Why I Love the Annual Library Book Sale


Every spring, I look forward to the book sale at our local library with a consuming sense of anticipation.

For a book lover, it offers the best of all worlds. It takes place at the library, for starters. Since I was first let loose in the children’s reading room as a little girl, I’ve treasured a library’s comforting, book shrine atmosphere and the rapture-inducing scent of so many books in one place. Those feelings have only intensified over time. But as an adult, I’ve also come to appreciate the blend of humanity that congregates around a shared affection for the written word. That blend comes together for the book sale, too.

Sometimes, I discover more than just books on the sale tables – wonderful surprises secreted between the pages, gifts unwittingly left behind by the previous reader for the enjoyment of the next. Dog-eared corners. Handwritten notes in the margins. Bookmarks, photographs, a newspaper clipping. I even found a recipe tucked inside a book jacket once. I flip through the books, not exactly looking for these souvenirs, though certainly pleased when they reveal themselves. They leave me curious. How many readers have encountered this book before me? And after I’m done, after I’ve donated it back to the library for next year’s sale, how many readers will follow?

Library book sales offer all the physical satisfaction of live shopping in a bookstore, the tactile engagement Amazon denies me. Yet book sales are easier than both on the wallet. Every genre is there for the taking, and the books cost no more than a few dollars apiece. I have patience, though. I wait until the final hours of the book sale weekend when I can snag an entire tote filled with books for just $5. That’s a lot of reading without having to do any math. I bring a pretty large tote without shame. On Monday, they give away whatever they don’t sell anyway.

What I love most about book sales, though, is the serendipity. I rarely arrive with a specific list of books I’m looking for, and I come too late to score the hot titles everyone else wants to buy. I prefer to leave it all to chance, hoping I’ll stumble upon a diamond in the rough. This year, I got lucky. In the fiction tent, I found Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, which I’ve wanted to read for a while. From the Judaica section, I took home a stack of S.Y. Agnon novels, all hardcovers in English translation. And my diamonds: a gorgeous Collier’s World Atlas circa 1941, filled with countries that don’t exist anymore, and a book of vintage prints that highlight the most picturesque spots in the United States.

The backstories are wonderful, too – the conversations that spring up between shoppers, all looking for a little book love. When I went to the book sale last month, I bumped into a few friends. We compared finds, agreeing to a book swap after we’ve read them. I exchanged recommendations with a couple I’d just met near the biographies. And there was the brief dialogue I had with a tweed jacket professor type, who quipped, “I guess we’re both looking for the steamy romance novels,” as we stood near the classics. His girlfriend called him a “book snob.” He winked at her, proffering, “That’s right.” I decided not to get involved.

And with that, I was done. I chose to leave the last spaces in my tote empty, though on my way out I picked up a small volume of Abraham Lincoln’s wisest sayings because, why not? I could carry no more.

What a luxury, I thought, savoring the satisfaction of the hunt while cataloging my bounty in my head. I turned towards home, wondering where I would put it all, already daydreaming about what I’ll find next year.

A Pear in Bondage

Pear, Light, Shallow, Depth Of Field

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I was in the supermarket a few weeks ago, picking up the ingredients I needed for a salad recipe I was eager to try. The line was long. Luckily, I wasn’t in a rush that day.

A woman of a certain age was standing in front of me. As her groceries made their way towards the cashier, a pear separated from the pack and its stem became trapped in the conveyor belt. Working gently, I detached it, keeping the stem intact.

“Excuse me,” I said, returning the pear to its owner. She had no idea it had run amok, and seemed delighted to have it back.

“Thank you!”

“Your pear was stuck, but now it’s free,” I added.

“You’ve liberated my pear? Well, I guess the women’s movement isn’t dead after all!”

We both savored the cleverness of her reply.

I loved this exchange. It had charm and wit, reference to an important social issue, the opportunity to return a lost object, the connection between two women of different generations, and the sweetness of a particularly fulsome pear. I wanted to hug this woman and tell her she’d made my day, but I feared the groans from a long line peopled with folks already getting antsy. So I just thanked her for giving me a great story to tell as she went on her way.

