Off the shelf | Love for Jewish books is the candle my father lit for me

Instead of my normal column about new titles at the Jewish Community Library, I’d like to offer a remembrance of my beloved father, whose recent death I am mourning, and how he helped nurture my love of Jewish books.

My father was not particularly happy that I took up my line of work. Tethered to the downward trajectory of both physical books and Jewish demographics, my career path in Jewish librarianship worried him to no end. And he wasn’t shy in letting me know it.

And yet part of this disapproval was perhaps entwined with guilt stemming from his recognition that what I had chosen to do with my life reflected the very values that he had instilled in me.

It was my father who, above anyone else, got me hooked on Judaism and Jewish books.

Perhaps it came to him through my great-grandfather, a learned rabbi who eked out a living as a sofer (ritual scribe) and Jewish bookseller in America. Or through my grandfather, who, far from his Jerusalem upbringing, was a pillar of ritual life in Omaha. But my father’s embrace of Judaism and Jewish ideas was a fundamental part of his being.

There were bookshelves in most of the rooms of the house in which I grew up in Los Angeles, and the floor-to-ceiling shelves lining the walls of our family room featured an ample Jewish section. These books did not speak to me as a kid (except “The Jew in American Sports,” which captivated me in spite of offering a history calcified in the 1950s), but they implanted themselves in my visual memory.

I used to accompany my father on excursions to J. Roth’s bookshop in Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson district. This was a veritable temple of Jewish books in its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, eventually done in by both the rise of chain bookstores and shifts in ideology and taste among Los Angeles Jews.

As we exited the doors of J. Roth one time during my late teens, my father said to me, “Howard, if there’s ever a Jewish book you see and want, I want you to buy it and I’ll reimburse you for it.” This was not an offer he made for other things. Just Jewish books.

I didn’t take him up on his offer because, as a teenager, I wasn’t interested in buying Jewish books. But, gradually, I became so.

And when I moved to San Francisco in 1989, a year after college, I frequented a shabby outlet of discontinued stock that Books Inc. used to run downtown on Powell Street opposite its flagship store. The outlet featured a huge number of titles — Agnon, Kafka, Gershom Scholem, and many more — from the esteemed Jewish publisher Schocken (leftover copies after the publisher was acquired by Random House) at very low prices. I bought and read many of them.

But I didn’t take my father up on the offer of reimbursement. Although I had little money, buying these books now reflected my own interests and values.

A while back, I mentioned this offer to my father, and he had no memory of it. But it made a big impact on me as a statement of values. And eventually, it was those values that led me to working at the Jewish Community Library and writing this column, perhaps leading others to make these books a greater part of their lives.

My father died during the intermediate days of Passover, and it gives me some comfort that his yahrzeit will be forever bound up with the holiday. The seder, with its emphasis on family, sharing stories, engaging with text, asking questions, and food (he loved eating even more than reading), was a true expression of his values. The rationale behind the seder is to fulfill the biblical commandment, “And you shall tell your children.” My dad took it seriously.

With my commitment to libraries, I’m hardly a disinterested party when it comes to the merits of physical books. But a concern I would have in any case relates to some of the subtler impacts of the turn toward reading on electronic devices. The books that sat on my father’s shelves, the books he gave me, the books I gave him, the books I noticed him reading, and the copy of “Middlemarch” that sat beside his bed for years are all part of how I recall him, and they played a role in how we communicated our identity and values.

I think back to an episode several years ago when, while walking in San Francisco, I was lured into a Victorian flat by an “estate sale” sign. Scanning the bookshelves, I was surprised to find for sale a plethora of Jewish books and CDs, with a particular focus on Jewish music. Upon noticing further the large number of French titles and books on Polish Jewry, I realized that this had to be the collection of a wonderful woman I’d known for years, who had died two years earlier. It was a poignant realization that many of us could be identified simply by the books on our shelves. And it saddened me terribly that, by the end of the estate sale, this evocation of her would be gone.

I write this as I sit late at night alongside a flickering candle in the family room of my childhood home, staring at the Jewish books that stared at me as I grew up. Some may be gone soon. But in this moment, they’re a beautiful reminder of how lucky I am to have had such a father.

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco.


Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.