This is the story of a library contained in a single book, not all that different from the Talmudic idea that if you save one life, you have saved the entire world. The spark of Creation burns faithfully in each of us like a pilot light. (A more complicated idea — that the universe is a library of infinite stacks, as posited by Jorge Luis Borges — is a matter for another day.)
From grade school on through the day before yesterday, my intellect has been shaped by two major reference works: the World Book Encyclopedia (1966 edition) and the Encyclopaedia Judaica.
I received the World Book (complete with celluloid-like pages allowing you to see the innards of a frog as one plastic page laid upon the next) for my First Holy Communion, along with a desk, bookcase and reading lamp. It was my parents’ first overt gambit in positioning their first-born to attend college, eventually making me the first male in the family who did not work with his hands.
Decades later, while writing about Baltimore’s Orthodox Jews for The Sun, I made friends/sources who kept giving me things: a tallis (now draped across my Italian grandmother’s vanity in my study); a beautiful Borsalino hat (which I foolishly wore on a date with a young Syrian-American woman who was not amused); and from the old Baltimore Hebrew University on Park Heights Avenue, a complete, 1972 edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica.
The work of more than 2,000 writers and editors from around the world, the 16-volume set had been donated to BHU’s library (housed at Towson University since 2009) in memory of the late Baltimore Municipal Court Judge Avrum K. Rifman by his wife, the former Ruth Pell. It was the mid-1990s, about a decade after the introduction of CD-ROM data storage, and libraries had begun the dubious work – which gains speed with each passing year – of clearing shelf space.
Not me. I was most grateful to be entrusted with such a treasure. CD-ROM is now a sibling of the 8-track cartridge and the floppy disc in the buried privy of time, but the codex refuses to die!
The Judaica I inherited (the books, not the strong possibility of Jews in my Old Country family tree in Espana) was intact but tattered. Some of the covers were barely attached. About this time – the early- to mid-1990s — I was also writing about public libraries (both as concept and in practice) and relied on sources throughout the Enoch Pratt Free Library system.
Once I found out that the Pratt had its own bindery (first featured in The Sun in 1893 under the headline, “SILENT TALE TOLD BY WORN-OUT COVERS”), I went about making friends there. And before Bo Diddley can sing all three verses of “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” my cornucopia of Judaica emerged from triage, ready for many more generations of use.
For a quarter-century, I have depended on those tall, navy-blue tomes published by the Keter Publishing House of Jerusalem to browse at leisure or double-check something against the memory of an aging rabbi.
But I must say over last month’s Chanukah/Christmas season, I learned more about Jewish identity and culture (though not Jewish law) from “Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy” by Benjamin Balint than I have from the Encyclopaedia Judaica.
It is, said the New York Times in October, “… an unusual hybrid: part courtroom procedural, part double portrait of Kafka and [Max] Brod, part account of the postwar construction of Israeli and German national identity.”
It yielded important stuff: the debate (some might say an emerging consensus) that 20th century German literature is defined by Jewish authors, whether murdered in the Holocaust or in exile. Passion: Kafka and his literary savior Brod were not infrequent visitors to Prague’s brothels when not discussing literature. And the seemingly trivial: Did you know that the animated Walt Disney movie “Bambi” began as a novel written by the Austrian Felix Salten, grandson of an Orthodox rabbi? The original title was “Bambi: A Life in the Woods,” published in 1923.
Next Month: More on “Kafka’s Last Trial,” complete with 33 pages of notes and bibliography in type no larger than a box score.
Rafael Alvarez can be reached via email@example.com.