Last night, while washing the laundry, my sweater sleeve got stuck in the dryer door. Gently, I worked it free without tearing the wool. As I headed back upstairs, “You’ve liberated your sweater? Well, I guess the women’s movement isn’t dead after all!” came flying out of my mouth.  I couldn’t help myself.

I laughed, and it made me wonder about all the different reasons God puts people in our path – to comfort or challenge us, befriend or upend us, bless or befuddle us. But in that moment it dawned on me that sometimes, the best reason – maybe even the only reason – is to give us a good story.  And on most days, that’s more than enough.

P.S. Check out my new essay on The Wisdom Daily http://thewisdomdaily.com/why-i-honor-the-souls-of-our-belongings/.  Please like and share!






When Key Challah Isn’t Meant To Be

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Right about now, my Facebook feed is beginning to fill up with images of stunning braided challahs just out of the oven. There will be others as the day unfolds, even more in the lead-up to candle lighting.

The pictures speak volumes about the irresistible lure of freshly baked challah, not to mention the magic of those first few bites on the Shabbos after Pesach. The moment is something akin to a lover’s reunion, one filled with anticipation, desire, and longing. Sure, we’ll look forward to challah the following Shabbos and every one after that until next Pesach, but it won’t be with the same intensity.

And then there’s the matter of the keys.

It’s the Shabbos of schlissel, or key, challah. As the custom goes, bakers place their keys into their challahs as a segulah, or good omen, for livelihood. Though I’m a late blooming challah baker, I dove head first into the key ritual from the beginning. I loved the mystery of secreting keys in the loaves, and the metaphor of opening up the doors of blessing. I ignored each counter story that insisted the ritual had pagan roots. So many challah bakers I knew did it, though when I asked, I learned that most, like me, had adopted rather than inherited the custom.

I carried on, grateful for the spiritual meaning behind it, until – in an odd twist of events – I misplaced our house keys several years in a row in the process. I was sure I’d positioned them in the loaves. Once, I thought I’d mistakenly given the loaf with our key in it to a friend, but her family didn’t find it either. Honestly, it was getting creepy. Where were all our keys disappearing to?

I never got an answer, and the keys still haven’t turned up. I did try one other approach to the custom after the last key went missing, baking challahs shaped like keys instead. Frankly, they emerged from the oven looking nothing like keys, though they tasted just fine. The final straw came when a loaf a patient had baked for my husband using his office key disappeared from his desk, the empty pan left behind and the key nowhere to be found.

This whole schlissel challah endeavor is about signs and omens, and here was one staring us right in the face. God had given up on subtlety and I finally took notice. Still, it’s been hard to let go, even as my husband reminds me over and over that our livelihood is determined on Yom Kippur. And so I try not to put too much stock in a key in a loaf, even one with powerful symbolism, even one I long to bake.

Today, then, is a big day as I pull out the ingredients to bake challah for this Shabbos and refrain from schissel challah-ing. I’ll miss it, but I’ve promised not to do it again. I’ll keep the house key stowed in my purse as I watch the parade of beautiful key challah images in my Facebook feed and read the accompanying stories about the power of this particular segulah. I’ll look for signs and wonders and good omens in the kneading and the shaping instead. But mostly, I’ll wait for the blessings to burst forth when we break the loaves open and savor every post-Pesach bite, because blessings, like keys, come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s magic power in both.

A Meditation on Laundry

img_2719Of all the practical aspects of parenting, laundry has always been my nemesis. Babies produce record-breaking amounts of it, and I found it impossible to keep up with the soiled onesies after the arrival of my firstborn. That the laundry room in our apartment building opened after I left for work and closed soon after I got home didn’t help. Nor could my husband, then a resident on 72-hour shifts with furlough for showers and rest.

The laundry multiplied, of course, with the arrival of our other boys, though by then we had moved across state lines to an apartment building with a washer and dryer in each unit. I wrote odes in my head to those mechanical wonders and the joy their 24-hour availability brought me, especially since my workday had lengthened to include a 3-hour round-trip commute. Still, I struggled to balance our family’s need for clean clothing (and towels and linen) with my own need to sleep.

