I went on a trip, a library trip, to Israel to see archives and manuscripts and scrolls. I saw words preserved and words unearthed, words ordinary and sacred. There were two stabbings, along with a car accident that was thought initially to be a terrorist act. Each day the English-language Ha’aretz had another article about the controversy over Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. But I tried not to notice. I wanted to see books, manuscripts, memory written down. I wanted to hide in a library.
But of course a library is not a safe place to cower. It contains the record of history. There is blood and passion and glory and cruelty enough in the library if you let yourself see it.
We went to Yad Vashem. We rode down the elevator to the bowels of the place where 170,000,000 documents the museum has received have been processed, copied, placed in files, and registered. There are boxes and boxes of identity cards. Documents from the Nazis on Jewish nose size. Diaries from the Warsaw ghetto. We met archivists who photographed and archivists who sat at ordinary gray metal desks in deliberately cold, spare rooms and placed letters and photographs of the murdered in computer files. They do this day after day as we approach 2015, stopping now to explain to us how carefully they were placing the words of a father to a son who never received them, in a binder, numbered, marked, retrievable. They have the guest book of visitors to Rudolph Hess at his Auschwitz home and his identity card. They have a lock of hair of a baby that was deported from Westerbork. The why of it we understood without being told: The information they have, the names that are still coming to the spare gray basement rooms with cameras and scanning machines sitting at attention will be properly marked, stored, ready to stare down the doubters, to remind the living in the future of the precarious diaspora of how it came to dust.
These are shards of a long story. The technicians spoke of their work to preserve the names, so that the letters, the fragments of lost lives, after they are sent into the computer, photographed, by scholars, can be retrieved, by relatives, by anyone who searches for someone lost or anyone who wants to know what happened to a relative and where it happened. So a historian in the future who might be searching for records will be able to find the track, the trace, follow a path to the end.
In the entrance lobby we saw a new exhibit of recently acquired materials. The museum had invited anyone to bring long-held materials of their survivor parents or grandparents to the museum. A woman had reluctantly brought a little girl’s sweater with red pockets and red trim. Her mother had often cried while holding that sweater and finally told her Israeli-born daughter that she had once had a sister, who had been lost in the Lodz ghetto. The family had bought its way into a work transport, and the police had arrived at the door telling them they must leave immediately or they would lose their place. Their 8-year-old daughter had gone for a walk with her grandfather and was not there. The police promised the parents to bring the child to them the next day but they did not. The child perished in another transport. All the mother had of this child was the sweater she had knitted for her. The Israeli-born sister parted with it reluctantly, in tears.
We looked at the sweater and the photo of the child it had belonged to, and although the news was old we could not help but feel shock—a familiar shock. Here among the archives our outrage is cool and collected. We have the artifacts. We have the lists. We will not be erased, at least not now.
We went to the National Library. Among a gathering of librarians from all over the world we were shown into a small room where under glass there was a brown-lined notebook with Kafka’s writing. He was learning Hebrew verbs. Nearby was a page of text from an S.Y. Agnon novel, a poem in his own handwriting by Yehuda Amichai, an original page from a Maimonides tract, and a page of notes from the novelist Ka-Tzetnik, (whose testimony at the Eichmann trial was so crucial). The room was dark, the display cases lit with soft light, and I felt like a simple peasant girl viewing a saint’s bone. I had come close to some sacred place where writers write and the thoughts of man fall onto paper and we can reach each other over the centuries. Our story becomes communal through the work of individual minds. In the National Library of the State of Israel I see the link between the prayer and the poem, through the codex, the historian, the map maker, the novelist, the holy and the profane united in an attempt to understand the fall of man.
To see the original pages is to believe in the existence of the writer as a biological fact. Be careful, I remind myself, don’t worship writers as if they were golden calves. Don’t worship golden calves as if they were writers. In the National Library of Israel I am tempted to worship everything I saw including wooden chairs and research rooms.
The librarians had gathered to hear a talk about the plans to build a new expanded National Library, a permanent home. The funds have been allotted. The land is there waiting. Is this hubris? Perhaps. But I believe that the National Library of Israel will not be burned or exiled and the words of Jews will stay where they belong in the stacks, in the reading rooms, in the long corridors of their own library, in their own land. I am almost confident of that.
