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Sunday, July 13, 2008

The 'Shame' of Hand-Me-Downs

A colleague of mine sat down across from me at lunch the other day with something weighing on her mind. She is an engineer whose heavily accented (but perfect) Hebrew identifies her as having immigrated to Israel from the Former Soviet Union.

I don't know this woman well, but after several years of working together on projects I've made certain assumptions about her based on the way she dresses and the casual remarks she makes about local politics. I assume that in Russia she was called a Jew and that the word was not meant as a compliment by those who used it. Here she seemed pleased to have left the Jewish label behind in favor of the more theologically vague title; 'Israeli'.

As we ate our lunch and made small talk about a project we were working on, I could tell she had something else on her mind, but it was equally clear she didn't know quite how to broach the subject. Finally, as we were finishing up our dessert she just blurted it out:

"David, I brought something from home but I'm not sure what to do with it", she began. "I was hoping you could help me".

With that, she reached into her large purse and pulled out a couple of tattered books and placed them carefully on the table between us. I picked them up and was surprised to find myself holding two battered Chumashim, (bound copies of the Torah - the first five books of the Jewish Bible).

The books were in terrible shape… marked throughout with multi-colored highlighters and had pencil scribbling in the margins. The covers were missing altogether, and several names written and crossed out on the title pages indicated that each of the books had seen more than one owner.

She explained that her youngest had recently finished high school and that she had decided to go through the family storage room, giving away or throwing out all of the old books and school supplies. However something told her that these two tattered books were supposed to be treated differently. She had brought them to me – a coworker with a kippah (yarmulke) - in hopes that I would take them from her and do the right thing.

We religious Jews are an arrogant lot when it comes to making assumptions about our coreligionists. It may be that our secular counterparts are equally arrogant, but I can only comment from my own experience… and arrogance.

I'm a bit ashamed to admit that when she explained why she'd brought me the Chumashim my first reaction was rather uncharitable.

In the case of this particular coworker, her occasional political comments and her somewhat revealing outfits had led me to the conclusion that she is one of the many Jews from the FSU who have little use for Judaism. Nearly a century of communist indoctrination and oppression had done its work well, and many of those who came to Israel from the FSU seem more than happy to leave behind the often-derogatory label of Jew.

Outwardly I smiled, but privately I chided her for not knowing the proper way to deal with holy books. I also looked askance at the fact that she apparently didn't want a Chumash - the source of all things Jewish - to remain under her roof after her last child no longer needed it for school.

But then, as often happens, I got a chance to taste the bitterness of my own uncharitable thoughts.

She picked up one of the Chumashim and caressed it reverently in her hand and explained that starting in elementary school, her older kids had used these two books as they'd made their way though the Israeli school system. As the books had been passed down from one child to the next younger siblings, the pages had accumulated copious notes and colored references… and the bindings had long since shed their covers to reveal dog-eared pages from countless trips back and forth to school. But in her experience, a book that had given up all its knowledge was supposed to look like this.

She told me that there was a third Chumash at home on the family bookshelves… in far better condition than these. It had been used by her youngest daughter, the one who had just graduated. Since the baby of the family had somehow managed to avoid the 'shame' of having to use a hand-me-down Chumash, that third copy was still in pretty good shape. So, during her cleaning spree, my coworker had made a practical decision to keep that third copy of the Five Books of Moses in the family.

By now I was blushing with embarrassment, sure that she had somehow read my mind.

First I had rushed to judge her for not knowing how to dispose of a holy book, and then I'd assumed she couldn't wait to rid her home of any vestiges of Judaism.

But in a single moment the enormity of what I'd ignored came crashing down on me like a pile of books. Here was a woman whose family had somehow managed to remain Jewish under generations of oppressive Communist rule. She and her husband - uneducated in Jewish things though they may have been - had decided to come to Israel and had given their children the opportunity to grow up as (and among) Jews.

Sitting before me on the table was ample evidence that her children had digested the Jewish content (however abridged) of their secular Israeli education. And though ignorant of the precise procedure for doing so, this Jewish woman knew instinctively that one didn't simply toss the Torah into the trash bin alongside broken-spined algebra books and crumpled history notes.

As I gathered up the pair of well-read Chumashim from the lunch table, I assured my colleague that it would be my pleasure to take care of them for her. I explained that far too many people didn't understand that such things required special handling and that she had done a very important thing by treating the books with such respect.

As I walked out of the cafeteria with these 'hand-me-down' Chumashim, I felt very small at having initially judged this woman so harshly.

