A couple weeks ago, an amazing email invitation arrived:
The Jewish Book Council is opening its offices for an exclusive “Raid the Shelves” night — only for Birthright Israel NEXT, NY alumni. Sift through hundreds of great Jewish books and help yourself to a free armload of the best Jewish literature in town! (limit 5 books per person)
I waited for Elise in the lobby of a high rise in the garment district not long after eating a kasha knish at Zabar’s where I bought Plain Russian Bread #1 for Misha’s parents. Just prior I had gone to see Michael Chabon, promoting his new book at Columbia, read a great essay called “I was Edgar Allan Poe,” which quoted in full Ulalume.
At precisely 6:30 we found ourselves on the 4th floor waiting with a group of similar strangers in front of a double doorway with the words Jewish C….Center etched on the glass. The doors opened and we filed through a hallway that slowed at a registration clipboard and candy strewn table that sat before another set of doors leading to a conference room of tables stacked with fresh laid books. I had expected dusty boxes of donated Jew vs. Jew’s, Roth, and Roth! I was very excited but told Elise I wouldn’t spaz out like I did at the JEC event we went to in March about baking challah.
Inside the room, those at the front of the crowd were already perambulating the tables like at a buffet or comic con with fall coats, backpacks, and briefcases weighing down one hand, while someone asked my name, no, last name. For half an hour no one made eye contact and existential worries were subsumed by more tangible matters, filling new black JBC zipper totes.
I quickly saw there was a ton of inventory, and that rushing was unnecessary as boxes and razor blades lay in wait beneath the tables. My second instinct was to look for the promised refreshments; I found nothing but styrofoam bowls of MnMs, sugar coated fruit chews, Pepperidge Farm party packs, Hershey’s Kisses, Enteman’s Chocolate Chip cookies, snacks that must have just been bought at Duane Reade.
The first thing I said was, “Oh my God. These books are real.” Laid out, nary a cash register in sight, was the front window display of bookstores down the street: recently and soon to be released books. The books were divided into sections: contemporary Jewish life, Jewish thought, memoir, fiction, politics, Holocaust.
I no longer work at a bookstore or publishing house where free books are thrown out like yellow pages. Now I get books free when friends are about to go to Strand, at cafes with free libraries, and the stoops of Carroll Gardens. (I have yet to corresponded with the powers that be that dispense review copies, though maybe I should do that I like free books so much. So much that I had to cancel my library accounts because I’d bring too many home to read or to store.) Why JBC received some of these titles is obscure, since those that have no Jewish content presumably have a (often unannounced) Jewish character or author.
I was very pleased with the event! I could have used a little more of a pep rally from a Birthright organizer though I appreciate that there were no name tags (but there was some photography — we were asked to not smile, just act like we’re reading). No one said, ‘Welcome have a great time so good to see you this book’s great no problem sorry hope you like milanos. Would you like to sign up here for an email list so you can start a book club since you’re all taking copies of this book?’ Elise and I talked with Natalie, a Birthright employee at the event, and made some friends who, like us, stood at the radiator trying to whittle down armfuls of books down to five.
I made a friend and gave him my handmade business card, urging him to share it with his friends there, who he knows from their hometown of Albany. I tried to make another friend but something didn’t come across. He was holding a copy of American Nerd by Benjamin Nugent. “Are you a nerd?” I asked. “My girlfriend got it,” he replied.
I tried to infuse some spirit and at one point clapped my hands at the head of the room and said loudly, “This is great,” trying to attract the attention of someone who would break into song and start handing out shakers and musical instruments. No one turned and Elise more quietly inspected some of the product, Dumbfounded: Big Money. Big Hair. Big Problems. Or Why Having It All Isn’t for Sissies by Matt Rothschild.
Near the end of the event I heard one of the young women in charge say to someone, “Take as many as you want…” after a night of urging people to politely acknowledge the idea of 5 book per.
So, this is what I got:
- Why This World: A biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser
- The Scenic Route: a novel by Binnie Kirshenbaum which I heard of from Bookslut and enjoyed this weekend thoroughly.
- Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son by Sholem Aleichem
- Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman
- Essential Pleasures: poetry edited by Robert Pinsky
- Yiddish Lands: a memoir by David G. Roskies
- Dancing in the Dark: a cultural history of the great depression by Morris Dickstein
- B: a novel by Jonathan Baumbach
- Hovering at a Low Altitude: the collected poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch
- American Nerd by Benjamin Nugent
- Sex, Drugs & Gefilte Fish: the HeeB storytelling collection
- Racial Fever: Freud and the Jewish Question by Eliza Slavet
- A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs by David Lehman
- The Jewish Body by Melvin Konner
If you want to borrow any of these books, the answer is yes. Books I didn’t take but were popular include: The Accidental Zionist, How We Decide, You or Someone Like You, Save the Deli, In Cheap We Trust, and Yiddish Swear Words. I heard last year there were cookbooks. Until next year, I will brainwash myself with poetry.
Thanks JBC and everyone who organized and ran this event. Btw,
The Mission of the Jewish Book Council
Promote the reading, writing
and publishing of quality
Jewish content books.
Serve as the continental center
for information about the North American
Jewish literary scene.
Serve as the coordinating body
of Jewish literary activity in