Facebook Post by Rabbi Perlin in the Time of Coronavirus (5/21/2020)

Thursday Post 5.21.20:  The Books on My Shelves

by Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D.D.

Since the stay at home order was issued in Virginia, I have actively returned to my “rabbinic voice” through these posts and by teaching a class for our TBS congregation every Thursday, as I will today.  I write my daily posts on the day I put them out, even if some of them reside in my head as I mull them over for a few days before putting the thoughts to paper.  But, the classes require a week of research, culminating in the preparation of a handout that can be shared on Zoom, which requires that I type much of the material myself (old school).  I can honestly say that there is no way I could teach these classes with any academic integrity with what is available solely on the internet.  Too many of the sources that have provided the best material are only available in books, which I have lovingly preserved for decades.  Now more than ever, my love for REAL books has proven itself to be a wise investment.

One of the many reasons I became a rabbi was that I could pursue a multitude of interests – I have loved my time teaching and preaching, counseling and building community, pastoring in sickness and health, and all the while being able to pursue scholarship on Jewish and non-Jewish subjects. My thirst for knowledge has led me to spend years of my life exploring, in depth, subjects from the scientific world, the counseling world, and my earliest passions in the academic world.  For years, I have had at least a dozen books by the side of my bed, and countless books on my desk at all times.  Returning to research, with the goal of not only educating my community, once again, but also bringing them together with material that relates to the pandemic has been a wonderful and weekly challenge.  I could not have done it without the books on my shelves.

Gary was amazed when I asked him to take a book from my childhood off a top shelf in my home office, yesterday.  I have amazed myself, as I have found the books I needed and some I didn’t even remember I had among the over 10,000 books I own.  And no one can tell me that the internet can provide the same ability a real book can when it comes to having twelve books on your desk, all open to different pages, or finding something rare and wonderful as you peruse a table of contents or the index at the back of a book.

Jewish tradition teaches in Pirke Avot 5:25:

“Ben Bag Bag said: Turn it (the Torah) over and over for everything is in it. Keep your eyes riveted on it. Spend yourself in its study. Never budge from it, for there is no better way of life than that.”

I feel that way about Torah and about the books in my library.  As Jews, we have for centuries been called “The People of the Book,” and I have always believed that when we lose that distinction, we will lose an important part of our Jewish soul.

Every house we own has to have books shelves, and lots of them.  Not only do I love reading and researching in my library, I also find emotional comfort in having my books with me. Like old friends, they tell the story of my intellectual life journey and looking at the books activates brain cells of memory and knowledge, both recent and long, but not forgotten.

I have a vivid memory of visiting one of our 95-year-old members in her one room at a local nursing home.  There were piles and piles of books on the floor, just as every inch of her walls was filled with her own art.  She was sharp as a tack, sharing memories of her Jewish Virginia child that were almost a century old.  She told me that the books had always kept her mind going and without them, she was worried that her mind would leave her.  As long as there is a good book on a shelf (or the floor), there is a world to explore and neurons to fire in our brains.

During this pandemic, I have read ten books of fiction at night, most mysteries which are my passion.  And most of them, I read on my Kindle.  But, during the day, I have found comfort in my real books — reading and researching in them.  And the rest of the time, during this stay at home order, I am lovingly packing the books, in my extensive library, for their next journey to the new book shelves they will call home, knowing that having them there will make it “home.”