by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)
While growing up in a Yiddish speaking home, I was often witness to the respect and adoration given to the Yiddish books that once graced our small bookcase. It goes without saying that prayer books, bibles and other holy texts were held in high esteem, but books written in Yiddish, the mameloshen (mother tongue), came in a close second. Like many Eastern European Jews, my parents had a particularly strong attachment to books written in Yiddish. Whatever the theme or intended message, these books were often afforded special status not only because they were written in Yiddish but because Yiddish utilizes Hebrew script, the very same letters found in all of our sacred texts.
More often than not, many of these Yiddish books were passed on to my parents by either aged or sickly friends and neighbors who simply wanted their treasured books to take up residence in a proper home. Yiddish books, after all, were like beloved relatives who detailed our long and often difficult history. I remember how we always removed and replaced these books with the utmost care so as not to injure their often spindly, dilapidated spines and worn bodies. In our home, we read these books primarily on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays when there was ample opportunity to lay on the couch, close one’s eyes and perhaps take a solemn journey back in time.
History has a way of repeating itself and perhaps is meant to do so. A short while back, I was approached by a few acquaintances and patients asking if I would be willing to take possession of their Yiddish books. Some followed my advice and sent their books to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts while others would not hear of it. This latter group wanted their books to reside in a warm loving home rather than in an “orphanage for Yiddish books”.
I remember an elderly gentleman who, only recently, was seated in my examination room. He began speaking as soon as I entered. “I have to talk to you about my Yiddish books,” he began. “I know you speak and read Yiddish. So, doesn’t it make sense for them to be with you? They mean so much to me. I can’t just throw them out. Please, come to my home. The books will be waiting for you.”
His pleas were repeated with ever increasing urgency. How could I possibly refuse this clearly distraught gentleman? He was concerned about the fate of his beloved Yiddish books now that he had sold his house and was about to move to a small apartment where there was simply no room for his books. Aware of how much this request meant to him, I agreed to come by that very night and take possession of the box of Yiddish books that, I was told, was silently awaiting my arrival. As I left his home carrying the box, I heard a long tremulous sigh follow me to the door. It was an unmistakable declaration of sadness at seeing his beloved friends leave, accompanied by a sense of relief that they would at least have a proper home.
Since then, in addition to a few books that once belonged to my parents, I have accumulated a fair number of Yiddish books as I found it difficult to refuse those pleading on behalf of their loved ones. And so, just about every Sabbath and Jewish holiday, I’ve gotten into the habit of carefully taking one of these aged volumes in hand to reacquaint myself with many of the words and phrases that no longer see the light of day.
Much like aged relatives, these books speak volumes of survival and adaptation and give voice, as well, to immense pride and joy. Each time I’m done and get ready to close one of these books, I start to wonder who will be next in line? Who will be willing to accept books that are written in a strange language dealing with topics that have little or no relevance to most people? I’ll ask around when the time comes, but, apart from the praiseworthy mission of the Yiddish Book Center, I fear there will be no takers.
Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.