As it turned out, the end of the spit-up stain era was just the beginning. The boys’ attire grew larger, their activities more efficient at attracting hardcore dirt as they advanced from toddling to Little League. Meanwhile, circumstances beyond my control ushered me into a lower-key, less gainful career. There were days when doing laundry provided me with an endless cycle of busy work to help me through a difficult period of transition. More often than not, however, it was a reminder that in the process of redefining myself professionally, finding meaning wasn’t going to be easy.

Years passed, and the boys each reached the age when they could – or should, as many suggested to me – do their own wash. I wondered when, if they leave the house at dawn and return after dark, with only a short window for dinner and homework. Because I freelance mostly from home, the chore continued to fall to me.

But around the time my eldest was ready to go for his driver’s permit, laundry had become a source of household conflict, and a metaphor for the many distractions that have kept me from moving forward with pursuits of my own. Neatly folded shirts and pants would sit in baskets for days, and inevitably, clean and dirty clothing would end up comingled. I’d want to shout, to remind everyone that I’d done that laundry when there were other ways I could have spent my time.

The moment had come, both for them and for me. I decided that regardless of their schedules, the boys would have to do their own laundry as a prerequisite for taking the wheel of my van. Like walking and learning to ride a bicycle, driving would put them one step closer to full independence. Laundry in its way would, too, even if it wouldn’t take them to faraway places.

The count was two sons doing laundry on their own, one to go, by the late spring last year. They were all feeling carefree in that pause between the end of school and the start of their summer plans. For most adults, of course, life isn’t divided in that way. Work weeks blend into one another, regardless of the season, and it is other obligations, not only the laundry, that keep me from writing for longer periods of time.

During that very brief window, my boys were all home, their beds all occupied. My nest and my heart were full with the rarity of it, and these facts combined to create a new distraction. Overwhelmed with emotion, I couldn’t stop myself from offering to do their laundry.

I stood over the washing machine, a bottle of Shout in my hand, listening for the silence I know will come when they move on to the next stage of their lives, leaving behind the echo of their childhood. I suddenly felt ashamed to have let the small stuff – that Everest of laundry and who knows what else – detract from my gratitude for having them in my life, even on the hardest of hardest days. I set the cycle to warm and turned on the machine, understanding that these are not blessings that come to everyone, nor are they gifts to be squandered.

I can’t say for sure I’ll ever finish writing my book or if, in the end, I’ll look back with satisfaction on what I have created during my second career. But I hope that God-willing, my boys will go on to have laundry relationships of their own, as it should be, and that I will not be washing their clothes forever. When that time comes, I will neatly fold up the memories of running a launderette in our basement, keeping them out on a shelf where I can reach them, and I’ll let the thrum of the washing machine play like a lovely old song I can’t get out of my head.

My Year in Books 2016

img_2631January, 2017

My life travels from book to book. I finish one and pick up the next. Still, I have never before kept track of what I’ve read. I’ve only just read.

What changed? For a while, friends had been asking if I wouldn’t mind sharing my reading list, but I didn’t have one. My friend Nina, who has long kept an annual list with pithy reviews, also inspired me (check out her favorites from 2016 http://ninabadzin.com/2016/12/24/top-5-books-2016/). And so my own year in books was born last January, a list that includes a very brief summary and, sometimes, a few thoughts, too.

I don’t plan my reading for the long haul. It simply unfolds as I go. On this year’s list, there are titles I first read as a girl and chose to revisit with grown-up eyes, as well as classics I hadn’t read before. There are books I stumbled upon in unlikely places and books I purchased soon after folding up their reviews. Sometimes, it was the right book at the wrong time, or maybe it just wasn’t for me at all, and I’ve left off titles I put down at the gate. I didn’t love everything on the list, but I never failed to love the process. Alas, there were so many books I did not get to read because 2016 ran out of time.

My favorites? Oh, I’m terrible at picking favorites of anything, especially books. I can only say that Amy Gottlieb’s The Beautiful Possible and Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow are the books that will stick with me most from this year, and I’m already rereading the latter because there are clues I missed (well that, and I have a crush on Count Rostov).

