Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Book Library in a Digital Age

I love my book collection. We have books in almost every room of our home, and they give me never-ending pleasure. 

On a Shabbat visit of my yeshiva students, they began to discuss whether it was worth accumulating books in a digital age. After all, most of our music and our photographs, our documentation and correspondence, has all shifted to the computer or hand-held e-device. It is worth asking why we still hold on to books in this day and age. Will they become obsolete?

I have an exceptionally strong attachment to my library. My well-worn Mishna Kahati sits next to to my Mishna Berura with my carefully written notes and highlighting. My Shas (Talmud) was a gift from my grandfather z"l for my bar-mitzva. A shelf of Rav Kook's philosophy and letters sits adjacent to a similar shelf of the writings of Rav Soloveitchik. Israeli poetry, contemporary fiction, books of my mentors Rav Amital and Rav Lichtenstein, classic Responsa, Bible commentary, new and old. Interesting combinations: Scholem and Shagar; Mandela and Scharansky, the Rambam alongside the Kuzari, Louis Jacobs with Rabbi Jakobovitz, and so forth. My library is my world. Every volume is a friend. Some volumes have shared deep and touching moments with me, others continue to accompany me on a daily basis, some will always be distant acquaintances, and there are others that I have yet to converse with, but I am happy for the presence of each and every one of them. This one I bought at Book Week, that one has a great autograph, another I picked out of a Jerusalem recycling dumpster that lay open, this is the massekhet that I am currently learning, and my battered Tanakh has over twenty-five years of mileage behind it.

This paean to my library was stimulated by an eloquent piece by Leon Wieseltier that I read today (link h/t Bookjed) . It elegantly and accurately articulates the perennial need for the authentic, old fashioned books; the hold-in-your-hand, have-on-the-shelf type. I couldn't say it better. Enjoy! :

THE LIBRARY, like the book, is under assault by the new technologies, which propose to collect and to deliver texts differently, more efficiently, outside of space and in a rush of time. If ever I might find a kind word for the coming post-bibliographical world it would be this week, when I have to pack up the thousands of volumes in my office and reassemble them a short distance away—they are so heavy, they take up so much room, and so on; but even now, with the crates piled high in the hall, what I see most plainly about the books is that they are beautiful. They take up room? Of course they do: they are an environment; atoms, not bits. My books are not dead weight, they are live weight—matter infused by spirit, every one of them, even the silliest. They do not block the horizon; they draw it. They free me from the prison of contemporaneity: one should not live only in one’s own time. A wall of books is a wall of windows. And a book is more than a text: even if every book in my library is on Google Books, my library is not on Google Books. A library has a personality, a temperament. (Sometimes a dull one.) Its books show the scars of use and the wear of need. They are defaced—no, ornamented—by markings and notes and private symbols of assent and dissent, and these vandalisms are traces of the excitations of thought and feeling, which is why they are delightful to discover in old books: they introduce a person. There is something inhuman about the pristinity of digital publication. It lacks fingerprints. But the copy of a book that is on my shelf is my copy. It is unlike any other copy, it has been individuated; and even those books that I have not yet opened—unread books are an essential element of a library—were acquired for the further cultivation of a particular admixture of interests and beliefs, and every one of them will have its hour. The knowledge that qualifies one to be one’s own librarian is partly self-knowledge. The richness, or the incoherence, of a library is the richness, or the incoherence, of the self.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Re-discovering the Kotel - A Magical Night at the Wall

Last night was the first time I have been to the Kotel in almost a year. I admit this with a real sense of guilt. I have always been committed to visiting the Kotel at least for each of the שלש רגלים in fulfilment of the Torah’s prescription:

"שלוש פעמים בשנה יראה כל זכורך את פני האדון ה' אלקי ישראל"

However, in recent years my regular chol hamoed visits have become increasingly unpleasant. The throngs that flock to Jerusalem over Chag have been (Barukh Hashem) so overwhelming that one year, we experienced a policeman directing the pedestrian traffic through the Rova. The parking has been impossible, and so what might have been a somewhat short visit to daven has become a hot, tiring, crowded trek for the entire family. In addition the pilgrimage has lacked a particularly spiritual component, as with the Kotel so full, it is difficult to concentrate or focus, and one is concerned to lose one of the kids. So, last chol hamoed, for the first time in about 20 years, I just didn’t go.

Well – after my highly positive experience at the Kotel last night, I have a new plan.

