Seeking: Lightly-Used Bookshelf In Jerusalem

Just bring the books you haven’t read yet, he suggests, trying to be helpful. He will never understand. Because he was born Here – There, at Home (soon). Because his books are mainly contained on the shared bookshelf in the hallway, the quasi-Beit Midrash containing modern Midrash and ancient poetry, the usual. He has a book on “the easy way to quit smoking,” but it’s tucked under a pile of other books, under the pack of cigarette filters he’s been looking for for weeks now.

There are certain books I re-read once a year, around the season I first read them. My top three: The Adults, Women, Food, and God, and The Realm of Possibility. Because, like going in for a yearly physical, I need to check to see what condition my condition is in; do the same words turn me on in that same way they used to, or was I just naive? I need to confirm for myself the truth of these pages and their effects on me.

I have heard, and of course, read, about the amorous relationships between readers and their beloved literary materials; having recently read a memoir reflecting on one woman’s personal journey through the entirety of the Babylonian Talmud, and having swooned at many an Aramaic phrase myself, I am not immune to this particular affliction of readers’ romance. Still, as I review every orgasmic gasp I have released uncontrollably while reading the blurb on the back of a book cover, or even at the sheer array of the whole store display, I still find particular sentimentality on shelves in my bedroom in Michigan. Most of these books were read elsewhere, seeing as I have not actually lived in this house, only visited since my family moved while I was in college. But it’s still mine in that cozy way where nothing changes and my record cover of Prince’s Controversy greets me every time. The Hair record cover is perched on my shelf as well, shielding the stacks of Judy Blumes behind it. It’s so…mine.

And nothing has brought out this romantic blush quite like the challenge of packing all my material belongings into three suitcases, not to exceed 50 lb. each. In my head, books cannot possibly weigh that much. Oh, but they can.

I have two overflowing boxes of composition notebooks I have journaled in since eighth grade, and I want to take them with me. To another country, where I have lived for some time now, but now it will be Home. And it is not a true Home without a bookshelf to match. I want to be able to flip through pages of incoherent doodles and song lyrics that felt deeper than they were, and existential crises that felt deeper than they were, and all the parts of me I have found means to settle on paper. I want to bring these things with me, so I can recognize myself, even though I have evolved so much.

I purchased a set of Baal Shem Tov commentaries on the weekly Torah portion, during my gap year. It has been five years and I have not opened it, but I have aspired. I do not imagine this changing instantly, blossoming into the weekly oasis of warm, holy growth I was starry-eyed enough to believe I could maintain in Real Life; but whatever happens, I want it on my shelf.

I remember reading The Virgin Suicides in a tiny, small purse-sized, floral-covered edition during one of my winter break stints in Israel. I have read it, but it’s “one of those books” that is worth having on my shelf. But, something’s gotta give.

There are self-help books I’ve already read cover-to-cover, but it feels presumptuous to leave them out of my suitcases offhand, as though I fancy myself sufficiently helped. But there is just only so much room in my suitcases. Three suitcases.

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Will I eventually want to re-read On Being a Jewish Feminist, to revisit the essays that irritated my more Orthodox-reactionary sensibilities in high school and would most likely resonate positively with me now? Probably. I pack the familiar copy of Susannah Heschel next to two of her father’s works, A Passion for Truth, and God in Search of Man, feeling ironic. When I weigh my first suitcase and realize I must rearrange and divide this library among the three bags, I vow not to separate the Heschel family. This would not be the first time in this moving process I have wondered whimsically if I am losing my mind.

There is an advance copy of Losers, with typos and all, by Hevria’s nerd guru, Matthue Roth. This was the beginning, and a whole decade later I am slightly more normal (perhaps?), still friends with Matthue, and somehow a part of this creative crew. The book is slim enough, so sentimentality wins again.

I am not above caring about the aesthetics of my books, imagining people’s reactions to the colorful spines that somehow represent my general “vibe.” I am “curating my space,” and the words I want to keep me company, along with their associative meanings and the stories I tell about them, beyond the stories printed on their pages. I love finding a good abandoned book on a street corner, or covered in dust in Jerusalem’s treasured Book Gallery, or amidst the organized chaos of Detroit’s independent Book Beat. I love holding onto a book, and I also love letting it go; I like to bequeath finished books to friends, communal shelves, and hole-in-the-wall used bookstores that will compensate me with a few shekels that will go toward my next coffee at the place next door. This is a romance, after all, not an obsession.

Last weekend, I visited New York City, celebrating Purim back at my alma mater. I trekked out to Brooklyn to visit a close friend, mustering up patience I could never manage when I actually lived there; I actually really cherished the opportunity for a solid chunk of reading time as I transitioned out of a more social Shabbat. I reached an almost-meditative state reading One God Clapping, and felt hopeful again about the potential to restart at any moment, to travel, to rewire my mind over time. 

In Brooklyn, we went out dancing, and the club was playing Motown all night. It felt like a tease to my sentimental soul, playing on all my debatably-deep reflections on what home means to me. As I embark on this Journey, this Aliyah, “ascent,” or what-have-you, I first make pilgrimage to the City that feels more significant to me now that I spend my free time in Jerusalem explaining Broad City to a native Israeli. This City is a part of me too.

Stevie Wonder’s voice sweeps the dark, neon-lit club, and the people around me seem too hip to not be in a movie at this moment. I would believe it if the credits started rolling; because what is my life…grateful sigh. The deejays (who, frankly, seem to be just hitting “play” on a Best of Motown album, but I am not complaining) hype up the crowd because “it’s Motown niiiiiiiight!” and I just smile knowingly in my place. Motown – that’s me! That’s mine! Even though I did not appreciate the music or its history until I studied it in a sociology seminar and promptly demanded my mom and I take a Passover field trip to the Motown Museum, so I could intellectualize the music she grew up consuming, the melodies that feel like part of my heritage too.

As I swing my hips around, shaking off my self-consciousness, I consider how I might articulate this meaning-laden moment, about how I do not know how to answer “where are you from?” anymore but I feel that my Home follows me from place to place in a way, because somehow this club in Brooklyn must have known. I laugh lovingly, because I take myself too seriously and I need to stop thinking so much when I should be dancing.

Some sentiments won’t fit on a bookshelf, certainly not in my hot pink and purple suitcases, and not even in any number of books themselves. But in any event, I am bringing some selected works and a whole lot of sentiments that burst beyond the cracked spines and folded corners of my beloved literature. I am setting up Home, whatever that means, and you better believe that to me, it means a bookshelf.