By Lyn Davidson
Heritage Florida Jewish News
[This column originally appeared in the Heritage Florida Jewish News, Nov. 5, 2010]
Just like the five little girls in Sydney Taylor’s “All-of-a-Kind Family,” I used to walk to the library. Every week on long, hot summer days, I’d alternately skip or trudge along, holding my mother’s hand, skirting a then-rundown neighborhood near Orlando’s Lake Eola Park.
Like the hard-working immigrant family in Taylor’s books, we were poor and didn’t have a car, or much money to buy books. But when the big bronze library doors whispered shut behind me, and I traced a path through the cool silences that unfolded row after row of books, I felt like the heir to a kingdom.
I still feel the flush of excitement that I, the only child of a single mother, felt reading about “all-of-a-kind” sisters Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie and their warm and loving family, sharing adventures—when adventures cost pennies—in Manhattan’s Lower East Side of the early 20th century.
Of course, one of my favorite chapters was the story of their friendship with the kind “library lady,” which blossoms when she finds a solution to eight-year-old Sarah’s devastating confession (who among Taylor’s young readers has not shivered in sympathy?) that she’s lost a library book. Though separated from them by three-quarters of a century, I grew up thinking of those five little girls as my friends.
That the Jewish love of learning runs deep in our culture is a truism that’s actually true. “If you drop gold and books, pick up the books first, then the gold,” said 12th century Rabbi Yehudah He-Hasid.
Jewish Book Month, coordinated by the Jewish Book Council, is celebrated every year during the month before Chanukah—this year from Nov. 2 to Dec. 2. While most of us don’t need a designated month to prompt us to read, it has me thinking about some of the first Jewish books that shaped my life, and recent ones I’ve fallen in love with.
You won’t be surprised that the next big Jewish book for me was Anne Frank’s diary. As a more-mature-than-was-good-for-me 11-year-old, I knew about the Holocaust. What I wasn’t prepared for was the intimacy of reading about the everyday life of an everyday girl my age being slowly but inexorably circumscribed, then extinguished.
Yet Anne’s story also brought the warmth of familiarity: the simple dailiness of her life peeling potatoes in her “Secret Annex,” her movie star photos decorating its walls, our shared passion for history and mythology, her complicated feelings of belonging to her family even as her growing self-knowledge alienated her from them, her first love, her fiery ambition to be a writer, the exhilarating feeling of being safely hidden from the wreckage of the world outside—if only for a moment.
As a young adult, I grew seriously interested in becoming a historian of the Holocaust (or at least in understanding why some dark atavistic pathology within human nature might one day kill me simply for existing). Under my bedside lamp were Elie Wiesel’s and Primo Levi’s memoirs, Hannah Arendt’s historical ruminations, and biographies of heroic rescuer Raoul Wallenberg.
But before all these, I read William L. Shirer’s magisterial “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and its stark documentation of the Germans’ murder rooms tore the flesh off my soul.
Book lovers say the right book finds its reader at the right time. If Shirer taught me—at age 15—that I was nothing but dust and ashes, when I immediately afterwards read Max I. Dimont’s “Jews, God and History,” I realized that I was also that for which the world had been created.
Dimont’s classic popular history was the first book since my beloved “All-of-a-Kind Family” to give me Judaism bathed in the light of warmth, beauty, and a proud humanism. Dimont gloried in presenting the survival and cohesion of the Jewish people against all odds. He wove a glowing tapestry showcasing heroic Jewish contributions to science, medicine, law, the arts, and the enlightenment of all people. My battered and dog-eared paperback copy of his book remains a precious resident on my shelves.
I first read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning” as a 24-year-old spending long nights by my mother’s bedside in the hospital. As she lay consumed by an incurable illness, I battled shadows. Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, wrote that even when your name, your history, and all control over your own life are stripped from you, you still have the power to choose the meaning of your life. “Man,” he wrote, “is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
The Jewish books I’ve loved in recent years have been those that reveal all the strange and hard-to-resolve complexities of human beings, yet still exalt the power of love and hope, and the bonds that knit Jews together in a meaning larger than ourselves.
“A Pigeon and a Boy” by Israeli novelist Meir Shalev is the story of a misfit young master of carrier pigeons during the War of Independence, and of his love for a young girl that echoes through the lives and loves of the next generation of Israelis.
Geraldine Brooks’ “People of the Book” is a rich and ingenious novel that traces the journey of the magnificent Sarajevo Haggadah through time, and the parallel histories of the Jews and non-Jews whose lives it touches.
“The Plot Against America” is my all-time favorite Phillip Roth novel. In a meticulously detailed and blisteringly satirized alternate America, anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR, and a young Jewish boy grows up haphazardly (is there any other way to grow up in a Roth novel?) amid his country’s growing fascism and isolationism.
I only discovered “Life and Fate” by Vasily Grossman a few months ago. Jewish and a journalist, he traveled with the Red Army and used his war reporting and his own experiences to create an 800-page novel that is one of the most overwhelming testaments ever written to the best and the worst across a wide swath of humanity. The Soviets were so afraid of it they even confiscated his typewriter ribbons.
On my first trip to Israel, my talisman was a book of poems by my favorite Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, whose language is as commonplace as the stones lining the street outside a Jerusalem café, and as majestic as the Hebrew Bible. In his book “Open Closed Open,” he could have been writing my thoughts about Israel, and about all Jews: “We will be ourselves, we will be ebb and flow, changing weathers, seasons of the year, we will go on being, we will go on and on.”
“The Art of Blessing the Day” is Marge Piercy’s collection of poems sanctifying the everyday rituals of Jewish life. She writes, “We are the people of the book, and the letters march busy as ants carrying the work of the ages through our minds. We are the people of the book. Through fire and mud and dust we have borne our scrolls tenderly as a baby swaddled in a blanket, traveling with our words sewn in our clothes and carried on our backs.”
We are the People of the Book, and no matter how tempest-tossed, we have found our truest Goldene Medina—our land of streets paved with gold—inside the pages of books.