On samovars and piles of books


I wanted to rescue the books.

Sitting there, orphaned, on the folding tables of the J’s Used Book Sale. Given away by their previous parents, waiting for someone new to pick them up and take them home. Last Thursday, in between all my anthropomorphizing, I saw plenty of books I just couldn’t imagine someone wanting to give away.

Granted, some of the books, I could absolutely imagine people wanting to give away.

Granted, we were very grateful to all the people who donated their books to support the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival (and grateful to all those who bought books).

But still, I marveled at how certain books were donated, how they weren’t snatched up immediately, and finally, how they ended up in a charity pile.

It will come as no shock to you that I have multiple filled bookshelves at home. If there was a fire, or if I had to leave in a hurry, I’d probably grab a few volumes with my other valuables. I know not everyone has the same fixation on books, but what we value isn’t always logical or easy to carry or treasured by others.

This year’s Opening Night of the Lit Fest focuses on the lives of Jewish immigrants. Actors will be dramatizing the works of authors who explore this topic – what we choose to bring with us and what we leave behind as we make and remake our homes. Some of those things are physical.

Going through the items in my grandmother’s house after she passed, we found old prayer books in the back of a closet. They were printed in Eastern Europe over a hundred years ago with elaborate title pages, and I’m sure they are valuable only to my family. In my other grandmother’s house is a large, brassy Russian samovar, which hasn’t served tea in 75 years, but has sat on her buffet since being schlepped from Lithuania by her mother at the turn of the last century.

What do we take with us and what do we leave behind?

Obviously, they came with other things, too, not the least of which includes cultures and perspectives. If I value books and the arts and food, then I remain connected to those generations before me. If I value my openness to the world and the urge to take in what is new to me, then I remain connected, as well.

One of the books I rescued from the Used Book Sale was Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I’ve never read it. I was on the phone with my mother, telling her about the fourteen books I couldn’t help myself from buying, and I mentioned that title. She says, “Oh, I love that book! You have to be in the mood for a Russian novel, but…” and we start talking about Russian novels. The lines between what we take with us and what we leave behind are a bit blurrier three generations later.

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