MAY 16, 2021
I LIVE IN an old house. On the third floor, there is a small space, six feet by five, bigger than a closet but smaller than a room. The wooden door is beautiful; seeing it, you wouldn’t guess that the inside was left unfinished at the time the house was built in 1905. I don’t remember when I started using it as a Genizah.
The Hebrew word “Genizah” — meaning “to hide or put away” — refers to a storage place in a synagogue or a cemetery where old Jewish books go to die. They might contain the name of God in any of its variations. In Judaism, names play a crucial role: they hold the secret to their owner’s identity. There is no higher secret than the divine name. Placing sacred books in the Genizah is a way to protect them from falling into the wrong hands. You could say that the Genizah is both a holy place and a dustbin. Whenever these storage places become full, someone in the community takes out the content and buries it. That way sacred books are safe forever.
Obviously, Genizahs have enormous historical value. Items in them — mostly prayer books, volumes of the Talmud, and other Judaic texts — represent the memory of their community. Genizahs might be cleaned out once every 50 years, maybe once a century. Or maybe never, like some basements over whose maintenance their owners always procrastinate. The most famous Genizah, at least in modern times, is in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, in Old Cairo, Egypt. A collection of 400,000 manuscript fragments representing about 1,000 years of Jewish history, from 870 CE to the 19th century. More specifically, medieval texts from Eastern and North Africa, mostly in Aramaic and Hebrew, and including fragments from Maimonides. In 1896, samples were taken to England by a couple of Scottish scholars, who showed them to their Cambridge colleague Solomon Schechter. This led to an astonishing period of revival in Jewish scholarship.
If you ask my family, they will tell you that I don’t like keeping things around. If something isn’t of value anymore, I don’t see the need to keep it. This is true — with one exception: books and other literary artifacts. I keep correspondence, first drafts of manuscripts, photographs, posters, newspapers, and so on. I don’t save anything, just what I consider valuable, and that, of course, is an important question. I’m interested in the written word. I want to preserve items that are a statement of the period in which they came to life. I don’t know when I developed this habit; it must have been in my teens. I wasn’t a bookish boy. In fact, I unequivocally disliked reading. My 80-year-old mother likes to remind me of this. I preferred the outdoors: hiking, camping, playing soccer. It never crossed my mind while growing up that I would be a writer or a scholar or a translator or a publisher. Books were for awkward people. They were unexciting.
In retrospect, books have been my most trustworthy friends. I spend my days with them: reading them, writing them, opening them up in front of others — students, including incarcerated people, middle and high schoolers, and senior citizens. When I really think about it, there are very few moments of my day when books aren’t around. In a personal essay published in Literarische Welt in 1931, Walter Benjamin, the German cultural critic, describes his passion for collecting books. He says that the book collector relates to books in a way that is different from a book buyer or a library borrower. A book buyer has a pecuniary relationship: the person buys the book to read it, after which the book is put aside. It might end in a bookshelf; it might be given away; or it might be thrown into the garbage. A library patron borrows a book, reads it, and returns it to the archive.
And then there’s the book publisher. I’m one of them. The publisher makes books, not his own (though he might do this as well) but other people’s. He views books as products, or let’s say merchandise. His objective is to bring them to people, to sell them. To these three types of book-related individuals — the buyer, the borrower, and the publisher — the specific copy of a given book is irrelevant: as long as they are reading, say, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, it doesn’t matter if it’s a first edition, if it has a beautiful cover, or if someone has inserted some marginalia into it. By contrast, a book collector looks for a specific copy; no other one will do. That copy has particular value: it might be a first edition, it might be signed, it might have been owned by someone of distinction. The collector wants that copy to sit on a shelf where it will be accompanied by others of significant relevance. Curating this collection is a statement of ownership: this gathering of items, it seems to say, forms a family, one that was previously dispersed throughout the vast universe of books; and it is vital that the family members stay together.