In each of us there lies a sacred spot, a place where doubt is banished and a hushed awe prevails. For me that place is on a shelf, it is the book, the words in the book, the brave if most often failing attempt of some writer to explain, to talk back to the universe, to bring understanding or pleasure, or to indict, or exact revenge. Most of us do not write brilliant books that last through the ages but we feel passionate; yes, passion is the word for the attempts that are made generation after generation.
That is not to say that all books are created equal. That phrase applies only to human beings and at that is a wish more than a fact. The books I loved as a child were not Jewish books, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, a thousand books about pioneers and brave little girls who fought the Indians or befriended them in the nick of time. And then later Dickens and Hawthorne and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Chekhov and Tolstoy, Marcel, Camus, Sartre, and my most beloved J.D. Salinger and along with them, George Elliot and the poetry of Emily, the grace of Virginia, the sad long tales of Edith Wharton. In a pre-feminist world these words sent out flashing signals. When I was 16 I waited at the door of my apartment for the delivery of The New Yorker on Thursday of each week. What I was waiting for was a new Dorothy Parker story. I knew she was telling me something important even if I had no idea what.
But then the Jewish books came to me and with them Jewish history, the entire story, from riches to rags and back again, from exile and return to battle and then the next battle and in between came the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Braslav, Isaac Babel, Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, and then the entire Holocaust library unrolled, Weisel, Primo Levi, Imre Kertéz, and the historians and the bad writers who still had a tale to tell and the writers whose minds are still inside the camps, along with the strangers who want to enter the conversation, like Martin Amis, the whole library full of fury, full of grief, telling the Jewish story.
And then Bernard Malamud with half his mind back in the shtetl and Phillip Roth with half his mind in his sexual organs and Saul Bellow whose mind raged on and on, Cynthia Ozick cold as ice and hot as fire and all the new writers we have today, Nathan Englander, Michael Chabon, Gary Shteyngart, and the Israeli writers, from Agnon to Oz through Yehoshua, and Grossman and all of them with their colleagues trying to make sense of the bitterness that is life and to find hope where it is hard to find it. So, the library is not just a physical place, though it must be that, too. It is the place where books that have been read or will be read reside, beckoning, counseling, pleading, weeping.
Perhaps I spent too much time reading. Perhaps I should have learned to cook or garden or climb a mountain. I might have played the piano or become a tennis champion. But I feel happy being Jewish, and I feel most Jewish when I am with a book.
We traveled in our small bus down from Jerusalem, past the man with a camel who waits for tourists beside the road, down the winding road turning left on to the path that runs along the Dead Sea. Suddenly all was white and pale and the brush was scarce, and rust-colored cliffs ranged up the hills, harsh stone ridges everywhere. We were going to Qumran to see where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. We walked around the ruins of the buildings that housed the group that made the scrolls sometime between the 3rd century B.C.E. and 68 C.E. (our own era, although so long ago). There men, surely men, were copying day after day on parchment, the words they believed were sacred. The scrolls they made had been rolled and placed in large clay jars and left in caves in the nearby hills as Roman soldiers approached. We could see the caves, dark-eyed holes rising above us. We could walk along the walls and see the basins built to catch the running water from the rain, and we could see the remaining enclosures that might have been used for eating or sleeping.
Were these scribes a breakaway sect of mystics or madmen, or were they ordinary pious Jews working to record their sacred texts? Like other librarians they were probably more precise than romantic and worked day after day with purpose and without intense hallucinations, copying the texts as they had been formed in previous years and other places, the sacred stories of the Jewish people, including the gathered scrolls of the Tanakh and some additional stories that were eventually collected in the Book of Jubilees.
There is no doubt that in these caves, cool at night, gathering the heat of the desert during the day, stored in great jars lay our first and most important library. It wasn’t one that you could borrow from or even sit and read by the light of your lamp. But it was a library that held the words most important to Jews who do seem to relate to their God through stories, through written words, through tales of history and imagination, moral interpretations followed by dark prophesies, challenges to God, moral ravings heeded and unheeded, pieces of philosophy and creaky tracts of law.
There were many buses in the parking lot. Crowds of Chinese tourists, priests in their black robes, monks in their brown robes, Germans with cameras, Americans from an evangelical church in Nashville, all roaming over the site, just as if human beings were brothers and sisters and the words in these jars united us all.
