July 28, 2006
Several months ago, I happened to visit a Jewish library in New York that was located in a building adjacent to the one in which I was staying. The library still has an old-fashioned card catalog. I leafed through the cards around my family name until I came across a book by Y.M. Rubinstein. I asked the librarian to bring me the book, and he soon placed a green envelope in front of me. Out of the envelope, I pulled my father's father's book.
My grandfather was the principal of a small Jewish school in Bialystok where religious and secular studies were combined and Hebrew was taught. Over a period of about 30 years, he occasionally took pen in hand and wrote articles for publications affiliated with Agudath Yisrael. In 1938 he collected 14 of the articles into a thin book, with sections titled "Articles and Thoughts," "Stories and Drawings" and "Lines and Sketches." He called the book "Writings."
This is how he described his articles: "In most of them, the actions of human beings are reflected — their customs and thoughts in those days, the days of turmoil and confusion, a muddle of ideas and thoughts, days of the reign of hunger and the rule of death, whose impact is still clearly felt today, resulting in broken spirits, desperation and indifference to everything around."
In one of the articles, he inveighs against the Zionists who say, "Here we have a spiritual center that will protect us from destruction." In another, he gently addresses those who see "one of their brothers being led to burial with red flags surrounding his coffin," and he tells them: "A curse will not emerge from your mouths. Mourn for yourselves as mourners do because you did not appropriately educate the generation."
Some of the articles are drawings of people from the town: "the Shabbat crier" whose "mere appearance in the street of the Jews... was sufficient to create the necessary impression to make them set aside their business affairs." The synagogue attendant, a simple and devoted person "who listens to the echoes of the sad chants of yeshiva students who stand in the synagogue at night," makes an effort to learn himself but does not understand a thing and bursts into heart-rending tears.
The publisher of the book was the author himself. It is easy for me to imagine my grandfather proofreading the printed text, making sure to add a list of corrections to the book, holding copies he received from the bookbinder, bringing them to his friends, carrying them to the post office, sending a few copies to his two sons in Jerusalem, addressing by hand the envelopes in which copies of the book would be mailed to several Jewish libraries in Poland.
When I was holding the surviving copy in my hands, I was puzzled. It was inconceivable that he would send a copy of his book to far-off America. And why would a library in the great city of New York purchase such a modest booklet? Two stamps in the book indicated the path it had traveled. A stamp in Polish from the library of the Great Synagogue in Warsaw indicates that the library received the book in 1939. The second stamp: Offenbach. Offenbach was a sort of "concentration camp" for Jewish books. The Nazis sent to Offenbach the books they stole from Jewish libraries. The books went through a selection process at Offenbach, and those that remained were supposed to serve as items to be used by researchers studying the culture of the lost Jewish people. After the war, the Americans returned some of the books to their places of origin, while others were given to Jewish organizations defined as "heirs" of the treasure of Jewish culture. This is how the book made its way from my grandfather's hands in Bialystok to my hands in a New York library.
I gently put the tattered book back into the green envelope. I felt as if I were wrapping it in its burial shrouds. It is doubtful that anyone would ever exhume the book from its resting place. I handed the envelope to the librarian, a bearded and gruff Jew who appeared to me at that moment as a gravedigger. Suddenly I wanted to recite Kaddish. But I was not sure whether this was permitted. So I left the place. This essay is my "book Kaddish."
Ariel Rubinstein is a professor of economics at the School of Economics at Tel Aviv University and at New York University. This piece first appeared in Yediot Aharonot and was translated from Hebrew by Ira Moskowitz.
Copyright 2006 © The Forward