes are alive and aging they perform a spiritual decluttering. They hold a dinner where they present their most treasured possessions to their families, share stories, and pass on those possessions to their descendants.
As “People of the Book,” every Jew ought to have a Book-Dostadning. Instead of dropping a box at the synagogue, we should grant our most precious old siddurim, chumashim, and other books to our children and grandchildren. We should then tell stories about why these books mean something to us. To paraphrase the oft-quoted Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, we must “take the old and make it new, and take the new and make it sacred.”
I am blessed, in my office, to have a set of chumashim belonging to my great-great-grandfather. Given to me by my grandfather, they were one of the few possessions he took with him from Europe to America. I often marvel at the fact that he had no idea that his great-great-grandson would be a rabbi.
Don’t pass your books off to the synagogue. Pass them on to your children instead.