By David Ariel
My books have traveled with me faithfully for the last 45 years. My library started out with a small number of books but grew, over time, to a substantial collection of 2,000 books in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and German. Wherever I lived, I added new books, like friends, and the growing collection came with me whenever I moved. They started with me as an undergraduate in Jerusalem, crossed the ocean with me to Boston as a graduate student, accompanied me to my first teaching job in Connecticut, moved with me to Cleveland where I worked for 25 years, then crossed the ocean again for six years in Oxford (UK), and finally- another ocean crossing- settled finally in Boston once again.
Only my books have lived with me throughout these last 45 years. Close friends have remained dear even though there have often been vast distances between us. A marriage did not have the staying power of the books. Children were born along the way, but they moved on to live their own lives and the books remained. My books have been my faithful companions.
Now, like many of my contemporaries, I have reached that stage of life known euphemistically as “the period of downsizing.” The concept originally referred to the corporate practice of reducing costs by reducing the number of employees. But now, it cheerily refers to that stage of life when my generation- the “Baby Boomers”- after the dog dies and the kids move out- surrenders the sprawling suburban home and moves into the smaller but substantial urban condominium.
In my case, moving from England to Boston, it meant surrendering a large wood-paneled office in my 17th century Manor house which held my 2,000 books, moving out of the Orangery, my home next door to the Manor house, and closing up my London flat on the Regent’s Canal in Little Venice. I arrived in Boston, homeless, stateless- and soon found a 3 bedroom, new-construction 1,500 square foot, high-ceilinged apartment with treetop views of Boston. But with two homes and a large office, I had to contract from 3,000 square foot to half my former life. I know, pity me.
Doubles of everything went first- sofas, beds, sitting chairs, dining tables, night-stands, kitchenware- gone in a minute. But what do I with my books? My guest bedroom and home office are the only rooms available but the floor-to-ceiling bookcases can’t hold more than 500 books.
I soon realized that I needed to downsize my library. After speaking to the Judaica librarians at several area universities, two things become clear. Universities with important Judaica collections do not need academic libraries like mine. They have the same books. But, even more humbling, they tell me that my generation of Judaica scholars, whose children have not followed in our academic footsteps, are all in the same boat. We have large professional libraries that, as we downsize or retire, noone really wants. What do we do?
A colleague proposed an elegant solution. Why don’t I donate my collection to the next generation of rabbinical students and graduate students in Jewish studies who would actually use my books? So I arranged for much of my library to be donated to an institution that would make my books available to their students. It might have felt like I was giving up a child for adoption, but at least I knew he would have a good home.
When the dreaded but eagerly anticipated afternoon arrived as three rabbinical students arrived to box and remove the books, I felt relief and anxiety. Relief- that my third bedroom which had been stuffed floor to ceiling with books might finally become a guest bedroom. Anxiety- that my beloved companions were leaving. Would I ever need to reread that eleventh century philosophic work or that eighteenth century Hasidic commentary? Would I need to search for an elusive passage in the collection of Midrash? Would I want to reread that essay on Maimonides? Although I held back 500 reference works that were essential, along with the books that meant the most to me, most of my reading life left through my front door that day.
The students poured over the books with delight. Books they couldn’t afford to buy were now theirs for the choosing. Classic works by great scholars who are no longer in vogue were examined with curiosity. Many of the authors were familiar names from a bygone era. They could not have known what the book meant to me at the time that I acquired it or what its impact was upon my intellectual development. But for me, many of the authors were also my teachers, my mentors, my heroes. This one I studied with, this one I served as a teaching assistant, and that one served as my advisor. All the great names from the past, now gone.
In fact, the books were the witnesses to my history. They were the place markers that reminded me where I was and what I was thinking at a particular moment in time. This one I bought in a religious bookstore in Me’ah She’arim or at the old German-Jewish immigrant, Stein’s, bookstore in Jerusalem. This book I bought in Boston when I wanted to read everything I could about Maimonides. These books were the ones that were sprawled out on a desk in my study preparing to teach or while I was researching a new book. In giving many of the books away, I was surrendering a large part of my past.
When the books had gone, I felt like my history had been taken away. In reality, the mental signposts that they represented are still with me as memories. Whatever influence a particular book had on my development would never leave me even if I could no longer see it on the shelf. But, in truth, how often had I opened that book in recent years?
So, today, I am liberated from the burden of preserving 2,000 memories. It is time for the next generation of Jewish scholars to create their own associations with these books. I will probably never know how these books influence their new owners, but I can be certain that they live on among caring readers. And, if I get lonely for them, I can always visit the library.