Books

Books Everywhere

Three possessions should you prize: a field, a friend and a book.
— Hai Gaon (939-1038)

You might not have caught this relatively short article tucked next to "Metropolitan Diary" in this week's New York Times. A woman named Barbara Rosten returned an overdue book to the Brooklyn Public Library. Ordinarily this would not make the papers except for this unusual fact: it was 57 years overdue. In 2013 a book was returned to the New York Public Library 36 years late, but Rosten may have the record. The book, you wonder? Gone with the Wind, a classic whose theme song in the movie version was the first dance at Rosten's wedding. The irony is that she kept the book longer than she kept the husband. She owed 5 cents a day for 20,842 days, but since she had the book long before computer cataloging, they didn't charge her. Instead, they are putting the book on display to remind others who use the library to bring back books on time.
 
The next book article of interest for this week appeared in The Wall Street Journal. At the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair, Dutch novelist Mano Bouzamour, a self-described book doctor, listened to life complaints in his pop-up clinic, pulled out a prescription pad and wrote down the name of a book he felt would ease his "patient's" suffering (naturally, he also recommends his own novel). Depressed or listless, this bibliotherapist can heal you with just the right book.
 
And then there was the book I finished this week: John Kaag's American Philosophy. It's really a memoir of his divorce and new life, an intellectual version of Wild or Eat, Pray, Love. Depressed and questioning the meaning of his life, he is saved by the discovery of a magnificent library belonging to the philosopher William Ernest Hocking on his New Hampshire estate, West Wind. The library contains rare classics in philosophy and poetry growing moldy and insect-ridden due to neglect. Kaag sets a goal of cataloging this library and preserving the rare books and, in saving them, he manages to rescue himself.
 
It's a shame the Hocking family had not read Judah ibn Tibbon's letter about books to his only son, Samuel. Books were extremely expensive in the medieval period, some worth as much as an expensive car or house, a rare book librarian once shared with me. In the 12th century, Ibn Tibbon had invested in a library for his son and wrote an ethical will about the care of this library: "Cover your bookcases with rugs and linens of fine quality," he recommends. "Preserve them from dampness and mice and injury, for it is your books that are your true treasure." He also gave a piece of advice that would have benefited the Brooklyn Public Library, "Never refuse to lend books to anyone who cannot afford to purchase them, but lend books only to those who can be trusted to return them."
 
We've all been there, Mr. ibn Tibbon.
 
Ibn Tibbon had professional reasons to give his son this advice. The ibn Tibbon family had two family businesses: medicine and translation. Books were critical reference tools and needed to stay in the family for their beauty and their utility. It's amazing then that Judah ibn Tibbon recommended great generosity in lending out books. Perhaps, in this way, he was like our Dutch novelist, the book doctor. Generally, when you love something, you don't want to share it. But when it comes to books, true book lovers cannot wait to share because they know the gift that a good book is. It offers escape, companionship, adventure, knowledge, new ideas and new landscapes. It allows us mental and emotional travels without asking us to pack our bags and go anywhere.  
 
Another medieval Jewish scholar, R. Judah of Regensburg and author of Sefer Hasidim, the Book of Piety, advises that if you have two children - one who likes books and the second who does not - leave your library to the second, even if he is the younger of the two. The first child who likes to read will always find books. He will seek them out. The challenge is to make a reader out of the second child, and gifting that child with an entire library may just help in that endeavor. To understand just how much R. Judah loved books, he advised that they should be placed in "stately array near the dead, so that the souls of the righteous may in death study, as they did on earth." Once a reader, always a reader.
 
Every year at this season, there is book news everywhere: lists of the past year's most notable books, books that make great presents and books to read on a cold winter's night in front of the fire with hot chocolate. For us, inheritors of a tradition of scholarship, every season is the right season for books. And now that we are nearing the close of 2016, we might take a little advice from current and old book news. Return books you owe. Catalog and preserve the books you have. And augment someone's library to grow their love of books.
 
Happy Reading, Happy Hanukah and Shabbat Shalom.

Goodbye

We will not forget you
— Text of Hadran

Peter Pan hated goodbyes: “Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” He assumed that with our farewell, a piece of memory dies. The images, the special moments, the feelings wane and then disappear as we move forward into a new reality. In Jewish life, we try to extend that reality by walking a guest out of our homes minimally the span of four cubits, about six feet. It’s a small gesture of tenderness that we are not anxious to let our guests leave us. We linger a little with them. 

Four cubits is a Jewish legal measurement of personal space. By walking four cubits out of our homes, we are, in effect, leaving our personal space to be in the space of those we have just entertained for a little bit longer. One of my earliest childhood memories is seeing my grandparents out of our car window. They hated saying goodbye and would always stand on the road waving and waving until they were no longer in view. It was a powerful way they communicated how important we were to them.

We also engage in a similar intellectual exercise when we say goodbye to a book we’ve been studying. The prayer is called the “Hadran” from the Aramaic word for “return.” In Hebrew H-D-R means “glory” and in thinking about some metaphysical merging of the terms, we try to glorify the completion of a lengthy period of study by committing ourselves to return to it. The Talmud [BT Shabbat 118a-119b] mentions that completing a sefer or Jewish book occasions a feast and Talmudic discourses were often created for this siyyum or completion. Often these discourses connected ideas from a tractate one was just completing with those one was just beginning. This spurned a genre of Hadran writings in the eighteenth century.

The text of the Hadran treats the book as if it were an animate object in relationship with its reader. We name it and recite the following line three times, as if trying to avoid Peter Pan’s farewell pitfall of forgetting: “We will return to you tractate ________ and you will return to us. Our thoughts are about you tractate ________ and your thoughts are about us. We will not forget you tractate ________ and you will not forget us, not in this world, and not in the world to come.” We romance the book and tell it that its contents will never leave us.

While this is wishful thinking for those of us whose memories aren’t what they used to be, we find it’s also deeply spiritual thinking, as the prayer continues: “May the words of Torah, Lord our God, be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of all your people so that we, our children, and all the children of the House of Israel, may come to love You and want to study Your Torah on its own merit.” We understand that study is not only about the attainment of ideas but about the strengthening of a bond with God and with others that takes place through study. For us, study is not only about outcomes but about the process of who we become when we learn. 


Finally, we ask that God give us the endurance and stamina to do it all again: “May it be your will, God, my God, that as you have helped me finish tractate ________, thus will you help me begin other tractates and books and finish them. To learn and to teach, to protect and fulfill all the words of your Torah with love. May the merit of all the Tanaim and Amoraim [early scholars] and scholars stand with me and for my progeny so that the Torah does not leave my mouth and the mouths of my descendants forever. And may it be filled through me: when you walk it will guide you, when you lie down it will protect you, and when you wake, it will converse with you. For in me (Torah) your days will increase and years of life will be added for you. Length of days is in her right hand and in her left, wealth and honor. God will give strength. God will bless God’s nation with peace.”

When we study, we stand not only with our contemporaries but with all those before us who
also revered and treasured their learning. We study so that we can pass on our wisdom and protect our values and link ourselves to generations we have never seen.

This week, we said farewell to this month long celebration of holidays. Let’s hope it was a meaningful farewell, a long nostalgic wave to our calendar that says we will return next fall and do it all again. But as we clear the table and head back to “normal” life, it might be a good time to think about saying hello to a Jewish book that we work our way through, alone or with a study partner. And when we finish, we can join the long procession of scholars who said goodbye to their books only to say hello to others.

Shabbat Shalom