Despite modern technology evolving, books and bookshelves are still found in many typical Jewish homes.
By Barbara Lewis
Walk into almost any Jewish home and you’ll see books. Maybe there will be just a single shelf, maybe the shelves will line an entire room.
Jews have always thought of themselves as “people of the book.” After all, since the destruction of the Temple, Jewish religious life has centered around study of texts: the Torah, Talmud, the Kabbalistic Zohar and more.
The term “people of the book” originated in Islam. Although non-Muslims were considered infidels, Jews and Christians were called “people of the book” in the Quran because they followed texts that embraced monotheism.
Adam Kirsch, author of The People and the Books (W.W. Norton & Co., 2016) says texts often became turning points in Jewish history, and they weren’t always religious writings. The rise of the Yiddish language press, for example, was transformative for Jewish women, who could read the language they spoke. Theodore Herzl’s books ignited the Zionist movement.
Stuart Matlins, founder of Jewish Lights Publications (now part of Turner Publishing), said many in the book business feel Jews buy a disproportionate number of books considering they make up only 2 percent of the U.S. population, although he has no data to prove it. That could be because Jews have a much higher level of education than the general population, he said.
Or vice versa. Researchers have found a high correlation between the number of books in a home and academic achievement. Mariah Evans of the University of Nevada-Reno studied adults in 42 nations and found that books in the home correlated to improved test scores. The boost is most pronounced in families with little education and low-status occupations, but it was seen in poor and wealthy nations alike and across both socialist and capitalist economies. Perhaps Jews achieved more educationally because we were “people of the books.”
And where are we getting these books? The demise of megastore Borders and the near-demise of its erstwhile rival, Barnes & Noble, attest to huge growth in online book sales (that’s how retail giant Amazon got its start) and also to the increase in audio books and electronic books. But the number of independent bookstores has been increasing since 2009.
Cary Loren, co-owner of the well-respected Book Beat in Oak Park, has had to use some creative approaches to stay afloat, including selling at libraries, schools and community centers and holding in-store book-related events. Book Beat specializes in children’s books and books on fine art; many customers are educators, artists or those buying for children and grandchildren. Loren says they are well-educated people who often ask for suggestions of books to read and give as gifts.
Loren supports efforts to encourage parents to read to their children. “If a child sees you reading, it will send a positive message and instill a lifetime of reading and learning,” he said.
JCC Book Fair/Bookstock
Jewish Detroit can boast of two annual book-related mega-events, the Jewish Community Center’s Jewish Book Fair in November and Bookstock in April.
Jewish book fairs are now held across the country, and Detroit’s Jewish Books Fair is the granddaddy of them all. Detroit’s first Jewish Book Fair, in 1951, featured three authors over three days. Attendance at the now eight-day festival is booming. Jaemi Loeb, senior director of cultural arts for the Jewish Community Center, said 2018 saw a 25 percent increase in attendance over the previous year.
She acknowledges that sales at Book Fair have been declining as participants shop for the books they like online or buy e-books or audio versions. But Loeb is not concerned. “Our mission is to promote Jewish books and Jewish authors, which means that we feel that we have fulfilled that mission if people read the books we promote, even if they buy them somewhere else,” she said. And Book Fair offers what Amazon can’t — an opportunity to meet authors, hear what they have to say, ask questions and discuss the presentation with friends.
This year’s Book Fair is scheduled for Nov. 2-10.
Bookstock grew out of the Brandeis Book Sale, a much-loved annual event that started in 1961. By 2002, the local chapter of the Brandeis University National Women’s Committee, which organized the sale, was struggling to attract members. Then Tel-Twelve Mall, where the sale was held, was redesigned with no enclosed space, and the Brandeis group called it quits.
A year later, a group of women held a similar community book sale at Laurel Park Place in Livonia as a fundraiser for Hillel Day School. The project outgrew the ability of the Hillel volunteers to manage it, so the organizers invited other community groups, especially those with an interest in literacy, to have their own members volunteer. For every hour a volunteer works, he or she earns a share of the sales receipts for the partner organization.
Bookstock’s partners, which include Hadassah, ORT, NCJW, JVS and the Jewish Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy Department, provide hundreds of volunteers who spend half the year collecting and sorting the books and a week selling them. Teen youth group members and day school students help shlep books out of donors’ cars and into the sorting center on Colossal Collection days, earning funds for their organizations. The sale alone involves more than 700 volunteers.
Since 2003, Bookstock has raised more than $2 million for community literacy efforts, said Roz Blanck of Franklin, one of the founders.
At this year’s sale in April, Bookstock patrons snapped up more than 300,000 books and DVDs. Unsold inventory was donated to thrift stores.
People love the Bookstock experience, said Blanck. There’s the joy of finding a treasure you might not be looking for and the conviviality of talking to book-loving volunteers and other patrons.
The danger in shopping at places like Book Fair and Bookstock is adding yet more books to already full shelves. Those who do may be suffering from bibliomania — a love of books collected just to have — or a related condition the Japanese call tsundoku, acquiring many books with the intention of reading them later, even if you never do.