The newly opened National Library of Israel is clad in Jerusalem stone and sits amidst the central institutions of the state of Israel. It is across the street and down the hill from the Knesset, in walking distance from the Supreme Court, the Israel Museum, the Ministries of Finance and Interior, Hebrew University and the Prime Minister’s Office. Within that library lies a room deep beneath the earth where 5 million books are kept safe in a low-oxygen, state of the art repository, with perhaps one of the most advanced fire suppression system available today.
My husband and I are standing, looking though glass, into that vast underground room. We are here in solidarity, visitors to a nation at war. While we watch, robots trundle up and down aisles of shelves, hundreds of feet high, stacked with bins, each holding ninety books. No need for the Dewey decimal system here. When requested, each tagged book is geolocated and its bin delivered to the librarian. Several stories up, that unseen librarian extracts requested books through an airlock and then places returned books in the bin. The system automatically updates each book’s new location.
We walk up to the ground level and enter the Special Exhibition Hall, where there are books, letters, Torahs, maps, and folios. Some are kept under glass in stacks of rotating drawers. At the touch of a button, the contents of each drawer can be viewed for forty seconds or so. Light is titrated to protect fading ink on fragile pages. So much care given to preserve what was so often nearly destroyed and miraculously saved.
For a few seconds I gaze at an ancient Codex. Rescued and smuggled out after the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands in 1948. Everywhere in the library are signs of a fierce loyalty to books, to write them, to read them, to rescue them. The Codex rests here, preserved and protected by so many generations who were unwilling to leave their books behind, even when they ran for their lives.
The edges of the Codex look scorched. I stare at the smoky discoloration. Were these pages snatched from a burning fire? No, I am told. The ashy appearance is the result of oxygen interacting with parchment over the centuries. Given enough time, exposed to light and air, the very stuff of life causes, without preservation, disintegration.
In another drawer, I glimpse a letter written by a Jewish author. He escaped Hitler’s Germany and finding no home, no safe harbor, in desolation, took his own life. Turning, my eye is caught by a manuscript with handwritten margin notes. These are David Grossman’s final edits for his book “To the End of the Land”. In that book he tells the story of Ora, the mother of a young IDF soldier. When her son volunteers during the Second Gulf Intifada, she has a premonition. She flees, leaving her home to wander the land. She wants to escape the moment, not be home, when the soldiers come knocking to tell her her son is dead. The literal translation of the original Hebrew title is: “a woman flees a message”. I carried that book with me and read it in 2017 when my husband and I hiked a segment of the Israeli National Trail from Tel Dan to Caesarea.
Grossman began writing this book in 2003 while his oldest son was serving in the IDF. He completed the book in 2006 when his youngest son was deployed during the Second Lebanon war. His youngest son was killed in August 2006, on the last day of that war.
At another glass case, I stand for a long-time studying a pilgrim’s journal from the last century. It is a journal of pressed flowers and photographs. Each flower so preserved is mentioned in either the Bible or New Testament. The photos are of holy sites in Israel. Photo and flower, side by side, directly connecting the holy land to the holy books. These pilgrims, from so long ago, captured in their journal what they had come so far to see, what scripture had described. Today, the petals still glow with a soft reddish tint, brighter than the sepia tones of the photograph.
On the way out of the special exhibition room, I am caught again by flowers. Beautiful botanical drawings, ink on parchment. Exquisite and accurate. This is a handbook in Hebrew, illustrating and naming the flora of this land. A plant with five petaled flowers is drawn whole, as if pulled gently, undamaged from the earth. The slim stalk connects a bulbous root with delicate tendrils, spread across the page as if still seeking water in a dry land. Next to the drawing is a photo of the young botanist who so carefully, artfully captured this flower. His name was Tuvia Kushner. He was 24 years old when he was killed while delivering supplies to the besieged Etzion in the 1948 war.
In the National Library of Israel time passes unheeded. An hour has gone by unnoticed. We leave the special exhibit hall and return to the rotunda. There we hear the library’s origin story. This lovely building, full of light is home to an institution that predates the establishment of the state of Israel. Its story begins with Joseph Chazonovitz (1844-1919). He collected 15,000 volumes by Jewish authors over the course of his lifetime. He dreamed of establishing a home in Jerusalem for the works of Jewish writers from around the world, gathered in from wherever and whenever they had lived. Collected and preserved in whatever languages they wrote. His collection forms the foundation of today’s library. The library’s first home opened in 1892 on B’Nai Brith Street. Over a hundred years later the library has found its fourth home here on Eliezer Kaplan street.
