Tag Archives: tradition

for the love of books

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Around this time, towards the beginning of summer, we celebrate books. It’s called book week, or the book fair. And it’s a long standing tradition here. But this year has been a little different. There’s been a lot of discussion about books and the way they’re sold for some time now. And because I’m one of many who feel a personal connection to books, I’ve been following the public discussions and debate. Books are very important in Israel. I believe there are more books published and translated from other languages here, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. And I would guess that Jerusalem houses more books than anywhere else in the country.

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When I was young and traveling abroad, I remember learning what mattered to other peoples just by noticing the proliferation of certain types of shops or stores in a particular city. There was this one town in the far west, where I saw filling stations on every street corner. Well, at the time, it was hard to find a petrol station in our town, but there was a bookstore on almost every street.

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you can still see the rails in the old train station

In recent years though, there’s been a change in the way books are sold. For one thing, instead of the many Mom & Pop bookstores, each one with a certain expertise and interest, catering to a specific customer base, we saw the rise of chain book stores. It was a bit like MacDonald’s. Steimatzky, one of the major booksellers in our city, and known for its wide collection of English language volumes, first sprouted a few offspring, in different neighborhoods of our city. Following that, they spread across the country. Then publishers started selling their books retail, setting up chains of bookstores countrywide. They would sell all kinds of books, but pushed the volumes that they’d published themselves. As the competition increased, you could hear advertisements on the radio. Books were offered to consumers in the same commercial way that they had sold us movies in the past.

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It’s commonly thought that competition improves the market place. But what started out as playful sport between people of like pursuits and tastes, eventually turned into the fierce competitive spirit of commercial giants. By the time stores were selling 4 books for a hundred shekels, people started wondering if this was really advantageous. True, books used to cost between 70 and a 100 shekels. But what if you’re only interested in buying one particular book? Of course, you can always buy one for a friend… Still, that’s only two, and you had to buy 4 to meet the provisions of the deal. In your mind you’d already reduced the price to 25 shekels… it was a nuisance. And then we started hearing what the authors of these books were earning per book.

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Needless to say that the store owners were recompensed for their trouble. And so were the publishers. But the authors couldn’t even buy a pack of cigarettes for what they got from the sale of a book. I know what you’re saying; the author should stop smoking. But I’m just bringing this up as an example.

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Last year, parliament passed a law which insured that the author would receive a decent part of the income derived from the sale of his or her books. It prohibited the bundling of new books in sales campaigns. But the results weren’t that gratifying. It turns out that during the last year, less books were sold than in previous years. And it’s harder than ever for a new writer to break into the business. Aside from that, one has to keep in mind that there are not that many people in this world who’re looking to read a good book in Hebrew. Not to speak of the fact that there’s always more reading material available on the internet. Newspapers are going out of business. We wonder… are books the next to go?

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blues for women

The book fair this year was a great celebration, despite the controversy over sales methods. All the stores and publishers set up booths in the old railroad station, and most of the books were available at discount. Local bars and restaurants set up shop on the perimeter of the fair. A big tent top was erected pretty much in the middle of the area, and all comers were invited to listen to some of our finest native talent. At seven we heard blues for women. And by nine, we were listening to a wide variety of musical offerings played by some of our favorite musicians. The sound was great. We were entertained by some really excellent local versions of blues, hard rock, psychedelic rock, folk and jazz. It was wonderful.

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In fact, it was close to what I imagine as heaven. In the old days, I used to go to nightclubs to listen to fine jazz, while eating a light repast and having a couple of drinks. But since they outlawed smoking, I just don’t enjoy it as much, and hardly go out anymore. In this fine arrangement, smoking was allowed. Because most of the places were outdoor affairs, on balconies or patios. Even the music was considered outdoors, with just the tent top to give us some protection. And here I was, surrounded by books and friends, listening to music that just swept me away, drinking beer and smoking as much as I wanted. Just like heaven, don’t you think?

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Shimon in heaven by Chana

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love and ego

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Many years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, was visiting with friends and students in Jerusalem. Word of his presence in our city soon spread among his followers, and one by one and then in small groups, people started showing up at the apartment where he was staying. Outside, the sun was setting. Inside, it was beginning to get dark. A friend went to the light switch, about to turn on the electric light. But then Shlomo said, I would prefer a candle. A candle was placed in a single candlestick and lit. The sun went down completely, and more people came. After evening prayers, Shlomo asked for more candles.

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Rabbi Shlomo singing with friends

Friends melted the base of a candle and stuck it to a little plate. More and more candles were lit and placed on shelves and on the tops of high book cases. The apartment filled with people and Shlomo encouraged them to light more candles. A few friends went out to get more candles, and soon there were more candles than could be counted. They provided a soft light that filled the room. Friends pulled guitars out, bells and drums, and other musical instruments. We told each other stories, and sang songs together. Though each particular candle offered just a modest amount of light, all of the many candles together filled the apartment with light.