There is really no shame in having hand-me-down holy books, or in someone not knowing precisely what to do with them when they are no longer serviceable. After all, ours is a hand-me-down religion that has survived throughout many lean generations where perhaps only one family in a village owned (or could read) a Chumash. During much of Jewish history the idea of each child in a family owning their own copy would have been preposterous!

I thought about my own home filled with Jewish books, most of them (sadly) in excellent condition. My older children, who received their religious books from me barely used, or brand new from the Judaica store, have already far-surpassed my meager religious learning.

Our youngest will likely never know what a hand-me-down Chumash looks like and, like his older siblings, will almost certainly complete his education with his small collection of religious volumes in relatively good shape. But that isn't necessarily something to be proud of… and certainly no cause for arrogance. It is simply a function of our relative affluence.

But there are different kinds of affluence.

I realize now that for all the fatherly things I could want for my children, I would do well to wish that the holy books I buy for them, as well as those I hand down from my own collection, will one day be as well used and tattered as the two hand-me-down Chumashim my coworker place into my hands.

Posted by David Bogner on July 13, 2008 | Permalink

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What a moving story. Thanks for having the courage to post it. I think we've all made the same mistake you did. I know I have!

Posted by: Gavriel | Jul 13, 2008 3:22:39 PM

Very beautiful post.

Posted by: Sara K | Jul 13, 2008 4:44:24 PM

in may, my first grader came home from school with a note from her teacher that the children were to receive their chumashim in a small tekes and would i please send in the chumash we bought at the beginning of the year. i did not buy her a new one as we already have two school copies of bereishit in the house. i gave her my daughter's old copy which was promptly rejected because all of the p'sukim markers were highlighted in glowing colors. i tried to point out to her that now she was at an advantage, her older sister having pointed out the way! no go. luckily for her (me?) my son's copy was not so marked up and was deemed acceptable by my youngest. it was a moment that was lost on her, being too young to understand the sad sentamentality of a well used and (hopefully) loved book. i've still kept them, those first grade notations are too precious to me to lose. i think that to those who do not come from much, who value the non-material things in life such as knowledge, the premuim placed on the source of such knowledge, such as a simple book, to them, those books are holy -- whether in the real sense of the word, as in a chumash, or not.

Posted by: nikki | Jul 13, 2008 4:45:39 PM

Once again, your honesty is very moving.
I think that many Jews who do not have much religious knowledge nevertheless harbor a deep respect for religious ceremonies and objects. When I was a child, we had a Polish-Jewish cleaning lady who knew almost nothing about Judaism. Every week, she would dust my father's old Borsalino hat and place it carefully on the dresser because she thought that it was a "holy hat". We didn't have the heart to tell her that there was nothing particularly holy about the hat.

Posted by: Raizy | Jul 13, 2008 4:50:47 PM

Wow. Beautifully written.

Posted by: tnspr569 | Jul 13, 2008 5:29:07 PM

My father a"h always said that he never liked to see a shas in perfect condition - he liked it when it looked well used, and perhaps a little shabby - evidence that someone had actually been learning.

Posted by: mata hari | Jul 13, 2008 6:52:54 PM

"The books were in terrible shape… marked throughout with multi-colored highlighters and had pencil scribbling in the margins."

In my world, this is a paradoxical statement. ;o/

I am also going to have to find out what to do with holy books in need of "retiring," too -- I guess I'll start by talking to my parents (who became deacons of the church after their sons all left the nest). It's been awhile since I've known what to do with those -- if ever I did know.

Now I feel short-sighted... thanks a lot...

Cheers! And cheers to your co-worker as well!

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Jul 13, 2008 7:05:59 PM

David - perhaps a footnote to this post is needed, where you can be be a bit more explicit about what needs to be done with books like these, as some of your readers may still be perplexed.

Posted by: westbankmama | Jul 13, 2008 7:13:38 PM

Lovely....

Posted by: Gila | Jul 13, 2008 7:58:37 PM

When I studied at Pardes, I underlined things in both the Torat Chaiim Chumash and the Mishna Brurah. Hubby wasn't happy, but I don't regret it. I've also made quite a few notes in my regular Chumash, and showed them to my daughter....

Posted by: Robin | Jul 13, 2008 8:16:01 PM

Your tale above reminds me of a story. A few years ago a friend here in Israel told us about an incident that took place at one of the schools in town. The pupils were asked to bring a Bible to school to study out of, and one student from the former Soviet Union (unwittingly) brought an edition that was clearly put out by a Christian missionary organization. The school's reaction was to hold a public burning of the book, presumably to register its distaste for Christian interpretation of Jewish texts. All I could think when I heard this story was how humiliated that student must have felt, and what poor judgment the school showed, whose primary concern should have been the child's feelings. A quiet word to the student and/or the student's parents about a more appropriate edition could easily have rectified that situation without causing anyone any embarrassment.

