On a November morning, Rabbi Uri Topolosky stands amid cartons full of Jewish books and piles of hundreds of volumes to be sorted, and grabs a book.
“I think this is the most popular name for a book here: ‘History of the Jews,’” he says.
Books with that title are everywhere and, he notes, they’re not all the same.
In contrast, copies of Golda Meir’s “My Life,” which captivated readers during the 1970s and ‘80s, are ubiquitous in the lobby of the Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville. Dozens of copies of the late Israeli prime minister’s memoir poured in during the first week alone of this massive Jewish book drive for the Washington area Jewish community. With goals to recycle, purchase and bury, the event continues throughout November.
“We got 200 cartons of books in the first two days,” says Topolosky, the rabbi of Kehilat Pardes and who teaches at the Berman Academy, the congregation’s home. He’s in charge of the book event. “We get 50 to 75 cartons a day, sometimes more.”
The books, boxed and unboxed, occupy a substantial part of the lobby area, with volunteers sorting and placing them on tables in for-sale categories that include food, prayer books, children and teens.
There is a pile for burial in the genizah at the Garden of Remembrance Memorial Park/Gan Zikaron in Clarksville, in next month’s Community Genizah Day.
The project stems from a desire to help the Jewish cemetery, where the genizah is filling up, by reducing the amount of material bound for burial in it and in future genizah areas, by excluding items that do not require placement in a genizah.
Unusable prayer books, sacred texts, ritual and similar items should be placed in a genizah. But many book give-ups don’t fit the requirements and are in good condition.
“I’d rather not bury books that can go to a good home,” Topolosky says.
He says among people’s reasons for parting with the books are downsizing, moving to Israel and getting books out of their homes that they no longer use.
“I have 30 boxes of books in my basement,” says Martie Adelman of Rockville, bringing about a dozen cartons into the building. “These are my father’s books,” she explains.
Nathan Adelman, in retirement from a career as an optometrist, turned to Jewish learning, including studying Aramaic. “He got a degree in Jewish studies at 75” and, she says, “collected Jewish books — interpretive, Hebrew language, scholarly.” She hopes that a new crop of students will benefit from her father’s volumes.
Someone is bringing books on Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah to Nigeria. Beginner books on Judaism are bound for a prison in Louisiana. A Berman Academy teacher is taking books for his Holocaust history course. One bag of unwanted tallitot was given the first week to a funeral home; another bag was filling up. Usable kippot probably will be kept for covering heads in the school and synagogue.
Sets of books are on sale for either $5 or $10. Individual books are $1 or free, making it a treasure trove for people seeking Jewish books. Money raised will go to a Jewish charity yet to be identified.
“I’ve been wanting this for years,” said Kehilat Pardes member Aharon Charnov, carrying out most of a set of about a dozen large Talmud volumes. He paid $10 for them, more than a single volume would cost.
“People have been clamoring for Yiddish books,” Topolosky says. Cookbooks are scarfed up so fast that often none are available. Stacks of benchers personalized with names of brides and grooms invite people to share in weddings of people they never knew. Among haggadot awaiting more seders is the familiar blue Maxwell House version.
Unwanted and damaged Jewish books have been a continual issue for synagogues and the cemetery, says Topolosky, a past president of the Washington Board of Rabbis. When synagogues buy updated machzors, they generate thousands of books they do not need and that are not in demand. Congregants add their books, though lots of those do not require burial; people leave books at the cemetery too.
“We often end up with hundreds of books because people don’t understand what has to go in a genizah,” says Glenn S. Easton, executive director of the cemetery.
Saving books that do not require genizah space also can help libraries, other institutions, nonprofits and individuals obtain Jewish books — scholarly, religious, cultural, novels and more — at little or no cost. Meanwhile, more genizah areas in the cemetery have been identified, says Easton.
Genizah Day is Dec. 4 at 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Sponsors of this project include the cemetery, Washington Board of Rabbis, Kehilat Pardes, the Berman Hebrew Academy and Jewish congregations.
Topolosky says he is not saddened by so many Jewish and Hebrew books given up; many will be rehomed, and fewer will be cemetery-bound. Nor is he overwhelmed by the monthlong task of accepting and sorting books.
“We’re not overwhelmed. We are overjoyed.”