Several months ago, I was sifting through a pile of abandoned books in the most promising of places — a trash bin in a well-heeled and highly educated town, one of those communities where even the trash has class. Most of the offerings were depressing: cheap, pulpy paperbacks with raised letters on the cover; forgettable hardcovers; memoirs of second-tier celebrities; some of those classics you’ve always meant to read, but in editions you wouldn’t want to bring with you to bed.
But suddenly, staring out at me from the bottom of the heap was something from an earlier time and place: a pair of venerable-looking volumes bound in solemn black. I reached down and fished them out. “Services for the Day of Atonement, with an English translation by S.G.,” read the title page of the first, dated 1928. “Twenty-Four Books of the Holy Scripture,” declared the second, undated but clearly of the same vintage. Inside, the pages reflected the evolving state of American Jewish life: Hebrew on the right, English on the left. The books originated at the same place: the Hebrew Publishing Company, 77-79 Delancey Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
They were stately but stern, dating from a time when Judaism had a more limited palette, when prayer books, like bar mitzvah suits and yarmulkes, came mostly in basic black. Until descending to their present, ignoble state, they appeared to have led pampered lives: Both were pristine, their red-edged pages carrying none of the scuffs that come from having been leafed through over the years or carried dutifully to and from services on Sabbaths or the High Holy Days. I lifted them from the pile: “To ___ __ for his bar mitzvah, from his Aunt ___and Uncle ___” was inscribed in each, in a confident hand wielding a fountain pen. The gift-givers gave no date, nor their last names. But the bar mitzvah boy had one, and it was one I knew: lots of people in his hometown and state would. He was from a storied family and went on to a fabulously successful career, becoming among many other things a pillar of his Jewish community.
Over the years, I’d rubbed up against a few of his descendants, but our connections ran deeper than that. Our Eastern European forebears had come over at the same time and tarried for a time in the same improbable place. The woman who’d fixed up my parents (and given my brothers and me our own such prayer books) would surely have known his family, too.
One didn’t need a Henry Louis Gates to reconstruct the journey of these books; Google would do. The bar mitzvah in question had taken place when both World War II and the Holocaust were in full swing. When this boy had stood in front of his congregation, with little to worry about but the Torah portion he had to sing, countless counterparts of his from towns not far from where his own family had come were being murdered at Treblinka.
With a few more clicks, I was able to piece together a back story. The man had died several years earlier, and the books had almost surely gone to one of his children, who had evidently held on to them for a time, and who happened to live not far from where the books had been discarded.
I am an unlikely savior of sacred Hebrew texts. Yes, I know they embody the hallowed traditions of my people. I also know that on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when I reluctantly attend services, people touch the Torah with them as it passes, then kiss them. I know that for millenniums people have uttered the prayers in them, including as they entered the gas chambers. I find myself swaying to the music that has grown up around the words in them. At such times part of me, too, yearns to break out in song.
Yet for all that, inside a synagogue I pick up such books begrudgingly. Though I dimly remember some of the letters from my own bar mitzvah more than a half century ago, I can put together only a few words in them, and by the time I do the proceedings have roared past me. I chafe at the robotic responsive readings. I can’t buy their sentiments, like the praise for a just and merciful God. At some point, I’ll sneak a peek to count the number of pages still to be endured.
But I am intensely proud of my Jewishness. To be too publicly proud of it nowadays, at least in my secular Jewish crowd, risks seeming parochial or chauvinistic, but privately I celebrate it in my own ways. And I’m protective of it, too. Extraordinary American tolerance has insulated me from any serious anti-Semitism, but I sometimes regret the luxury that tolerance has in turn conferred: to slight, hide or flee a bit too eagerly from their past. Seeing those books in that place touched something in me. I couldn’t just put them back.
I halfheartedly tried imagining some extenuating circumstances that landed them there. Perhaps they were thrown out accidentally in a spring cleaning. Or maybe the person who’d placed them there actually knew of the burial to which sacred texts are entitled and figured the landfill to which they’d soon be consigned fit the ritualistic requirements. But I doubt it. Whatever one thinks of being Jewish, the experience is sufficiently powerful that one doesn’t just stray idly from it: One has to push it away. And to me, that’s most likely what had happened here: Someone had just chucked the things, without so much as a second thought.
What could account for such disrespect, even contempt, not just for one’s ancestors, but for the tradition itself? Was there no one in the family with enough reverence for our past to cherish them, at least for another generation? And if not, why not find them a good home elsewhere? Or donate them to the state Jewish Historical Society, which might have welcomed two volumes with such a distinguished provenance? The family had directed that all memorial contributions in the man’s name be made to the local Jewish Federation. Why not there?
But more than indignation, I felt sadness. Sure, there are lots of people committed to keeping American Jewry going. But there are many, many others for whom it has become utterly irrelevant, for whom centuries of tradition, so wonderfully embodied around Seder tables this past week, are coming to an abrupt end. There are lots of ways to measure the end of a particular Jewish line; tossing prayer books in the trash is surely one, and among the more emphatic.
It’s self-serving, of course, but my notion of what constitutes a good Jew is broad. One can be one not only by following the rituals but also by honoring Jewish precepts and values, by trying to heal the world (the notion of tikkun olam) or by enriching it through teaching, creating, inspiring. Hannah Arendt, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Janet Yellin, Philip Roth, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner — to me, all were good Jews, whether or not they ever found their way to a synagogue.
I actually flirted with the idea of returning the books. There must have been some mistake, I might have said: You couldn’t have meant to dispose of such heirlooms in this fashion. But I didn’t. In the penumbra around the First Amendment surely lies a constitutional right to throw out whatever one wants. Meanwhile, a dear friend said she’d gladly take the books for her daughter, Aviva, whose bat mitzvah prayer book she’d just realized, much to her horror, she’d managed to misplace. Aviva was going off to college and had hoped to bring her prayer book with her; maybe she’d take these forsaken volumes and give them new life.
Before that happened, I’d hoped to memorialize them in some fashion and kept them on my desk, awaiting inspiration. But for all my self-righteousness, I proved a poor custodian. Not long ago, while I was out of town, the radiator alongside them blew; for a couple of days, in a scene with almost biblical overtones, they’d been engulfed in steam. Acts of God, it turns out, can damage the word of God: Overnight, some of those pristine pages turned into parchment. Despite the dehumidifiers, the first few crystals of mildew blossomed on the cover of one of them.
After all this, perhaps they’d have been better off left where I found them, but I had to go be a buttinsky. I’m hoping Aviva will still take, and cherish, them, despite their imperfections. But if not, it’s now on me to give them a more fitting burial.
David Margolick, a former reporter for The Times and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the author of several books, including, most recently, “The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.” He is at work on a book about Dr. Jonas Salk for the “Jewish Lives” series published by Yale University Press.
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