Though I read mostly fiction and memoir, I loved Daniel James Browns’ The Boys in the Boat, about the 1936 US Olympic rowing team. I feared the topic would fell me, but Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air was everything the hype promised. Of the books I reread after years of distance, Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter remains one of the most powerful, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch is the classic that filled a 900-page gap in my reading history. And the last book on the list, Gavriel Savit’s Anna and the Swallow Man, finished just hours before the ball dropped, will, I think, haunt me for a while.

And now, on to 2017. So many books, only 365 days.

Wishing us all a year in which to worry less and read more!


My Year in Books 2016

1. Malcolm Gladwell. What the Dog Saw
Essays. Particularly liked the one about hair coloring ad campaigns.

2. Alice Hoffman. A Marriage of Opposites
The fictionalized backstory on Pissaro, with beautiful imagery.

3. Louis de Bernieres. Birds Without Wings
Intriguing love story set against modern-day Turkey’s emergence from the Ottoman Empire.

4. Paul Kalanithi. When Breath Becomes Air
Beautiful, devastating, difficult – a must-read about living life and approaching death.

5. Elizabeth Gilbert. Big Magic
Encouraging for someone pursuing the creative life.

6. Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping
About loss and survival and transience.

7. Julie Schumacher. Dear Committee Members
Hilarious novel in letters of recommendation. Particularly humorous for a former English major.

8. Patti Smith. Just Kids
The evolution of an artist, mostly through the lens of Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Touching, poetic language.

9. Ian McEwan. The Children Act
Though I loved Atonement, this one unsettled me (which is probably what draws others to his writing). I had to stop midway.

10. Judy Blume. Blubber
First read this in grade school, and I’d forgotten how mean the girls in the story are. Still the best book I’ve ever read about bullying.

These next three I took out of the library for one of my sons, but I ended up reading them.

11. Barbara Stok. Vincent
Graphic novel about Vincent Van Gogh.

12. Mike’s Place
Graphic novel about the bombing of this Tel Aviv club.

13. Stan Lee. Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible
Graphic memoir of the comic book artist’s life.

14. Penelope Lively. How It All Began
About the Butterfly Effect on some folks in London.

15. Penelope Lively. Making It Up
Stories that consider her life, if it had taken her in different directions.

16. Daniel James Brown. The Boys in the Boat
The story of the US rowing team leading up to and during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Powerful metaphors, and who doesn’t love a victory over the Nazis?

17. Lois Lowry. Number the Stars
Story of rescue in Denmark during the Holocaust. Perfect entrée for young readers to begin a discussion about doing the right thing, despite the risks.

18. Shuleem Deen. All Who Go Do Not Return
Wrenching memoir about Deen’s leaving the Chasidic fold.

19. Thomas Hardy. Far From the Madding Crowd
A girl ahead-of-her-time girl trying to manage her own farm and juggle multiple suitors. A classic I rushed to read before the film came out (haven’t seen it yet).

20. David Arnold. Mosquitoland
The heartbreaking odyssey of a young girl who hops a bus when her family falls apart. YA

21. Amy Gottlieb. The Beautiful Possible
An almost-mystical story of love and marriage and faith and turmeric. Lyrical and lovely.

22. Monica Hess. Girl in the Blue Coat
About the Dutch Resistance during World War II. YA

23. Kent Haruf. Our Souls at Night
Real, sad, short, and touching.

24. Tom Hart. Rosalie Lightning
Graphic memoir about how the author and his wife cope with the loss of their daughter. Powerful if you can, too raw if you can’t.

25. Jumpa Lahiri. Unaccustomed Earth
For days after finishing this collection, I couldn’t get three interconnected stories out of my head.

26. Roz Chast. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?
Graphic memoir about caring for her aging, then dying parents. Heartfelt, honest, not easy to watch, but brilliant.

27.  Anna Quindlen. Plenty of Candles, Lots of Cake
Wonderful memoir about the blessings of getting older. This book inspired me to try standing on my head.

28.  Anna Quindlen. Miller’s Crossing
A novel about family secrets.

29. Sarit Yishai-Levi. The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem
About several generations of a Jerusalem family plagued by a curse that makes them resist love and consumes them with their own refusal.

