24 September 2009

A New Beginning

After a recent funeral, a congregant called to say she was giving away some of the books from her father's library. I received a copy of the Encyclopedia Judaica for my study (deeply appreciated) along with several other gems that her father had collected over the years, including a 1949 edition of the Dvir Publishing Co of Tel Aviv "Dictionary of Hebrew Usage" by Yehuda Gur, which is old, musty, and has a great green label from Steimatzky's bookstore in the lower left-hand corner of the inside cover. To a degree, I live for these finds, precious jewels left over from an earlier world.

Among the books was one I already had, Arthur Hertzberg's 1989 The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter. Now, let me share that since Arthur died a few years ago, I have been in search of the perfect picture of him to put up in my study, a testimony to our years of friendship and a solid, prophetic reminder of the many things he taught me. Well, on the back cover of the hardcover edition is a great photograph of Arthur by Sigrid Estrada. Pay dirt! It captures Arthur in his essence, to my mind at least, and so I googled away.

I found Sigrid's site, gave her a call, and in an instant we were in touch. She conducted a brief search for the negative (she had no existing copy of the photograph) and as of this writing, the photo is now on its way to Brooklyn, having been digitally reprinted from the 20 year negative. I'm pretty happy about this.

It had me thinking about the many messages we receive during these Days of Awe--the ways in which word and image, like stepping stones, guide our journey. Despite the Torah's clear prohibition against the worship of images, I admit to finding in certain images a power of conveyance that can be humbling, amusing, inspiring. I have George Mosse's picture in my office; several of my father during his service in the Second World War as well. Arthur's will be a new addition to this miniature pantheon of my influences and it has inspired me to go seeking others as well. At the very least, for those who notice and ask, it will be a future opportunity to talk about some extraordinary people that I have been blessed to know.

Toward the end of his life, Arthur used to say as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approached, "I'm a creaky old Jew. I want to put a tallis over my head and settle accounts with the רבונו של עולם--the Master of the Universe." I think of that line all the time, since during the weekdays I spend my time praying alone, and pray in our community on Shabbat. I reflected today on his words and how the time spent in prayer during the week is solitary, more introspective, but because of the intimacy, it seems as if God is listening--really listening. And like growth in all relationships, the consistent act of talking and listening helps create new insights in ways that talking once or twice a year just doesn't achieve.

Nachman of Breslov used to say, "When meditating before God, it is good to say, 'Today I am beginning to attach myself to You.' Whenever you meditate you should make a new beginning. Every continued practice depends strongly on its beginning. Even the philosophers say that no matter what one does, the beginning counts half. Therefore, no matter what, one should always make a new beginning. If one's previous devotion was good, now it will be better. If it was not good, what better reason is there to make a new beginning?"

An old book. An old sticker. An old picture of a 'creaky old Jew.'

And a new beginning.


Susan Hertzberg said...

Thanks for a beautiful story and sharing a very poignant memory of Dad. Shanah Tovah v'Gmar Tov!

Martha said...

What a beautiful story! The books you have given a home are doubly precious now that the 92nd Street Y has decided to close its library in order to create more office space. The administrators do not think that people value books any more. They are ending an 85year tradition of having a lending and research library. The books are to be disbursed around the building. To me that means they will disappear...including the encyclopedia edited by CBE's own Rabbi Landman.