JUDI'S JOURNAL 05/12/2012: Beshert and books

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By Judi Siegal

Sometimes I believe in coincidences and sometimes I believe that things are fated to occur. This phenomenon is called Beshert in Yiddish. It’s a Jewish thing that circumstances happen for a reason — as in this story of a group of books.

It’s amazing how this all came about. Last fall, I wrote a column about a genizah, a storage place for worn-out holy Jewish books and documents. It just so happened that shortly after I wrote the article, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture at a synagogue in Gainesville which was given by Dr. Rebecca Jefferson, the head librarian at the Price Library of Judaica at the University of Florida.

Coincidentally (?) her topic was a genizah, and we struck up a lively conversation about books and Jewish history. I didn’t realize how soon we were to connect again.

A few months ago, a loyal couple from Citrus County who loves this column contacted me. They explained that they had some books they wanted to donate to me from a    collection by a now-deceased rabbi. They considered me because they knew I would give these treasures a good home. After much e-mailing back and forth and coordinating dates, we were finally able to meet just recently. What I was about to receive sent shivers down my spine.

The lovely couple was unaware of the true value of the donation, but one look at the books had me so excited that I felt like Solomon Schechter, the famous scholar who discovered a treasure trove of Jewish valuables in a genizah in Cairo. In my hands I had prayer books with gold leaf edges from 1860, another from 1915, and a Bible reference from 1906! All were in good condition. I also found some classic works on Jewish history and legends from 1941, which I dismissed as not so important. (What did I know?) I also found a commentary on Isaiah written by a Christian scholar, which I thought very interesting. That, too, was about 100 years old. Of course, I was curious as to why a rabbi would have a book by a Christian scholar. I explained to the couple that either these books would be buried because they were holy or they could find their way to a library. (I hoped for the latter).

When I arrived home, I got to work. Within minutes I had Dr. Jefferson’s number and she personally answered my call. I explained what I had in my possession and not only did she remember me but she was as excited as I was over these treasures. She assured me that all were valuable. She said that the Nazis destroyed many volumes, and my 1940s selections could fill that void. As for the Christian scholar, she knew that name right off, even the publisher, and explained the rabbi probably used it for reference. As for the other books, even if they were duplicates, this was fine, as these might replace copies the library already had that might be damaged or hard to read. The more I listened, the better this all got. How fortunate of me to have met Dr. Jefferson! This knowledge led me right to the best place for these volumes.

The story does not end here. There was the problem of getting them to the library, which is in Gainesville. Here, Beshert intervened again. It just so happened that a guest from Gainesville was visiting my congregation, Beth Israel of Ocala, for the weekend, and agreed to take the books back with her to the library. I was thrilled, because I know what humidity can do to books, especially when a silverfish jumped out of the box!

Now, I could have sold these volumes to an antique dealer or kept them myself, but because of their religious and historical value, I decided to donate them to an institution where they would be safe and preserved. Doing something like this is called a mitzvah, a good deed — in this case, to preserve Judaism in a very special way, and I had several people all in on the act!

You will never convince me that all this was coincidence. There were too many things that fell into place for this all to happen. These books were destined to be saved and they fell right into my hands.

They don’t call us The People of the Book for nothing. May we all grab opportunity by the hands and turn it for the good.

(Update: Dr. Jefferson informs me that while the books were not in the rare category, the 1860 holiday volume is scarce and can only be found in 18 libraries in the world. She is grateful for the donation for its historical value and its contribution to the legacy of Jewish history. I couldn’t be more pleased!)

Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Ocala with her husband, Phil. She can be reached at niejudis@yahoo.com.