30. George Eliot. Middlemarch
Shame on me for waiting so long to read this classic, though its 900+ pages make it a worthwhile commitment.

31. Carson McCullers. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Another book I decided to reread. Compassionate, intense lens on the spiritual isolation that is part of the human condition. Astounding, left me breathless.

32. Elena Mauli Shapiro. Rue 13 Therese
A novel set in Paris during World War I.

33. Marilyn Hagerty. Grand Forks
Dining reviews by the restaurant columnist for the local paper.

34. Frederik Backman. A Man Called Ove
Everyone needs an Ove in his/her life.

35. Mimi Sheraton. The Bialy Eaters
Short history of the bialy.

36. Dai Sijie. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
About the power of forbidden literature in Communist China.

37. Gordana Kuic. Scent of Rain in the Balkans
Part of a very popular series about the history of a Sephardic Jewish family, though misinterpretations of Jewish tradition affect the plot.

38. Pamela Gien. The Syringa Tree
About a childhood during South African apartheid. Stunning, powerful. I sobbed through the final chapters.

39. Talia Carner. Jerusalem Maiden
About love and being true to one’s own artistic light.

40. Lucette Lagnado. The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
Devastating memoir that evokes the elegant Cairo of the author’s youth and her family’s change of fortune when they are forced to leave Nasser’s Egypt.

41. Vanessa Diffenbaugh. The Language of Flowers
About a damaged young woman who discovers her ability to communicate through flowers.

42. Celeste Ng. Everything I Never Told You
About a Chinese-American family and the fragility of happiness.

43. Daniel Silva. A Death in Vienna
My husband is a huge fan of Silva’s books, so I finally read this one about the death of a Nazi hunter and the search for his killer.

44. Geraldine Brooks. Caleb’s Crossing
Touching story of two free spirits and their quests for knowledge at a time of ignorance and social limitations.

45. Amor Towles. A Gentleman in Moscow
This wonderful story about Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to house arrest in an upscale hotel, cast a spell on me.

46. Ilse Koehn. Mischling, Second Degree
The memoir of a German girl with a partial Jewish heritage (unbeknownst to her), who becomes a leader in the Hitler Youth. One of the first Holocaust-era books I read in my own youth.

47. Elana Ferrante. My Brilliant Friend
I tried three times, most recently with my book club. I feel like something’s wrong with me that I couldn’t get into this bestseller.

48. Elana Ferrante. The Beach at Night
Fable for children, a short read. It would have terrified me as a child.

49. Zdena Berger. Tell Me Another Morning
A remarkable autobiographical novel about the friendship that enables three young women to survive the depravity of the concentration camps.

50. Curtis Sittenfeld. Eligible.
A fun, smart retelling of Pride and Prejudice. Exactly what the book doctor ordered this December.

And I snuck in two more on the last day of 2016.

51. Minka Pradelski. Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman
Engrossing tale about a German Jewish woman who travels to Tel Aviv to fetch an inheritance, but falls into the magical story about a town in pre-war Poland (and sadly, its destruction).

52. Gavriel Savit. Anna and the Swallow Man
An otherworldly story about a young girl from Krakow, whose intellectual father is taken by the Germans in 1939. She happens upon a mysterious gentleman, who helps her survive the war.


Butterflies in Elul

September, 2016

The other night, my freshman was busy picking out his clothes for the first day of school. He was that typical mix of nervous and excited most kids are before the undeniably huge leap to high school. Still, he seemed ready for this next stage of his life and the possibilities that await him – even for the long bus ride, the long day, and the long hours of homework when he finally gets home.

I had butterflies in my stomach, too.

It’s a fact that I get emotional about these big moments in my children’s lives. I’d be lying if I were to deny my concern about how my son is going to manage this transition, and I’d also be lying if I were to say I wasn’t leaping four years ahead in my brain to what will, by then, be our empty nest.

But what really got my attention the other night was a realization that Elul – which I haven’t been thinking nearly enough about – is a lot like the night before a new school year begins. I distinctly recall that unsettling feeling from my own experience. Every detail became outsized as we approached Labor Day weekend. Even the process of shopping for school supplies was fraught, as if the choice of backpack could either ensure or derail my social and academic success.