I tend to judge people by appearances too, though I try not to let on too much lest I hurt them. I am often surprised by what they REALLY think, as you were here, Trep. And when I learned that Israel exists today because of secular Russian Bundists and their ideal of a Jewish State (and refusal to settle for anything less than the land of our heritage), I had newfound respect for them. We owe them big.

Posted by: Shimshonit | Jul 13, 2008 8:50:36 PM

A heartwarming and painfully honest post...the kind of story that you tell better than almost anyone else out there.

You can tell a lot about a society - and how it values knowledge and learning - by how much respect it offer its books.

Posted by: Elisson | Jul 13, 2008 10:46:25 PM

Erm..."offers."

Posted by: Elisson | Jul 13, 2008 10:46:46 PM

We all tend to be judgemental, especially about what we deem important. We tend to assume the other person does not consider it important. At least you have the honesty to admit it.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Jul 13, 2008 11:06:58 PM

another great lesson, Trep.

Posted by: Hadassah | Jul 14, 2008 2:52:42 AM

Excellent post. Very meaningful, very well done, very honest. This one really hit home for me. Thank you for writing it.

Posted by: Gail | Jul 14, 2008 3:32:53 AM

"During much of Jewish history the idea of each child in a family owning their own copy would have been preposterous!"

During much of Jewish history the idea of each family owning their own copy would have been preposterous!

"I assume that in Russia she was called a Jew and that the word was not meant as a compliment by those who used it."

here in america we generally refer to the russian jews simply as russians. they resent this because a) many are not from russia b) "russian" has an ethnic connotation that excludes jews (it is not analogous to calling someone "american")

"russians" sometimes ask me how i picked up a (very) little russian. i always forget and respond that i married a russian (rather than someone from russia). they stare at me in disbelief and wonder how a kippah-wearing guy could marry a non-jew.

Posted by: Lion of Zion | Jul 14, 2008 7:23:50 AM

Trep, this is my first time posting, though I've been reading you for a while.

I think what you explained to her was probably the best way to go. Always try to build people up!

As an aside, I just made aliya about a month ago, and while I was packing up my seforim I was going through some of the ones I didn't need, duplicates etc. I then came across my first chumash, and was tempted to first put it on the not-going pile, and then thought to myself (being somewhat sentimental at times), how can I just get rid of my first chumash, the one sefer that started me in my learning. (I still have it, and even sat down with my son to learn a bit from it).

I'm glad that she has a bit of that yiddishe spark to know that there is a chashivus (importance) to the chumash.

Posted by: Eliezer | Jul 14, 2008 10:33:57 AM

Here's my favorite hand-me-down story:
When I was around ten years old, my father took me to a used book sale at our local JCC. I found a dictionary that I liked, and brought it to him for approval. His eyes widened, and he told me that he'd had just the same dictionary when he was a young boy. As we were waiting in line, he opened the cover, and his name, in perfect third-grade handwriting, looked back at him. Turns out that my grandmother had gone through her basement and donated a bunch of things to the JCC sale...
And so we bought back his book for fifty cents!

Posted by: toby | Jul 14, 2008 11:48:32 AM

This made me think of a few things.

Like every teacher I've ever had has said, the really stupid people are the ones who never ask because they are afraid of looking stupid.

Everyone can be ungenerous in their estimations of others. You are big enough to quickly see it and fix it, which doesn't surprise me because you seem like a kind person for sure.

Nice essay as usual.

Posted by: Alice | Jul 14, 2008 3:24:50 PM

That was an excellent post. Thank you.

Posted by: The Back of the Hill | Jul 15, 2008 12:59:43 AM

Thank you for such a beautiful post.. it sent shivers down my spine.

Posted by: zemirah | Jul 16, 2008 1:59:56 AM

Trep, thanks for giving this lady your help. I grew up in the Soviet Jewry movement, and 'the Russians' are a soft spot for me.

So few people seem to understand what a miracle it is that such a large portion of European community managed to survive the Shoah, was then cut off from the Jewish world by the Soviets, and finally recovered by the Jewish world.

So this miracle took place in our time, and a lot of people decided to get snippy because Russian Jews didn't come out of this crucible acting exactly like our great-grandparents? ("He HAD a hat!")

Once again, thanks for helping her out.

Posted by: balabusta in blue jeans | Jul 20, 2008 10:34:36 PM

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