The grand opening of the new library building was originally scheduled for October 22, 2023. That event was delayed a week due to the October 7th Gaza War. Visitors are greeted as they enter, by hundreds of faces covering a vast wall, the pictures of those killed on October 7th. So, many faces, so many dear ones who didn’t make it to this day. Looking through a glass wall into the reading hall, we see rows of chairs, on each chair a poster and a book. The posters are of the kidnapped, the books are those chosen with love, in sorrow, with hope, by their families. There, centered, is the beautiful face of Carmel Gat, still a hostage after more than three months. That photo is a companion image to the one I wear on a chain around my neck.
We track down our friend Joe Yudin’s book, “The Protestant Settlers of Israel: Missionaries, Millenarians, and the African Hebrew Israelites”. It is prominently on display among other recent publications, todays’ authors added to a vast treasure trove of past and present. There are visitors on the stairs, there are people reading under a huge circular sky light, the reading hall is surrounded by windows opening into a garden. Book lovers can also be nature lovers here, seeing through the garden to the sky.
What does this building say about, and to the people of Israel? The exterior pattern of irregularly sized cubes evokes the stones of the Western Wall. The long slope of the roof, curves down and then up, in the shape of an unrolled scroll, Israel’s first book, the Torah. The high-tech storage system preserves and protects. The interactive displays, at the touch of a finger translate texts from one language to another, or fill the air with music, or play a video clip. Carefully designed, beautifully built, the library is a safe space for very, very old and just made new books, for students and teachers, for readers and writers, all part of a young nation with ancient roots.
Our visit is over. We have left the warmth and light of the library. We are standing outside in the cold rain of a January day. From where we stand, we can see past the lowest point of that gracefully curved roof. Through the clouds, Mount Herzl is barely visible. Also called the Mount of Remembrance, this is the site of Israel’s National Military Cemetery. We are told the building’s design was modified at the last minute. Changed to dip the roof lower at a certain point and place more floors underground. This change came at the behest of one of the leaders of the Knesset. His intention was to preserve the sight line from the seat of government to where Israel’s soldiers are buried, so those who order war, remember the cost and to whom of war.
I am a third generation American Jew. My grandparents immigrated from Russia and Ukraine; lands I’ve never seen. My father was career military. He served in WW2 in the African and Italian Campaigns. Both he and my mother are buried in Arlington National Cemetery, just a short mile from our home on the banks of the Potomac. Not too far from where my mother and father are buried, are the graves of my husband’s maternal and paternal grandparents, and the uncle he never knew, a young pilot killed in a training accident during the last days of WWII.
Arlington National Cemetery is a peaceful place. From a high hill, near the tomb of the unknown soldier, it too, like Israel’s National Cemetery, has a line a of site across the river to the National Mall with its houses of government, war memorials and museums. At the birth of the United States, Thomas Jefferson expressed his hope for the future: “we will be soldiers, so our sons may be farmers, that their sons may be artists.” That hope of one generation for the next, has not yet been realized in either the United States or Israel. Israel, in its seventy-five years, has not yet had a generation free from war.
Israel is at war, the longest war since the desperate battles of 1948, when in response to the UN recognition of Israel, it was attacked by its neighbors from the north, south, and west. The October 7th war is being waged by both career military and 100,000’s of reservists from all walks of life. The National Library of Israel with its books, journals and letters tells the story of generations of artists and farmers, who when called, served as soldiers, also in the hope that future generations might flourish in peace, with no need to go to war.
The National Library of Israel, by its very existence, housing as it does texts ancient and modern, embodies a more modest, yet infinitely precious hope. The hope that books even in times of war, can and will be written and read, and then preserved, a gift given by one generation to the next.
Among our fellow tourists that day were a unit of young IDF soldiers. They leaned against the walls and the stair railings. They lingered a long time in those relaxed postures of the young and limber. They, like we, were gazing at robotic arms moving books. They seemed entranced by the sight, perhaps dreaming of books they might write or books they might read. Or perhaps they were just weary and in need of respite. Each one carried a rifle in a sling across their backs, standing perhaps bemused, perhaps fascinated, by this vast heritage, preserved and created by so many who have come before, and theirs to add to, even in times of war.