Not exactly, not exactly at all. But in this outdoor library everyone was considerate, and only the voices of the tour guides disturbed the peace.
Back in Jerusalem we visited the Zionist Archives. It holds 10,000 pieces of Zionist material. There are letters under glass, there is Herzl’s photograph, there is the story of the first International Congress. Herzl died at 44. He should not have died. He should have lived to see the state. But there are no shoulds in History. There are only might have beens. There is a photo from the 1930s of Moshe Dayan and some soldiers playing in the snow. There is a poster of Jews enlisting from Palestine in the British Army during World War II. There are books from Herzl’s library and a letter from Freud. I looked at the letter and thought of the writer and the recipient and I stood there letting the vibrations of time run through me. This is not a religious sentiment, but neither is it entirely rational. A good library takes you to a space in between those two states of mind.
At the Israel Museum we saw the Shrine of the Book. We entered a structure modeled after the top of the jars that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. Maybe the design for the permanent home of the scrolls is a little Disney World. I think of atomic reactors. I don’t want to think of turbines or bombs. I want to think of scrolls. But perhaps I am too fearful, diaspora untrusting.
Inside we walked around and saw some of the texts displayed under glass. The pages need to be replaced every few months in order to protect them against the light necessary for display. They are fragile. Their preservation is a technological feat, their survival through the centuries proof of Jewish continuity: Our story sometimes seems so fantastic it might not have been real. But here it is, pages under glass, telling us how old, how valued, how strange our story remains.
We went on to Tel-Aviv and visited Bialik’s house. In the street before his door, Dr. David Kraemer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, our host on the tour, read Bialik’s famous poem on the Chmielnicki pogroms. The poem is loud with grief, and the pain of the Jews.
Murderer’s blood of babes and old men on your garb
will never be washed away.
And then there was Bialik in Israel, spending too much money on his house, a normal poet, in a normal state, almost. We went to the Rabin Museum, which tells the Zionist history of the state up to the death of Rabin. There are videos and photographs and soldiers in war after war, and there is a crowd yelling for Rabin’s death and there is the funeral. It is a story that begins in strength and pride and ends, not with Rabin, not yet, maybe never.
Saturday night, after Shabbat, Dr. Kraemer presented the Tanakh as not one book, written in one hand, but a collection of books that were selected from others, gathered together over time. The inclusion of this book or that book was argued about, considered and ruled upon, until scholarly consensus was achieved. This collection of books could be carried about as it was, smuggled in a coffin beyond the walls of Roman-besieged Jerusalem or carried through the forests of the Pale or through the little towns of Poland or to the cities of Spain and Tunisia, taken to and away from London to Portugal and away from Portugal to Cairo and now throughout the globe where it can be read in India or Siberia, Bolivia or Anchorage. The gathered books of our sacred tale constitute a library of our thinking, our history, our attempts to deal with fate and the ironic, difficult facts that inform our relationship with God and fate, justice and injustice. So, it would be more accurate to say that we are the people of the traveling library rather than just the people of the book.
All people have stories. All peoples have legends they tell each other around the tended fire or in the field or forest or in drawing rooms, or in temples or cathedrals. But Jews have made their stories, their history, into the Tallis that wraps itself around the shoulders of all its people, past, present, and future. And this wrapping binds us together, insists that we pass it on to our children, and keeps us from falling apart like so many fragments of an exploding star. We won’t explode until the last Jew alive has forgotten the last Jewish story he heard.
The card catalog with its wooden boxes, we saw two in the National Library, is almost a relic, useless in an electronic age. But the words it stored are the same words that are held in computers. They are life-jackets tossed into a heaving sea. Some parts of our library we read from beginning to end year after year, scrolling open, scrolling closed, and other parts we read once and even if we forget the contents their mark has been left on us, claimed us, and will never let us go, making us a people existing in time, present, past, and future.
This is a report on the Jewish Theological Seminary’s library trip to Israel from a bookish girl who is now a bookish old lady. I recognize that one day that is not so distant from today, books will just be electronic etchings in some mysteriously charged cloud. Still, I have no regrets except that I would have liked to float around in that cloud for another hundred years or so. It will hold such amazing treasures.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.