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At one point, when there was a natural pause in the conversation and the music, Reb Shlomo waved his hand, signifying the many candles, he said, ‘You see, each candle is like a human soul radiating its own particular light. But when we are all together, the space is filled with light, and it is difficult to attribute this great light to any specific source’.

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This week began for me with a visit to the rose garden opposite the Knesset, our parliament here in Jerusalem. The newly elected members of parliament were trying to organize a new government. And the news media was filled with dire warnings about what might or might not happen. But now, in the height of spring, the rose garden was filled with flowers, and the sun was shining overhead, and the sky was blue.

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Yesterday was the holiday of Lag B’omer. A day dedicated to the memory of the great mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who was born and married and died on this day, and taught us a mystical understanding of the light in this world. It is also a day in which we remember the struggle of our ancestors against the Romans. It is a holiday which is marked by bonfires and celebration in the middle of a very serious period of time, during which we progress from our exodus from slavery and aspire to the acceptance of enlightenment. And that is such serious work for the soul, that it is a great relief to have a day of fun and joy to offer release from our contemplation on the fact that true freedom is found only when one has a framework of values and intentional behavior.

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dancing around the bonfire

While watching the revelry around the campfires, I was reminded of Reb Shlomo’s words in praise of the candles. Let us remember the unique character of each and every human being, and value his individual contribution to our society. But remember too that the light that we generate is not held within, but is shared by all, lighting up the world around us and bringing us the warmth and happiness of love.

marriage of a torah scroll

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he’s recording it for posterity

As a child, I was taught to treat books with reverence; to handle them with care… to put them down in a respectable place; never to put a banal object on top of a book. And if a book happened to fall to the floor, which in itself was an unhappy event, I would pick up the book and kiss it. In our culture, books were a vehicle of knowledge, and knowledge represented the elegance of the human being.

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the beginning of the procession

We have many old books that have been copied from generation to generation. They have been copied with great care and as exactly as humanly possible. These books were copied by scribes using a quill and ink prepared according to ancient tradition, and inscribed on parchment. In our time, ancient remains of books have been found, and when compared to the copied texts available today, the texts have been almost identical. Of all the books, the most precious and revered of them all, are the five books of Moses. In the event that one of these books falls to the floor, it is common for the whole community to declare a day of fast. People are overcome by sorrow because of the disrespect to the book. But this has happened only very rarely in our history.

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the wagon with the torah on it

On the other hand, the way these scrolls are usually treated is characterized by joy and friendship. The scrolls themselves are dressed in clothing, and often have a crown at their head. Occasionally, a wealthy person will commission a scribe to copy these five books of Moses, which we call the book of torah. Sometimes the copy is dedicated to the memory of a loved one, or to the memory of an event. Such books, written on parchment, can be found in private homes, in schools, and in synagogues. When such a book is given to a synagogue, the event is seen as something like a marriage between the book and the community. The book is carried in the arms of different members of the congregation, and there is singing and dancing along the way.

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the way they do it in Jerusalem

When the book reaches the synagogue which will be its home, the books within the synagogue are taken out of their special closet, and they approach the new book in the arms of the congregation, and welcome the new book. Music is played, and the devout dance and sing in honor of the occasion.

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children celebrate with torches in their hands

Yesterday evening, I was visiting with Chana at her village, outside of Jerusalem, and as we approached the close of the day, we went out with the dog, so that she could do her business in nature. After Bonnie had taken care of business, we continued to walk around the village. It was a day in which we celebrated the new moon. Ours is a lunar calendar, and a new moon means a new month, and it’s a happy day. All of a sudden we heard cheery music, highly amplified and filling the air.

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and the adults in their own way…

We walked in the direction of the music, and saw a van moving down a side street, decorated with numerous symbols of our people and our faith, and with crowns above it, illuminated with many little colored lights, and loudspeakers broadcasting the music. And behind the van was a wagon, and on the wagon a book of the five books of Moses inscribed on parchment, and around the wagon were common villagers in their everyday clothes, singing and dancing.

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the villagers are more informal

We approached the celebration, and followed at a respectable distance. This was a holy assembly. Men were in one group, and women were in another. The two of us with a dog in tow were in a separate category altogether. But our hearts were with the congregation. And as the procession made its way through the village, more and more people joined the celebration. I was reminded of such scenes I had seen in Jerusalem, where thousands of people had lined the streets to pay their respects to the new book. On an occasion such as this, children will dance in the street. Police close down the streets where the procession will pass, and police cars are seen moving very slowly, with their blue lights blinking as they protect the festivities, and move at the speed of the walking and dancing public.

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as seen in Jerusalem

I thought of the many years of our history, and how we had continued this tradition of love for our books even in foreign lands, when we were in exile… sometimes very modestly, for fear of recriminations by hostile neighbors. And I was very moved by the sight of this ancient ceremony taking place at a time when even books printed on paper seem a little old fashioned, and a great many people read ebooks and articles on digital devices and telephones. I myself enjoy the new media, and take pleasure in my computer and Kindle. But there is something very special about reading an ancient book written in our own language on parchment. And how wonderful it is to see such a celebration in honor of a book.

