Monday, February 8, 2016

10,000 Books

I am more than somewhat partial to United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. I have blogged about the reasons for this in the past. Today I blog not about United Way, in general, but about a specific campaign happening right now, which I was profoundly touched by, Change a Child's Story. The reason I was touched is personal to me, but who knows, it may inspire others, and so I share it. 

Like many great campaigns, the idea of this one is simple. With 38% of children in Dallas living in poverty, most live in homes that don't even have one book. There is clear research on the fact that owning and reading books makes a huge difference in a child's future. Through this campaign, United Way will get 10,000 books into the hands of these children. You give $5, and a child gets her first book; pretty simple. Now, keep that number in mind, 10,000. 

Why did this campaign hit such a personal chord with me? Allow me to explain. I am named for my grandfather, the longest serving rabbi of Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia, South Carolina, and one of that great city's prominent civic leaders in his day. Though I never met him, I have spoken to some of his congregants, who fondly remember him to this day, as a great scholar and teacher. He was born in the Ukraine, and at the age of two arrived with his parents and older siblings on these shores. They settled in the Boston area, he eventually attended Harvard University, and then became a rabbi. 
Tree of Life Congregation's former building, now a Unitarian Church
When he was hired by Tree of Life in 1950, the congregation's board members were struck by the number of times he stressed how imperative it was that they cover ALL of his moving costs from Virginia, where he had been serving another congregation since 1945. Once they had moved all of the family's belongings, they discovered WHY he had been so insistent. My grandfather owned one of the largest privately held Judaica libraries in the American South. The move put the congregation's bank account, literally, into the red. 

How many books did my grandfather have?  Well, remember that number I asked you to keep in mind. Strange to relate, but by the time he died in 1970, he had... 10,000 books. Upon his death, my father and my uncle donated 70% to the University of South Carolina, and split the rest. Both men then proceeded to add many more books to their respective collections in the 46 years since. 

I remember growing up in a house full of books, and taking this for granted. I just assumed every house had numerous bookcases in every room, their backs bursting, as they groaned at the weight of the many tomes. I couldn't imagine it otherwise. There were old books and new books, fiction and (mainly) non-fiction. As a child I was most impressed by the old ones. Standing tall were the gigantic musty volumes of the classic 19th Century edition of the Talmud. Beside the TV, was an English Bible from 1712. Behind other books, safely tucked away and carefully wrapped in brown paper, was a Latin book on grammar from 1676 or 1616. (The third digit was unclear.)
My grandfather's plaque at Tree of Life
Though this book collection featured primarily books related to biblical and rabbinic scholarship, and research of the Ancient Near East, there were other books too. There was an ornate collection of the full works of Shakespeare. There was the World Book Encyclopedia. (Now I am showing my age!) There was even an "illegal" English edition of Mein Kampf. This book, purchased by my grandfather, was published before WWII and in purposeful violation of copyright law, in a failed attempt to warn Americans of the designs of the German chancellor. 

It was clear, without being ever said so explicitly, that books were the lifeblood of our family and our people. Books were the vehicle, through which of all the peoples of antiquity in the West, we alone had survived. Wherever we went we took them with us, from the Promised Land to the diaspora, through all of our travels, and eventually to this land of promise, which Eastern European Jews, like many other immigrants, believed had streets paved with gold. My grandfather carried on this heritage, wherever life took him, as did his sons. We were the People of the Book. He was a man of 10,000 books. How could it be any other way?

This is why I have given to this campaign. This is why I take this campaign personally. I am named for a man I never knew, who carried our heritage to these shores, and became a man of 10,000 books. The least I can do is put what might be the first book, hopefully of many, in the small hands of one of 10,000. 

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