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I don’t want to throw out my father’s Jewish library, but I don’t want it

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to bintel@forward.com.


Dear Bintel,

My father died a few weeks ago. His death was not unexpected, but the grief has lingered, arriving in waves deeper and more overwhelming that I expected. In sorting through the family estate, one aspect I can’t figure out what to do with are his Jewish books. My father had a large library, with many Jewish books from the ‘50s and ‘60s (if I had to guess), or sometimes later. They’re outdated, in a way, but also I imagine would be fascinating for someone interested in Jewish history or content. Unfortunately, I know I will never read them. But I can’t bear to throw them out. Is there some place I can donate them? Or does nobody else want them, either? I’m heartbroken they won’t find a home.

Signed,
Bereaved and Bereft

Dear Bereft,

I’m so sorry for your loss. I can suggest some options, but I first want to embrace the emotional reality of this process. When you say you can’t bear to throw out the books, I hear something of the way you might see these books as an extension of your father — his interests, his commitments, the way he spent his time. So much of his life is likely captured on those shelves. And I can see how discarding them might feel, in this moment, like a grave dishonor. It’s almost as if you’re saying his interests and passions were worthless!

But another thing to remember is that your father absorbed the wisdom of his books throughout his lifetime. He chose them, read them, kept them. The teachings and the words all shaped his relationship to Judaism and, by extension, the Judaism he passed onto you.

The books did their job. They might find a second home, but if they don’t, they have already served their purpose with honor. Not all books need to endure forever to be precious. If you do end up throwing them out, you can thank each book for its role and its wisdom, and not worry you are dishonoring your father.

That said, with some energy and determination, you might match some of these books to new homes!

There is no great answer for what to do with incredible Jewish libraries like this one. If any entrepreneurs are reading this, I’ve long felt the Jewish community would be greatly served by an organization that accepted mass book donations and then sorted them to the right places!

But as it stands, you have a few options.

First, take pictures of all the books you want to donate. If it’s a lot, you can stack them up and take a picture that captures many titles at once. Avital Morris, a PhD history student at Yale, recently took charge of rehoming her grandfather’s collection of Jewish books after he died and she told me these photographs made it easy to post the collection to social media and share the available book titles with people who might want them. She found it particularly moving to capture the books together, on their original shelves, grouped as her grandfather had them. She notes, however, that if you box the books, make sure to take pictures of what titles are in each box, so that if someone wants a book you don’t have to go through fifty boxes to find it!

Ultimately, she and her mother, Elisheva Urbas, estimate they donated about 1200 books. This included 500 going to a used bookstore, 500 going to individual people who wanted them, about 100 books going to a Jewish used bookstore which picked them up, and another 100 going to various institutions, in addition to the number of books they decided to keep within the family. Urbas described the process here. For individual pick-ups, Morris specifically suggested posting on Facebook groups dedicated to swapping Jewish books. Similar Facebook groups exist in different locations, just make sure your books fit the criteria.

So it can be done, but it’s not simple!

Some other options include calling local prisons to see if their libraries are interested in book donations, and checking in with your local synagogues and JCC to see if their library has a donation process. They might not, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. And definitely don’t overlook the used bookstores! Most stores will have someone on staff dedicated to handling potential sales, and they can tell you if your collection would be of interest. You can call shops in your area, or search for used bookstores in the broader area, if you would be comfortable shipping the books (which can also be time-absorbing). It’s worth calling a few stores to get a sense of general interest;most will offer to pay something for titles of interest.

You can also look for unique opportunities. Some cities have specifically relevant options, like this Jewish one-man book operation in Brooklyn or this volunteer bookshop in Baltimore, which is currently closed, but gives you an idea of what to search for in your area.

Those are your options, more or less: Used book shops, Jewish institutions, Jewish social media book swaps, and generally posting the collection to social media to see if there is individual interest. Offering individual pick-up can be rewarding, but also time-intensive, as it requires coordinating many one-time hand-offs.

Whichever path you pursue, I hope it brings you peace of mind, and you take joy in all the gifts your father’s love of books left behind.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to bintel@forward.com.

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