The National Library

By Rochelle Furstenberg
Thursday, March 14, 2013

The National Library of Israel is being rehabilitated, and I’m in a panic.  Just as the great libraries of Paris and London and research libraries throughout the world have been restructured and de-mahoganized, and their regular denizens transferred from dark corners to light, metallic, technological surroundings, the National Library is being digitized and moved from the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to a new, computerized enclave near the Israel Museum and Knesset.     

The actual construction of the new library, which is being supported by the Rothschild Foundation, is still five years off.  But I am already mourning the demise of the present library, which reminds me so much of others I have loved.  Here, scholars gather in the large hall outside the reading rooms on the second floor beneath the blue stained- glass triptych by Israeli artist Mordechai Ardon with its Dead Sea Scrolls and atom formations, its  celestial bodies swirling through the deep blue cosmos.  The bright ploughshares rising from a pile of broken swords in the right corner of the triptych hover above young men and women who, in many cases, have only recently exchanged their own swords for the ploughshares of scholarship. 

People come to the lounge from the general reading room and the Judaic and Arabic Studies libraries. They answer cell phone calls from partners.  They debate interpretations of Midrash, consult each other about new research in Jewish history, or anxiously review the waning job market in the humanities.  A few black-hatted ultra-Orthodox can be seen among the secular scholars and knitted-skullcap believers.  At 4:00, the religious can be seen scurrying upstairs for the afternoon minhah service.

But all this will soon change.  It is not, Heaven forbid, being destroyed, as the great library of Alexandria is believed to have been burned  in 48 B.C.E., or as other proud libraries have sunk into oblivion.  The goal of the new National Library is precisely to preserve the storehouses of knowledge through digitization and computerization, allowing everyone to obtain unrestricted access to information in electronic form.  The dark, dusty shelves in the basement of the National Library will soon disappear, as the sturdy edifice itself will give way to the new hi-tech off-campus facility.  The most basic elements of the library will continue to exist, but the atmosphere will be deconstructed.

I mourn the death of this library atmosphere, which has nourished so many thoughtful people and, long ago in a different country, inspired me and molded my consciousness.  I learned, studied, and grew up in an aura of yellowish light above long wooden tables, where books lay scattered as dusk fell on the darkening window panes.  Here I became whole, my soul grounded in the knotty issues of history, the structures of poetry, the psychological nuances of fiction.        

I still carry with me the 11-year-old who walked up the gray stone steps of Legler Library on Wilcox and Crawford Streets in Chicago.  I came by streetcar to work on a social studies project on Egypt.  For years afterwards, I made my weekly pilgrimage to this veritable Greek temple with its neo-classical pillars and great vaulted entrance. That was the style of public buildings in the 1940s.  The endless rows of bookshelves filled me with a sense of membership in a larger intellectual world, a childish posturing that in time became transformed into a love of the book “for its own sake.” 

I turned to the biographies of famous and accomplished women, who today would be called role models--not the narrow, struggling housewife that my mother and aunts represented, but great women scientists, particularly Marie Curie.  Initially, I dreamed of being a doctor and scientist, since that seemed the most unattainable of goals for a woman at the time. I read mundane career stories: their influence in midwifing a generation of feminists has not been fully appreciated.  Eventually, I turned to my more natural literary interests and aspired to become a writer.  I read Maud Hart Lovelace’s   series about Betsy, Tacy, and Tib in early 20th-century America, which  traced  Betsy’s development as a writer scribbling away sequestered  in her attic.  Childishly, I imitated her, transforming the mahogany cedar chest in my bedroom into a writing desk.

And when I grew to know and identify with Jewish culture and its renewal in the Land of Israel, I made my way to Jerusalem for a year of study.  It was 1954, and the Hebrew University’s library, exiled from Mount Scopus after the 1948 War of Independence, was dispersed throughout the divided city.  The core of the humanities library was housed in Terra Sancta in Rehavia, at the center of the new city of Jerusalem, in a Renaissance edifice leased from the Franciscan Custodian of the Latin Holy Places.  An angel hovered at the corner of the building. Although the Christian setting for the renewal of Jewish learning might seem incongruous, I remember the reverence with which I climbed the stone stairs of Terra Sancta to the library on the top floor, an extension, in my eyes, of the solemnity and strength of the fortress-like Jerusalem.  How proud I was, a naïve, enthusiastic American Jewish high school graduate,  to be a  participant in Israel’s cultural renewal, if only as a hesitant reader groping my way through the works of S.Y.Agnon, with his sly infiltration of  Mishnaic Hebrew into the modern sensibility.  I sat in the large, drafty reading room at Terra Sancta, following the much-persecuted  “Balak” (dog spelled backwards in Hebrew ) in  Agnon’s  novel Tmol Shilshom, “Days of Yore,”  as he meandered through the Jerusalem I loved.

I returned to live in Israel in the mid- 1960s, just as  a new Hebrew University campus was built on Givat Ram near the government buildings.  The guardian angel still hovered above Terra Sancta, but the National Library was moved to the center of the spacious green Givat Ram campus.  And this has become my refuge.  I come not as a bona fide citizen of the library but rather as a loving visitor, a journalist and critic researching diverse aspects of Israeli life and literature, delighting in the library ambience.  I go to work there, far from the temptations of home, telephone, and refrigerator.

I am panicked about the plan for the transformation of the National Library into a Resource and Information Center, but not because I abjure progress.  I have long acquiesced in the hegemony of technology, unpacking my laptop in the still-extant campus library, researching through Google, writing e-mails, sometimes even socializing on Facebook . I am in awe of the messianic simultaneity of all knowledge today, the proliferation of information, the lightning progression of sources.  I bow to the new day; I realize that clay tablets gave way to parchment, and parchment to paper and the printing press and now to the electronic conveyance of knowledge, on which I am as dependent as the next person.

My great concern is about my personal comfort when the world becomes an increasingly narrow place.  And I grasp for words that even the greatest efforts do not yield.  I counted on the National Library at the Hebrew University as my senior citizen’s refuge, my succor in my declining years, a protective womb that leads to a new learning.  Like the old woman who dozes over a history book from the shelves of the general reading room and the beggar who takes shelter from the rain by pretending to read the newspaper in the periodicals room, I had allowed myself a derelict old age in the National Library, sinking into oblivion.  Here I would row across my personal Stygix, surrounded by learned tomes of wisdom, qualified and re-qualified through the ages.

As I once found refuge from the vulnerability of childhood in the noble arms of a Chicago public library, I had hoped to find protection from the threats of old age at a long wooden table at the National Library on Givat Ram.

Where can I now look forward to imbibing inspiration, experiencing the coziness of identification, and belonging to a tradition of learning?  The coffee shop in the basement of the library is functional, not exactly of gourmet quality, but it borders on the archives from which scholars poring over the National Library’s collection of manuscripts and microfilms, wander absently by.  When one of them stops to discuss a Geniza manuscript with a colleague, I, a mere bystander, feel empowered by the sense of generations of Jewish scholarship.  Will all this vanish along with the warmth and familiarity of the reading room, as the new technologies take over?

As the lights are dimmed and the head librarian calls for the closing of the reading room, the rustle of readers gathering books and papers and unplugging laptops can be heard.  I wonder: where else can I hear the echoes of eternity for which I must prepare myself?

Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic who focuses on social and cultural issues in Israel.

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