In the old days, Old usually meant Better. Old things were treasured; they were made to last. Elderly people were treasured too. Even though their time was limited, they were held in high esteem. Age meant wisdom and experience. Years added value, whether you were a painting, a jewel or a person. Not any more. In our days, New means Better. Old means time to throw away. If you’re talking about a new computer, that’s probably true, but if you’re talking about other things, I wonder.
Historically, knowledge has been retained by oral tradition or by writing. Even scraps of paper were treasured. Books were invaluable. I’ve owned hundreds of books in my lifetime but I don’t have the faintest idea where most of them are. Perhaps they’re sitting on someone else’s shelves; perhaps they were thrown away. I received my own personal siddur and set of machzorim for my bat mitzvah and while I still have the machzorim, the siddur is long gone. Since then I have gone through many siddurim and when they were sufficiently used and in poor enough condition, they were delivered – albeit with a kiss – to the nearest geniza. I do have my 8th grade autograph book and, thankfully, my mother saved the letters I sent home while spending a year in Israel. But that’s about all.
In Israel, official book collecting starts earlier than bar or bat mitzvah. First graders receive a siddur at a gala Siddur Party around Chanukah by which time it is assumed that all the kids have learned to read. It used to be the divine duty of all mothers to sew and embroider a cover for their child’s first siddur, something fitting for a hallowed book of such significance.
But it’s not just the siddur. All books in Israeli schools are to be revered…. and covered. Covering them supposedly protects them and prolongs their lives. After parenting in the Israeli educational system for over two score years, I have my doubts as to the efficacy of this policy. It seems to me that children manage to mar or mutilate their books with or without covers. Children’s books are not made to endure. A year of usage in a classroom is a lifetime. But come what may, the first siddur must have a protective cloth cover. A protective, embroidered cloth cover – it’s an heirloom!
In our family, we have two books which are family heirlooms. One is a Chumash. Its pages are worn and yellowed, its binding frayed. It came from Hungary, survived the war, and arrived in America. It belonged to my husband’s zeideh who meticulously documented his parents and grandparents, his ten children, whom they married, who their children were. The saga of a family. The older generation passed on, some of the offspring were killed in the War, others survived and immigrated to America. The siddur came with them. Eventually, it was passed on to my husband. The family lists, faded but still legible, contain names from three generations. We have since added four more. It is no longer a siddur to daven from, but to treasure.
Our second “heirloom” came down from the Elter-Zeideh, father of the above-mentioned zeideh. It, too, is an old sefer, but it has evolved into a combination of the very old and the very new. An original peirush on the Chumash, the book is several hundred pages thick, beautifully written by hand on heavy paper, and bound in tooled leather. It survived the Shoah and ended up in America in the home of a cousin where it was placed in a drawer and forgotten. One day, it came to light in a family conversation.
I begged to bring it to Israel to have it properly preserved but our cousin refused to part with it. Fearful of breaking the by-now fragile binding, we copied page after page on a copying machine, which resulted in several hundred pages of wavy lines. Then, over a period of several years, our sons laboriously transcribed the written text onto computer files and floppy discs. Now they rest in miniscule USB’s. The first page was a request from the Elter-Zeideh that his descendants study his peirush at their Shabbos tables. My dream of turning it into a book is still only a dream, but at least copies of the disc are available and, weekly, printed sheets are easily reproduced. Some old things are salvaged by the new.
I face a minor, but similar, dilemma of my own. Our home boasts a large collection of siddurim, but my favorite, the one I use every day, is in poor shape. The binding is held together with masking tape, the inside is held together with scotch tape, lipstick (the sign of a kiss) marks a page at the end of the davening, and assorted stains in different colors and shapes lend a rainbow-like hue to the prayers. The edges of the pages aren’t in such great shape either. Ragged describes them best. The siddur looked so worn that I finally bought a new one for use on Shabbos, but only for Shabbos.
How can I abandon a siddur that has accompanied me for so many years? Does one just dump an old friend into the nearest geniza? It seems disrespectful and highly ungrateful. On the other hand, the siddur is undeniably coming apart. How long it will last is anyone’s guess. My tehillim is also in need of a facelift (a booklift?). Again, how can I exchange it for something fresh, pristine and new? The pages are covered with the hopes, fears, tears and gratitude of many years and countless prayers.
In our throw-away world, it seems useless to hold onto old, worn-out items when new ones can be acquired so easily and cheaply. I once purchased beautiful but disposable dishes for a Pesach seder. It would have been overwhelming to wash dishes for so many guests. But when it came time to clean up, I couldn’t bring myself to throw those gorgeous dishes away. They were good for at least the rest of the holiday, if not longer. When one of the kids saw me begin to wash, she hurried to take the dish away and said, “No way! These dishes are not for washing! They go straight into the garbage!” And so they did. But to this day, I feel guilty every time I think of it.
Rabbi Avraham Twerski once wrote that the Parker pen he received at his bar mitzvah accompanied him until he graduated from medical school, but he had no idea where he got the pen he was using at that moment. It was just another cheap pen he had used that day and he had probably picked it up and put it in his pocket without thinking after signing a credit slip at some store. It had no intrinsic value whatsoever.
How important is all of this for the future of humanity? I don’t really know, but it’s something to think about!