The cusp of a new school year also offered me the chance to figure out my personal growth agenda for the next ten months, to try to change the parts of me I didn’t like, and to attempt to alter my position in the high school food chain. I’d convince myself that this would be the year when I’d finally like science. I’d stop wrestling with math and just do the darned work. I wouldn’t let anything anyone said – teacher or student – bother me. I’d get comfortable in my own skin.

Unfortunately, change does not come easily – not to an adolescent and certainly not to an adult who has been nursing the same faults and insecurities for decades. But every year, Elul gives us another shot at it.

It is a time of both reckoning (hence the butterflies) and possibility for us mere mortals, with our good moments and others we’re not so proud of. We cannot alter the essence of who we are any more than I, a mere 5’ 1 ¾”, can suddenly turn tall, just like my backpack did not get me picked first in dodgeball. Yet the shofar wake-up call can help us focus our energy where it is able to make a difference: acknowledging where we’ve strayed and working on becoming a better, more positive version of who we are.

The morning after my son had so carefully chosen his shirt and set off on his new adventure, I watched from the front window as the bus drove off. For a fleeting moment, I wanted to go back in time and redo high school with the wisdom I now have about people and the world and myself, but quickly scratched that idea. I’m far better off where I am.

I am grateful, though, that Elul gives us this opportunity to embrace a fresh start every time it comes around. It is a blessing and a gift to reach the New Year. I am ready for the long hours and the hard work. And I am eager for the possibilities.

Shana Tova u’Metukah!

Tishrei Takeaway

untitledOctober, 2016

One year, my son decided to have friends over for his birthday on a Shabbos afternoon. Unfortunately, he broke his arm while playing before the boys arrived and instead spent the day in the ER.

Because it was Shabbos, we were unable to call everyone and let them know the change in plans. So my husband went with the birthday boy to the hospital, while I stayed home to greet our guests. Once here, the boys partook half-heartedly, awkward in the absence of the man of honor. It was still a party, but without the typical frolicking, it boiled down to the essentials. The boys came, ate cake, and went home, happily admiring the contents of their goodie bags.

Curious, I thought, that this memory came to mind as the recent season of Jewish holidays neared its end. It made me grateful that we’d enjoyed a people-filled, busy, multilayered kind of Tishrei, not a condensed, pray-eat-move-on-to-the-next-thing version of the holidays. But it also made me wonder what the takeaway was.

Not enough brisket, I joked to myself, disappointed that I couldn’t eke another family meal out of the leftovers. Serious rumination, however, resulted in two better answers, valuable lessons for the year ahead.

First, there were the delays that kept me from getting to shul early on day one of Rosh Hashana. Silly things – my shoes chafed and I had to head back home so I could change them, I lost my wrap and had to retrace my steps to find it, I’d forgotten to put the lunch meal to warm in the oven. By the time I reached my seat in the pew, I was anxious and frustrated. Yet it was only because I’d gotten there later than I’d planned that I was able to focus from the get-go – no catching up with friends in the lobby, no daydreaming, no counting the pages until the end of the service. I just immersed myself in the task at hand, making up for lost praying time.

Then there was the blessing and shaking of the lulav and etrog in the sukkah. The etrog was beautiful, both in shape and color. My husband called it “our nicest etrog ever.” But what struck me most was its abundant fragrance. I kept asking myself whether it was particularly strong this year, or if it was the first time I really took notice. I especially loved how the aroma lingered on my fingertips long after I returned the fruit to its storage box.

While I did a lot praying and celebrating over the past few weeks, most of it will soon blend seamlessly with my memories of other holiday seasons and recede entirely from view. But these reminders – to make the best of things when life derails my plans and to take time to savor the gifts that come my way – are lasting standouts that I hope will give me perspective throughout the year ahead.

As for the etrog itself, once it dries, I will add it to the bowl we keep on the piano, filled with more than a decade’s worth of etrogim. I marvel that although they have lost their color and fullness, they have retained their beauty and a specter of their scent, despite the passage of time. It is that lovely aroma that is my favorite Tishrei takeaway, the sweet treat that will carry me forward until we come around this way again.