I believe books should be honored.
When I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the mid 90s, part of West End Ave closed for one evening every fall and hundreds of Jews danced in the streets. The cause for such merriment? They’d finished reading the Torah. If you looked closely you’d see that amid the bouncing bodies a Torah made its way through the crowd. It was in fact the guest of honor.
Most passersby from the neighborhood were familiar with the annual tradition and walked by with little more than a curious glance. Others were taken aback. I always passed through with mixed emotions: warmth (because for me, as well, this was a familiar ritual), curiosity (because despite the familiarity I could never keep track of when the holiday was coming so it always caught me a little off guard), and longing. Longing because I too am Jewish and despite my atheism, I always wanted to be a part of this tradition in particular – this joyous celebration of a book.
As a writer and publisher I am especially intrigued by this book. It’s a bestseller for sure, which an ancient agent must have had great foresight to sign up. The writing might’ve been a little scattered and the character development weak, but the author was a big shot so it was bound to sell. Or so the pitch might have read.
The Torah is a rare book in many respects: a work of literature and of art. It’s handwritten on a scroll of sewn parchment. It dons an ornate cloth covering which signals to anyone who sees it that underneath lives something precious. It’s handled with care and awe: every week someone from the congregation carefully lifts the Torah from the Ark (no ordinary book case) and carries it around the synagogue so everyone has a chance to touch it before the scroll is unrolled for reading. It’s a sensuous, tactile experience.
I remember this ceremony from childhood at a conservative synagogue in New Jersey. As the Torah came around I sensed this was an object infused with meaning. It was to be treated with respect, as were the other prayer books. (When a book accidentally dropped on the floor, for example, the clumsy congregant picked it up and kissed it.) The Torah traveled the Temple and everyone sang. Those within reach stretched their fingertips out to the Torah before pressing them to their lips. I did it once. I remember the softness of the velvet cover under my fingers.
This year, once again, we will dance in the streets for Simhat Torah. I say “we” because this time I will join my neighbors in Cambridge, Massachusetts and dance. Synagogues the world over will have finished reading and discussing the same book on the same day, making this the world’s biggest book club. (Oprah’s got nothing on this one.) And also on this day they will start reading again from the beginning.
As a Jew I’ll dance for the longevity of this book, for its power of unity throughout an extraordinary and often tragic history, for the stories that have survived and inspired over the years.
As a publisher I’ll dance for the reverence of books – real books, physical books of the kind you can carry and dance with and admire as an artifact, a work of art in some cases, perhaps dying art. This year, in the age of e-books, the Kindle and online publishing which may ultimately change our notion of what a book is – this year I’ll dance for the look and feel and heft of the book. This year I may reach out and kiss the Torah.
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