I went there to give a shiur to my Talmidim. Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi was holding its end-of-winter-zman “Mishmar” - learning all night with Vatikin at dawn – by the Wall.  I arrived at the Old City at 12:30 and headed to the Wall.   

As I emerged from the car, the air was fresh, the streets were quiet, serene, calm. Whenever one goes to the Kotel one anticipates an experience of “Klal Yisrael” – an encounter with a mix of  Jews that communicates a deep feeling that beyond our diversity and difference, that there is a fundamental unity of all Jews. This was my mindset as I made my way from Sha’ar HaAshpot towards the security checkpoint. It didn't take long to engage with that diversity. Far ahead were 3 Yeshiva Students. About twenty yards behind me were 4 people –  two couples – smiling, jovially teasing one another. They were secular; the women in jeans, the men bare-headed. But they too were making their way to the Wall. Alongside me, an elegantly dressed young lady wearing leggings, carrying a designer handbag walked with a sense of purpose. Who was this woman, I wondered? I was trying to define her, to label her into one of the classic categories, the “tribes” in which we live. As she approached the washbasin, she washed her hands with the washing cup – 3 times alternately. By the way she washed her hand, it was evident that she was accustomed to this ritual. Was she religious? Secular? Newly religious? Once religious? - Who knows? Did she come here regularly? Was she here to pray for someone sick? ... it really didn’t matter. I proceeded, enjoying the fact that we were all here, together; lots of different stereotypes. Tonight, it felt like we all belonged here, in all our difference.  

The Kotel was calm, beautiful and reverent. Even the people calling us for a minyan – “Arvit; Arvit!” - made their announcement in soft tones. The Hazzan who lead my minyan – a red-head Hassidic man – davened with expressive kavvana. A simple, daily Ma'ariv, became elevated. Somehow, whenever I am at the Kotel, I sense that I have a special opportunity to stand at the “Gate of Heaven” and to really speak to God. I tried to inject my tefilla with special meaning, to genuinely connect with God. At this late hour, there was no rushing, no pushing; the minyan took its time.

And then, giving shiur. The Yeshiva were congregated there, all sitting at shtenders in the inner area, under Wilson’s Arch, some in havrutot, some learning alone. One or two boys had fallen asleep. I gave shiur to 25 guys, all huddled together, and I tried to communicate to them a sense of our special historic privilege. I told the boys: “Look where we are! Some 2 thousand years ago, our forefathers walked across the bridge above our heads leading the lambs into the Temple, to bring the Korban Pesach! Jews yearned for thousands of years to stand at this very spot. We may not have a Beit Hamikdash, but the Shekhina never leaves this site. We can still fulfill our obligation (Shemot 23:17) to “present ourselves” before God’s presence.” My shiur was Pesach oriented – Redemption, Eliyahu Hanavi, and other related themes. 1 a.m. and I was inspired by the fire of Eliyahu Hanavi, and the interest of my students.

I emerged from the tunnel area after bidding my students a good night of learning. I had work the next day and couldn’t manage without a few hours sleep. The entire prayer area was virtually empty. The larger plaza was also deserted. But then I saw them -  a  Chattan and Kalla, a bride and groom - deep in prayer, standing right at the front of the Kotel plaza. It was 2am. Here was a young Haredi couple who had come to the Kotel straight from their wedding! What was beautiful about this scene was that they were all alone! It looked strange; one does not generally see a man and woman praying alongside one another at the Kotel. But of course, this couple who had married some hours earlier didn’t want to separate from one another. They didn’t go down to the prayer area, but instead, stood together, in perfect harmony, swaying together, praying together. What were they  davening for? For the future of their lives together? Were they praying for the sick and needy of Israel, having absorbed the tradition that a Chattan and Kalla on their wedding day have a special spiritual power to pray for others? It was a beautiful scene. Although they were distant from me and oblivious to my presence in this most public place, I almost felt like I was intruding on their intimate, special moment. I marvelled at this young couple who felt a need to bring God so palpably into their relationship and personal joy.

So, I thought to myself, I have now discovered that this is the time of day to come to the Kotel. I think I am going to try to visit regularly now, late at night, at this magical hour when all is calm, when one can daven without interruption, when the Kotel returns to being enchanting, spiritual, inspirational. It is wonderful to have re-discovered my path back to the Kotel.

Chag Kasher Vesameach!