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and yesterday in the village

Lag B’Omer

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posted in the neighborhood, an invitation by a youth group to join the group in a great bonfire in honor of the holiday this evening at 7:00 p.m.

Today, Lag B’Omer according to the Jewish calendar, is a very peculiar Jewish holiday. For one thing, it is not a Sabbath type holiday, and for another, it is not mentioned in the bible. But it is certainly an important holiday, and celebrated throughout Israel. Yesterday evening, the sounds of drums made their way through our living room window, and coming to the window we peered out at the numerous bonfires in the fields between our home and the state park in the distance.

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bonfires on the eve of lag b’omer

The holiday is woven into the very fabric of the Jewish life style; it is part of Jewish consciousness, and can only be understood well, if one is knowledgeable regarding Bible, Jewish history, agriculture, mysticism, and social norms. So I will not try to explain this holiday… just to tell you a little about it from my point of view, after having warned you that there is a lot more here than I have told you. The holiday occurs in the middle or at the end of a mourning period (there are different ways of looking at this). The general period is that of the count, between Passover and Shavuoth… which is a count of 49 days. Passover celebrates the coming out of slavery, and Shavuoth celebrates the giving of the Torah, our bible, and our law. Shavuoth is also a harvest fest, and is also one of the three ‘leg’ holidays, on which Jews would come from all over the country to bring sacrifices to the holy temple.

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During the time of the Roman occupation of Israel, there was a revolt of the Jews against the Romans that failed. The leader of this revolt was Bar Kochba, who was beloved and admired by Rabbi Akiva who was a sage, and one of the shining lights of talmudic study around the time of the destruction of the temple, about two thousand years ago. During this revolt, 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed, and only five survived. One of these, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, is considered the greatest authority on mysticism, and this is the day of his death… a day which is not meant for mourning but for celebration.

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During this holiday, it is customary to build bonfires, and to cook potatoes in these fires; to play with bows and arrows, to sing and rejoice, and best of all, to get married. Many couples wait for this day to get married, and all over the country there are marriages with great celebrations. It is also a day in which it is customary to give the first haircut to a young boy, at the age of three. We usually don’t give a haircut to a child who is less than three years.

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There is a mountain called Meron in the Galilee, where the grave of Shimon bar Yochai is found, and 250,000 people are there celebrating today, lighting candles, and giving haircuts, and building campfires. I have visited this place myself on this holiday, and one of these days, I will publish some of my photography from the occasion. The photographs in this post are all from Jerusalem, and most are from my own neighborhood.

celebrating a haircut

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a little cake made of letters

It is good to get away from time to time, and I’ve been enjoying a bit of vacation. This week, I’ve spent some time with children and grandchildren, and had the opportunity of playing a first game of chess with one of my grandchildren, Hillel, which was a rare and special experience… and also taking part in the celebration of the first haircut of another grandchild, Aminadav.

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the birthday boy

According to our tradition, a boy has his first haircut at the age of three. And because of my personality, I don’t usually get to know my grandchildren very well at that age. I find it easier to relate to them when they’re a little more grown up, and we can share interests and have a good conversation; though there are always exceptions. In this case, I really didn’t know the lad at all, and I probably wouldn’t have written about the experience again, since I have already written about this type of occurrence in the past (though not on this blog). But because of the ongoing discussion on education, I thought it might be helpful to take a good look at the tradition, and what can be learned from it.

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the children about to eat

Our sages say, as a pregnant woman comes closer to the time of giving birth, it is good if she visits the study hall, so the sounds of study will be part of the earliest memories of the child. In the case of the haircut, often there are negative feelings associated with the experience. People have admired the child’s hair, and it has grown long in the first three years of the child’s life. In the case of Aminadav, he had some beautiful blond curls which were particularly attractive. And since it is our custom to cut the hair quite short, there is a sense of loss. I’ve seen children cry during the haircut. But fortunately, the party atmosphere, the getting of presents, and other pleasurable surprises, are usually able to turn the mood towards a positive experience.

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two cousins

In this case, a number of people very close to him, cut locks off his hair, and he was given a new skullcap, and a crown of leaves and flowers. And this is the time when we introduce him to the alphabet. His mother made a beautiful assortment of little cakes in the images of the letters of the alphabet, each one covered with honey, and he and his friends were each given an opportunity to eat one of these cakes. There was also a more conventional birthday cake, which itself was crowned with marshmallows. And he got his first four cornered shirt, the garment which has special knots ties to each of its four corners, and is usually worn only by older boys and adults.

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the birthday cake

This garment, mentioned in the old testament, is of particular interest, because it includes a blue thread which was traditionally tied together in a series of knots with the threads of the garment, symbolizing the intermingling of spirituality with the material needs of a person, and emphasizing that things spiritual need not be kept apart. All together, the experience is one of happiness, teaching the child that as he moves on from one chapter to the next, he takes leave of an earlier incarnation, but moves on to a still richer experience. In this case, there is the introduction to the written language, and to different signs and symbols which represent a more mature person.