But I am intensely proud of my Jewishness. To be too publicly proud of it nowadays, at least in my secular Jewish crowd, risks seeming parochial or chauvinistic, but privately I celebrate it in my own ways. And I’m protective of it, too. Extraordinary American tolerance has insulated me from any serious anti-Semitism, but I sometimes regret the luxury that tolerance has in turn conferred: to slight, hide or flee a bit too eagerly from their past. Seeing those books in that place touched something in me. I couldn’t just put them back.
I halfheartedly tried imagining some extenuating circumstances that landed them there. Perhaps they were thrown out accidentally in a spring cleaning. Or maybe the person who’d placed them there actually knew of the burial to which sacred texts are entitled and figured the landfill to which they’d soon be consigned fit the ritualistic requirements. But I doubt it. Whatever one thinks of being Jewish, the experience is sufficiently powerful that one doesn’t just stray idly from it: One has to push it away. And to me, that’s most likely what had happened here: Someone had just chucked the things, without so much as a second thought.
What could account for such disrespect, even contempt, not just for one’s ancestors, but for the tradition itself? Was there no one in the family with enough reverence for our past to cherish them, at least for another generation? And if not, why not find them a good home elsewhere? Or donate them to the state Jewish Historical Society, which might have welcomed two volumes with such a distinguished provenance? The family had directed that all memorial contributions in the man’s name be made to the local Jewish Federation. Why not there?
But more than indignation, I felt sadness. Sure, there are lots of people committed to keeping American Jewry going. But there are many, many others for whom it has become utterly irrelevant, for whom centuries of tradition, so wonderfully embodied around Seder tables this past week, are coming to an abrupt end. There are lots of ways to measure the end of a particular Jewish line; tossing prayer books in the trash is surely one, and among the more emphatic.
It’s self-serving, of course, but my notion of what constitutes a good Jew is broad. One can be one not only by following the rituals but also by honoring Jewish precepts and values, by trying to heal the world (the notion of tikkun olam) or by enriching it through teaching, creating, inspiring. Hannah Arendt, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Janet Yellin, Philip Roth, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner — to me, all were good Jews, whether or not they ever found their way to a synagogue.
I actually flirted with the idea of returning the books. There must have been some mistake, I might have said: You couldn’t have meant to dispose of such heirlooms in this fashion. But I didn’t. In the penumbra around the First Amendment surely lies a constitutional right to throw out whatever one wants. Meanwhile, a dear friend said she’d gladly take the books for her daughter, Aviva, whose bat mitzvah prayer book she’d just realized, much to her horror, she’d managed to misplace. Aviva was going off to college and had hoped to bring her prayer book with her; maybe she’d take these forsaken volumes and give them new life.
Before that happened, I’d hoped to memorialize them in some fashion and kept them on my desk, awaiting inspiration. But for all my self-righteousness, I proved a poor custodian. Not long ago, while I was out of town, the radiator alongside them blew; for a couple of days, in a scene with almost biblical overtones, they’d been engulfed in steam. Acts of God, it turns out, can damage the word of God: Overnight, some of those pristine pages turned into parchment. Despite the dehumidifiers, the first few crystals of mildew blossomed on the cover of one of them.
After all this, perhaps they’d have been better off left where I found them, but I had to go be a buttinsky. I’m hoping Aviva will still take, and cherish, them, despite their imperfections. But if not, it’s now on me to give them a more fitting burial.
David Margolick, a former reporter for The Times, is the author of several books, including, most recently, “The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.” He is at work on a book about Dr. Jonas Salk for the “Jewish Lives” series published by Yale University Press.
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