Benjamin was a mid-20th-century Marxist who looked at culture from the perspective of dialectical materialism. In other words, he was interested in a kind of messianism: social progress, leading to the end of history. He could never find an academic job, which is a good thing in my eyes because academia would have destroyed his creativity. I have seen too many geniuses wither away in cold and snobbish hallways. “The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone,” Benjamin says.
One of the finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might never have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely and abandoned in the market place and bought it to give it its freedom — the way the prince bought a beautiful slave girl in The Arabian Nights. To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.
More than 25 years ago, I started placing items in my Genizah. It began with a couple of office boxes that contained my first attempts to write in English, as well as stuff I had accumulated over the years since I emigrated from Mexico in the mid-1980s. When I arrived in New York City, I had with me a few boxes of books I had found it impossible to part with. I talk about those books in the first chapter of my 2001 memoir, On Borrowed Words. Soon, the door of the Genizah was covered with manuscripts — letters from family and friends. It was an indistinct space, without personality — a closet really, where I placed material I didn’t want to lie around elsewhere. In time, the question of personality became essential. As I developed as a writer, and especially as I came to focus on my Mexican and Jewish background, it became clear to me that the Genizah was becoming the secluded room where I stored aspects of myself. I wasn’t hiding them from anyone; by now, the effort of housing them in that space was a matter of survival. These items were a statement of who I had been.
This past November, I finally cleaned out the Genizah. It was an agonizing project. Not only had it grown in uncontainable ways — items covered every inch of it up to the celling in such a way that only spiders could find their way around, and every time I opened the door some fleeting article tried to escape, so I had to close the door quickly and forcefully — but, as my wife and children often repeated to me, it had become a fire hazard.
But it wasn’t the Genizah alone that had grown; the entire third floor, or most of it, had become a library. Its content was rather specific. In my journeys through Latin America, the United States, Europe, Israel, and the Middle East, I had realized that what I was interested in, what I often wrote about — the intersections of Jewishness in the Hispanic world — was off the radar of major Judaica and Latino collections. No one was interested in these items, at least not comprehensively. There were libraries with specific interests — for instance, Yiddish literature in general and Latin American in particular, as at the Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts, not far from where I live, or at the YIVO branches in New York or Buenos Aires. But gathering, say, Argentine Jewish literature or Peruvian Jewish literature or the literature of the marranos, not as separate collections but as part of a whole, wasn’t done anywhere. That, I told myself, was my contribution: to build a reservoir of material capable of mapping out the experience of Latino Jews from before 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, up to the present.
I’m not a millionaire. Fortunately, I have enough money not to need more. Whenever I’ve had extra, I have used it to travel, to buy books and manuscripts. My collection reflects my idiosyncrasies. I love translations of the Bible, of Borges, of García Márquez, of Pablo Neruda, of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and of Don Quixote; and I’m enamored with dictionaries and their makers: Covarrubias’s Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana o Española, Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, the OED, Webster’s Third. These subcategories are also part of what I’ve accumulated over the years. They are linked to the manuscripts I have been given as presents by friends from across the globe, correspondence I have exchanged with politicians, activists, rabbis, writers, poets, artists, educators, scholars, and a slew of common folks. The letters alone must number close to 50,000. I’m not known for being short of words. The languages of the collection include Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Ladino, French, Polish, Russian, German, and K’iche’, among others.
Some of the books and other items in the collection are unique; some are old and others new. When I was in the midst of research for my book The Seventh Heaven: Travels Through Jewish Latin America (2019), I visited the agricultural colonies in the Pampas funded by Baron Maurice de Hirsch. While there, I acquired all kinds of Yiddish material related to theater, poetry, the novel, and music. I fell for Jevel Katz, a Lithuanian-born theater star who immigrated to Argentina, where he became a popular comedian and performer of tangos in Yiddish — or better, in “Casteidish,” the local mix of Yiddish and Spanish. He was known as “the Jewish Carlos Gardel.” Yiddish in Argentina was a voracious language that thrived for decades, as it did, although more modestly, in Cuba, Brazil, and elsewhere. I followed the same method in connection with the so-called “rat route” that former Nazis took to Paraguay, Bolivia, Chile, and other South American locations, and also in Northern Mexico and the American Southwest, as I pursued the roots of crypto-Jewish life. In Israel, I spent time with Argentines, Uruguayans, Brazilians, and others who had made Aliyah in the ’70s.
