22 November 2011

For Those Who Believe

Rabbi Leo Baeck's signature
I didn't get the memo.

For more than thirty years I've been shopping at the Strand Bookstore on 12th Street--so long that I have a well-developed ritual for each visit.  First stop, Judaica. Then American history, followed by Poetry, Photography and then it's a free-for-all.

Many of the gems in my Jewish library collection have come from the Strand, including a 1947 Schocken edition of Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck's The Pharisees, signed by Berlin rabbi and scholar (the authenticity of which was confirmed by his granddaughter Marianne Dreyfus:  "Yes.  That's grandpa's signature!")

My small, colorful Schocken collection; Mosse's disciples (Ascheim, Rabinbach, Berkowitz); the Bnai Brith Hillel Little Books (Lewisohn's "What Is This Jewish Heritage," Glatzer's "Hillel the Elder:  the Emergence of Classical Judaism," and Adler's "The World of the Talmud;" my Elias Tobenkins; my Sholem Aleichems; and Saul Leiter's "Early Color."  Essay collections by Salo Baron, Samson Raphael Hirsch and Solomon Schechter, all from the shelves of the Strand.  There are deficits to be sure, all to be mediated by the occasional visit that yields the find, the blessed occasion any prowler of such places yearns to attain.  The hunt.

But sometime between the stifling, humidifying days of August and early November (a painfully long time between visits) the Strand decided to move "Judaica" (ah, the very term!  a curse on its adherents!  Who among ye doth not long for the day when book store shelves ascribe to their narrow perches the broadly defined category "Jews!" and there will rest, tempest tossed, the histories, chronologies, doxologies, etymologies, philologies, archaeologies, and literary, poetic, artistic and religious anthologies of all things Jewish) to, prepare yourself:  the basement!

Scandal!  Outrage!  The utter shock to find my prized collection's alluvial source relegated to the basement alongside the other religions (bosh!) when in fact we're a people!  a history!  a civilization!

From the Jews on the first floor I could drift to the Germans, the Russians, the English, the French--even the Americans--the newest of all nations forging from many, one.  But down in the basement, I was now among abstractions--puzzling, challenging, mystifying, even wonderful, mind you, but nevertheless, abstractions.  Like faith; philosophy; psychology; sociology. 

My head began to spin.  The collection had shrunk; it now turned a rude corner, piled high into the stifling florescent light of this underground trove relegated, if you will, in a manner not dissimilar to the way the elderly are housed in assisted living facilities across the land.  'Remember what people used to believe?  How sentimentally quaint.'

Between volumes, high up on the last shelf, I found something.  Pictures from S. An-sky's Ethnographic Expeditions (I am currently reading his grim diary from those trips).  Bricklayers, match factory workers, students, tailors, loggers, cigarette rollers, tombstone engravers, spinners, blacksmiths, looking up from their poverty and dignity and language and faith, yes, faith, some heads covered, some not but together, comprising an entity worthy of the books title which claims to be Photographing the Jewish Nation.

A nation which is not faith alone but a people, a history, a culture, a civilization and a language, written by hand, with a fountain pen, in books, which one finds on shelves in stores decades later, a letter from the past to the future for those who believe. 

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