Friday, January 2, 2015

"Sacred Books of Brooklyn" by Viva Hammer - 2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

Sacred Books of Brooklyn


Viva Hammer

Even before I had his ring on my finger his books arrived.  Tomes of Talmud and Codes of Jewish Law that his mother had been calculating the moment to expel.  She engaged him to me for that alone: so she could fill the space he emptied to mine with more of her own.   She never discards books, only expels them to others.

I had pretty shelves from Ikea my brother in law had transported in his jalopy that broke down on the Verrazano Bridge between New Jersey and Brooklyn.  The shelves were towed right into my apartment.

I filled them with little things collected on my travels: pottery, wood, glass.  In between were empty spaces.  Restful empty spaces.

I had a large studio facing Prospect Park.  My things took up little space; I lived open and unencumbered.

He hadn't informed me when we became engaged about the obligation I had taken on regarding his books.  He was an Orthodox rabbi and we weren’t permitted to touch or be alone together but he was allowed (apparently) to move his chattels onto mine.  My little things were shoved aside and the empty spaces emptied of space.

My fiancĂ© was a scholar, the son of a scholar, from the sect of Brooklyn Jews who count their value in the numbers of books they hoard.  Those books were written in languages I, as an Orthodox woman, was appropriately illiterate in.  But I commanded empty spaces, so the scholars engaged themselves to me.  Value might also be reckoned in real estate in which to deposit books.

During our nine-week engagement, we contacted Frankel’s of Borough Park to order real bookshelves, shrankim, sturdy ones that could hold heavy tomes without sagging.  Perhaps a dozen arrived so massive that they formed a wall in the studio between the bedroom (composed of a double bed and a single bed divided during the menstrual days and their aftermath) and the living area.  The shrankim transformed my spacious studio into a cramped one bedroom.  The books faced the dining table, the learning table, because sacred books must not be witness to the sex act.  The sacred books say that the sex act is sacred but still, the sacred books cannot look on it.  Maybe it’s a kind of shatnez, an impermissible mixture of materials.  I never found out why and now I never will.

With our wedding money we went shopping in the Jewish bookstores of Brooklyn, because after his wedding a man is reborn as a jungerleit, and that entitles him to a crisp new library. 

(My pottery stayed wrapped for a decade).
A bookless friend working in television was amazed at the transformation of my apartment, and asked in a whisper, “Does he read all of them?” My husband looked up from his studies and shot back, “Look at the spines!”  For bookmarks, he used wadded tissues, cotton buds and books folded into each other so the spines cracked, and he did not rebind them.  He just bought new ones.

We moved so often.  My husband had a coveted Rabbinic position in Brighton Beach and we had to be in walking distance on the Sabbath, but I refused to give up my lovely studio facing Prospect Park.  So we had a weekday home at the Park and a Sabbath home on the Beach. Then I discovered bed bugs in the Beach home and fast found a new Beach home, but had to keep paying the rent at the old one, so we had two at the Beach and one in at the Park, and then when my daughter was born (the sacred books did not prevent conception), I capitulated: divested the Park apartment and consolidated everything in Brighton Beach. We packed and unpacked books, and my parents too, and anyone with hands.  The movings cost thousands. 

He did read them, though, and contributed to the collection, with pieces written in a language that I certainly couldn’t read, fortunately, because my literate friends whispered, “Did you know your husband wrote an article on why a woman can’t light Hanukkah candles?  Luckily no one reads that journal anymore!”  They comforted me. 

My husband was a feminist; he minored in Women’s Studies at Brooklyn College and let me keep my name.   A moderne [sic] man!  But with sacred words he could commune with the men in bound books.  Who had wives like me in working all day (heavy with children) in Flatbush or Borough Park to support their men’s library habits.  The men coming up with novellea on the unrights of those wives who anyway didn’t need to light the candles their husbands told them they couldn’t light.  Perhaps the women even transcribed their husbands’ cuneiform for the publishers so they should become famous and sit on the shelves of the next wife: me.

After he left the second Rabbinic position, we sojourned two months in downtown Brooklyn: the commute was much better the breadwinner (me).  Maintenance turned off the water and when the babysitter turned on the spigots nothing came so she left for the playground and when she returned the apartment was flooded.  She hadn’t turned the spigots off.

We had just moved; the books still boxed on the floor were under water.  The bottoms of the bookshelves, the sturdy shrankim, were damaged too and the insurance was fair and gave us money to replace them.  But we found we couldn’t, so we kept the water damaged shrankim and the moldy books and moved them to Washington.

There my pottery came out because I insisted that of the two built-ins on either side of the fireplace – one was for me.  I lovingly unpacked the pieces, presents to myself from another era.  

The shrankim and their contents have sat 13 years.  They were added to, with discipline.  I did not want to move more of them again, ever.  If he bought new books, he had to give away old ones.  He was ashamed; he would never have the library his father had with three copies of each new volume so his father could find one of them when he didn’t remember where he put the others.

We commissioned custom bookshelves, each shelf deep as a person for books you never needed to see again but wanted to keep for comfort.  Books you learned your first gemara on.  Journals saved for a generation and remembered by my husband alone; he remembers where he puts things even in a jumbled and hideous mess.  He never needs three copies.

When he left us (yearning for Brooklyn, apparently), he took some of the books with him, but the decorative books, the ones that show his value but he does not need, they stayed at the house.  The one we shared and I remained in.  And when my nonbelieving son received one hundred shiny new sacred sets for his bar mitzvah, his father kept those. I understand my son was paid.

This month the contractor requested that I clear the floors for demolition and although my husband sent yelling emails, I called the movers.  Today they came and emptied my house of his books and his black hats and the last paraphernalia of the life we shared.

Those same books that he moved in exactly twenty years ago, his bar mitzvah books which he doesn’t look at because they are heavy and printed in old fashioned font and he can use his son’s bar mitzvah books instead.  The old and the new: they are back whence they came, on18th Avenue in Borough Park.

And I am in a house bereft of sacred books.  I have no value in their eyes, the eyes of those who engaged themselves to me, who write the books.  I can fill my home with the little things from my travels.

Travels that in the second half of my life have been mostly with books.

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