Saturday, February 28, 2009


I’m walking this road, the narrowest string of land, snaking its way along the edge of an inky ocean. On tiptoe I proceed, inching carefully forward—but after so long my toes are numb, and I don’t even notice the ache, much of the time. But then something glints in my path, and my head wobbles, and I find I’m tipping, and I see the water approaching as I start to fall. It takes an effort to right myself, because it’s so near, and it would be so easy to let go and fly downward to the blue-black depths; a roar in my ears of all the things I’ve lost grasping toward me, enveloping with a clammy heat. I could spend the rest of my life there, in that space full of questions and wistful smiles and answers that ever elude. I’d be stuck, static. I’d drown there. But I’d be so secure. Instead of walking endlessly here where it’s clear but I can’t get away from the water that hovers, wraith-like, at my side. It taunts, calling, waiting to strip me of a bland, teetering reality brimming with denial and hopes I don’t really trust.

Because sometimes I’ve seen my fate—and it’s reflected in a murky sea, flowing gently backwards.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Valmadonna Trust Library at Sotheby's

Assailed by multitudes, sheer numbers overwhelm. Books scale the walls; these books testify to our history, because we are a people committed to the written word, preserving our original thoughts, our ideas, our traditions. Most bindings are leather—deep red, faded brown, crumbling, newly restored. Each labeled with a title, a location, a year. In the first room, the shelves ascend toward the heavens, books lined up neatly, packed next to each other at stiff attention, each modestly fulfilling its role, one slim binding in an army of thousands. Colors and sizes of infinite variation, one plus one plus one plus one, together produce an impression of fantastic proportions, a wealth of knowledge cascading up and down each wall, eternal, insurmountable.

On every shelf several books are propped open, exposing the black specks on yellowed-white within. The lettering is mostly familiar—Rashi script or regular Hebrew—and I can read the pieces of texts on display, excerpts often recognizable but sometimes unusual. Other books contain foreign characters—Latin, Italian—and I can only guess what the words signify. Many of the open pages bear illustrations: Moshe carrying the tablets of the law, the Cohen Gadol in his vestments, a family around a Seder table. And then there are fat young cherubs, scantily clad heralds blowing horns, even the forms of a man and a woman, neither one clothed. I witness these images framing our holy texts; their presence jars my modern eye. Yet when the books were printed, such illustrations were expected, accepted, their existence testified to the importance of the words they adorned. I gaze at the thin black lines that make up the images and I think about debates over whether art history classes may be taught and I marvel at how time and context change the way we think.

An alcove houses the particular treasure of this vast collection: the Bomberg Shaas, a Talmud with a tale. Behind glass the brown-red covers glisten still, thick straps of leather on each binding proclaiming their royal origin, open to pages that have lasted hundreds of years, totally intact. The words of the gemara occupy their usual spot in the middle of each daf; Rashi and Tosfos surround them, stolid companions. But without the super-commentaries, the flourishes we have come to expect, the pages look strangely bare.

On a wall in bold letters a quote from Judah Ibn Tibbon (father of Shmuel Ibn Tibbon, translator of Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim) reads, “Make books your companions; let your bookshelves be your gardens; bask in their beauty, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and myrrh.” My friend and I stand feet away from these words, and eagerly drink them in. We are bibliophiles; this quote echoes in the hollows of our hearts.

But this quote applies to more than just a couple of nerdy English majors. Look around. See who else has come to breathe in these books. This room is packed. It is full to bursting with people. Yeshiva bochrim in black and white with black hats, young and old men without head coverings, an Orthodox girls’ high school on a field trip, Chassidim with curled payos flying, a woman who davens in my shul at home, a mother and son I met in Scotland—and of course, the YU crowd: students, Presidential Fellows, teachers, Rebbeim, and even the university’s president.

People of books. I am one in a living, thriving crowd; we care deeply about these words, these ideas. We have come to see, to marvel, to appreciate. And so I stand, a
ssailed by multitudes, and the joy of these numbers overwhelms.