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Libraries are Very Jewish

In his famous routine, the late comedian Lenny Bruce would tick off items he considered inherently Jewish and non-Jewish. Trailer parks, the Marine corps and white bread were goyish; pumpernickel bread, macaroons and black cherry soda were Jewish. Libraries, I submit, are inherently Jewish.

The Jewish people’s reverence for the written word is legendary. Jews were the first known society to ground their civilization on a book.

Ironically, the public library—that most secular of institutions—has replaced the Torah as a major source of Jewish knowledge. I – and others, I suspect – head to the public library clutching the titles of Jewish books recommended in Lilith’s reviews. From the shelves of my local library I learned how to survive my daughter’s bat mitzvah and how to prepare my husband for conversion to Judaism. No wonder Next-book, a national Jewish initiative to increase Jewish literacy, chose the library as its venue to reach Jews. As much as the Jewish community center or synagogue, the library is the place where Jews gather to learn about their own religion.

As if receiving written wisdom personally throughout the generations were not enough—Dayenu —Jews go even one step further by talking about reading. Discussing—and arguing about— written texts has a long history among Jews. The longest lasting book club in the world is Torah study. Since about 200 C.E. and continuing today, readers have been gathering to discuss the same book, Torah study is traditionally taught in pairs so the text can be “wrestled with” from the group, as well as individual perspective. Indeed, the combination of reading and discussing is so central to Judaism, I would argue that book discussion groups deserve inclusion in Lenny Bruce’s “inherently Jewish” list.

Likewise, book discussions—both formal programs and spontaneous conversations—are encouraged and supported by libraries.

It is perhaps no coincidence that One Book, One Community—a secular version of Torah study—was originally conceived by Nancy Pearl, a Jewish woman. Hers was but one of a string of innovations by Jews in the field of library science. In the 1920’s librarian Fanny Goldstein, dubbed “one of the best liked Jewesses in New England,” founded Children’s Book Week, along with National Jewish Book Week and the Jewish Book Council. Jewish women, including volunteers from sisterhoods of Reform and Conservative Judaism, were instrumental in starting talking book services for the blind.

Golda Meir was one of the most famous Jewish women librarians. Before becoming Prime Minister of Israel, she worked in a public library. Today many prominent library leaders are Jewish. The late library science professor and political activist Miriam Gutman Braverman championed the cause of racial equality and helped found the Langston Hughes Library and Cultural Center. A Jewish woman, Judith Krug, directs the major library organization that battles censorship. When asked if being Jewish was a factor in her chosen profession, she said, “Not consciously, but the values I hold dear made me ideal for this job.” And from whence did she develop these values? “From my mother—a Jewish mother, of course.”

Whatever the exact number, it is obvious that at less than 3% of the U.S. population, Jews are over-represented within librarianship. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that a Jewish woman was chosen as the model for the librarian action figure.

Naturally, the doll comes equipped with a book in one hand. Given the numbers and influence of Jews in the profession, perhaps she should also be sold with some Jewishly-identifiable item. Out of deference to Lenny Bruce, maybe she should be equipped with a macaroon or a loaf of pumpernickel. Or better yet, why not give her a bowl of chicken soup—low-fat, even. I know just where to find a recipe…in the library, of course.