Thursday, January 30, 2003

Shelf Life

When someone whose life was consumed with writing, study or scholarship passes away, it is a common and fitting practice to dedicate a book or set of books in his or her name. The books are then placed in an appropriate public setting – a library, a synagogue, a school.

Tomorrow, January 31, 2003, marks six months since our cousin Marla and her fellow student Ben Blutstein were killed as they sat eating lunch, books probably spread open on the table, in a Hebrew University cafeteria. In commemoration, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies dedicated a set of books in their honor.

But these weren’t just books being dedicated in their names. These were their personal books.

After Marla and Ben died, there were all kinds of practical matters that needed attending to. One of those was the question of what to do with their possessions. Clothes were donated. More personal materials were returned to their parents.

But what about their books?

These were the books that they used daily in their studies. They were supposed to become the cornerstones of their respective libraries as they built their homes and families. Some were well-worn already; others still stood at attention, yearning to be cracked, aching for use.

That’s the nature of books. They can’t stand to sit about, idling the day away. A book would be miserable at a Catskills resort. Unless it was in the hands of a reader who loved it.

I admit that I have abused books at times. For a while, I bought books because I felt I should have them on my shelf, not because I actually wanted to read them. When I was a CEO I felt I should have CEO books. When I was a designer I needed to have design books staring back at me.

Those were my loneliest books.

It was surely this thought that in part inspired the students and faculty at Pardes to put the books that Marla and Ben owned back into active service. To give them company: the company of new readers who would pull a book off the shelf, thinking it no different than all the others lined up in that row, only then to discover it had once belonged to a remarkable person who is no longer here with us.

Perhaps the reader might be inspired for a moment to imagine where that book had been acquired, what roads it may have traveled, what stories lay hidden in its history of ownership. Jody just finished reading “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” by Susan Vreeland. It tells of the loves and intrigues that accompanied a fictional painting by the Dutch artist Vermeer as it journeyed around the globe, moving from owner to owner, from the 17th Century until today.

Jewish books embody all of these traits, and more. Many are famously riddled with laws – the 613 in the Torah and countless others in the Mishna, Talmud and commentaries.

And yet, ironically, much of what constitutes the great body of Jewish writing was never supposed to be written down in the first place. The Oral Law, the very foundation of most of Rabbinic Judaism as we know it today, was supposed to be kept as just that: oral. It was only committed to pen and parchment when the Jewish people were in danger of losing their way, of disappearing. The very books we revere are nothing more than a compromise.

But how could it be otherwise, really? Though we spend so many hours in contemplation and dialogue with books, we would gladly, willingly destroy a thousand of the most sacred volumes to save a single life. Even the most holy book is no substitute for a living, breathing, oral life.

After several moving speeches at the Pardes dedication ceremony, students and friends who knew Marla and Ben silently rose and hesitatingly picked up one of their books from the center table. They then walked slowly to the bookshelves and placed their book in its appropriate spot.

It was eerily reminiscent of an Israeli funeral scene: an impromptu, unscripted re-creation of the point at which the mourners pick up a rock and place it gently on the grave. And it was even more striking since, at Marla’s funeral, her body was placed into a Mausoleum wall, in its own cold way a magnificent bookshelf, albeit one never to be disturbed or used again.

Marla and Ben’s books were an important part of their lives, and I am glad that other students will have the privilege of benefiting from them. At the same time, I derive no comfort from these books. They in no way ease the pain. But that’s not their purpose.

Rather, they have been added to the Pardes shelves to serve memory. To remind us of the paramount importance of life. Of two lives that were taken. We honor Marla and Ben by using their books in the bet midrash, and then going out and living life to its fullest, with meaning, with passion, with love. As Marla and Ben most certainly would have. And as they did.

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