When I finally took my family’s injunction to clean out my collection seriously, I invited Aaron Lansky to breakfast. The founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, he is an expert in the art of rescuing books. I described my collection: the Genizah as well as the library, which by then included thousands of books, filling various rooms in which I had added shelves, and eventually spilling over into a climate-controlled bunker at the institution where I work. I joked that, on top of being a fire hazard, the collection was also a health hazard. The staircase to the third floor was significantly narrowed because of the piles of books that had accumulated on each side. I stumbled over a pile one night after consulting a handful of dictionaries and fell down, causing several other piles to collapse over me. That, I told Aaron, was the catalyst: I didn’t want to be killed by my own collection.
I asked for his advice. I did the same with a number of other close friends and confidants, including Ken Schoen, the Judaica bookseller, who lives and works in a 1930s WPA-built firehouse in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, and whose motto is “books with a past, looking for a future.” Soon I had a number of institutions in Israel and the United States interested in an acquisition. The ordeal was torturous. For starters, it means inviting them to visit. I am not a shy person, but letting others see this portion of my house, in an order that might be perceived as chaos, made me uncomfortable. I suppressed that discomfort because I realized that the worst that could happen wasn’t the collection burning down. I was in my mid-50s, and growingly aware of my own mortality. I didn’t want to leave the decision of where to place the collection to my survivors — an unfair burden given its magnitude. And I wanted to know that it would be available to others. I wanted to make sure it would serve its prime function: to foster the study of Latin American Jewish civilization and of Jews in the Hispanic world generally.
After intense negotiations, the collection was acquired by the Herbert D. Katz Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The COVID-19 virus hit in early 2020, just as the contract was being drafted. The pandemic naturally delayed the transfer of the material. Arthur Kiron, Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections at the Center, kept monitoring the situation. Finally, in late summer, he received the go ahead. It took me several months to pack my library. Opening up the Genizah in order to empty its contents was traumatic. This sacred place contained everything I ever was and would ever be. The same went for my books. They would no longer sit in the place that had been theirs for a long time. Moreover, I needed to put every single item in clearly cataloged boxes. The process wasn’t just physically exhausting. Psychologically, I felt as if I were unraveling, splitting from my own past. It wasn’t that I was renouncing the books; I was putting them in a foster home. During those months, I engaged in a dialogue with them: a dialogue about separation. I also donated 1,000 or so books to public libraries and to specialized booksellers. And I gave away some items to students, friends, and acquaintances.
The moving truck arrived on a sunny November morning. Two immigrant workers, one originally from outside Lima, Peru, the other from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, were extraordinarily careful in the treatment they gave to the more than 150 shipping boxes. They took the entire day to load the truck. In the late afternoon, the three of us sat on my porch and drank tea. Although they didn’t ask, as per company policy, I told them what the boxes contained. They told me that, up until their arrival in the United States, they had never seen a Jew in their lives in their respective countries of origin. I felt satisfied that the collection, with any luck, would help correct that ignorance. Jews in Latin America are insular people, forming communities that deliberately limit their intercourse with the outside world as a survival mechanism.
The Genizah on the third floor is now empty. So are the shelves in the several rooms of my personal library. Not entirely empty, of course: I kept about 100 volumes, from which I just couldn’t separate. I’m not planning on dying in the immediate future, and I’m sure I will continue filling up the shelves. Then — slowly — I will ship these artifacts to Philadelphia to be next to their peers, where they belong.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author, most recently, of The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pitt) and Selected Translations: 2000-2020 (Pitt).