Learning to tell time
Although possessed of fairly strong will power, I find that my resistance withers when I get within a block of a second-hand bookstore. Since stumbling upon the bookshops of Brookline and Cambridge, Mass., as an undergraduate, I have become an inveterate scrounger at any second-hand bookseller, hunting for the out-of-print, the rare, the fascinating.
Many years ago, while perusing the “foreign” table at one of those university-auxiliary book sales, I came upon a gold-stamped title Die Heilige Schrift on a stout black tome. As I leafed through this good-condition Leopold Zunz German translation of the Hebrew scriptures, I deemed it to be a worthwhile find. Flipping to the inside cover, even before I noticed the penciled–in price of $2 (!), I was drawn to the flawless gothic fountain-penmanship on the flyleaf.
This copy of the Bible was presented to a bar mitzvah boy in the Berlin suburb of Spandau, stamped and signed on behalf of the board of the “Gemliat Hessed” humanitarian organization, with the presentation date of Oct. 22, 1938.
Like most American Jews of my time and place, I grew up more familiar with the names and dates of the Holocaust than with 1,000 years of German or European Jewish history, to say nothing of 3,000 years of Jewish history. So not only was I struck by the place name “Spandau,” most renowned as Hess’ prison, I was also struck by the date – the date! Oct. 22, 1938, just three weeks before Kristallnacht! I had stumbled upon a real historical relic!
Yet the most important bit of information was the last: under the German inscriptions of the secular and Jewish date was written the only piece of information on the page in Hebrew: “Shabbat Bereshit.”
For me, that changed everything.
By this time in my life, I had already celebrated “Shabbat Bereshit” numerous times. Just saying the phrase evokes the feeling: the last Shabbat in Tishrei, the culmination of all the High Holidays, from Slichot and Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot and Simchat Torah; the end of the holiday season and the return to the normal pace of life; a new beginning of another year of Torah reading and study.
Like the discovery that the town of Auschwitz or Oswiecim actually has green trees and a blue sky rather than the black-and-white I always pictured in my mind’s eye, the discovery of this Chumash from a long-ago bar mitzvah changed my frame of reference and understanding completely and forever.
I had always thought of the date of Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, as a watershed date, which indeed it was. However, I came to appreciate it in terms of an adjacent and ultimately more enduring and significant watershed date: Shabbat Bereshit. I do believe that centuries hence, when Nov. 9 becomes a historical footnote even in Jewish history (this process has already begun, as that was the date of the Berlin Wall’s collapse), Shabbat Bereshit will endure as a moment of transcendence, renewal and hope for the Jewish People.
Perhaps as I grew older and learned more, I became more attached to beginnings than to endings.