Page 15 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 3

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THE JEWISH LOVE OF BOOKS
By
C
e c i l
R
o t h
The Koran speaks of both Jews and Christians as “Peoples of
the Book”— that is, of the Bible. Subsequently, the title was
arrogated to the Jews alone. But, based on error though this
ascription may be, it is in fact fully justifiable. For the Jews are
a People of the Book, very literally and unquestionably, in more
senses than one. In the first place, they are no less the creators
than the creation of the Book of Books — the Bible (itself none
other than the Greek
biblia
, “little volumes” ). Jewish history
and Jewish literature — the most ancient history of any people
of the world, and the longest continuous literature that the world
can show — are indeed from beginning to end little more than a
commentary on the Bible; and the Jew of to-day is the creation
of the Bible and of that great religious literature that has received
its inspiration from it.
This subject is one pre-eminently for a theologian or a philos-
opher. My intention here is to deal with another aspect of the
question. For the Jews are a People of the Book in another sense
as well. They have been, for the past 2,000 years, essentially a
literary and an educated people. To an extent unequalled among
any other section of humanity, they have been interested in books.
In an unlettered world, when even kings could not sign their
names, they had already developed a system of universal educa-
tion, so that an illiterate Jew was even in the Dark Ages a contra-
diction in terms. Centuries before the modern idea of adult
education was evolved, Jews regarded it as a religious duty to
band themselves together for study every morning before the
labors of the day began and every evening when the ghetto gates
closed them off from association with the outside world.
In consequence, the Jew was, from early times, book-conscious.
He copied books. He owned books. He patronized literature.
He was interested in intellectual life and productions and move-
ments. Thus, even in the most soul-destroying period of oppres-
sion, it might be assumed that almost every ghetto Jew, however
humble his circumstances and however lowly his calling, was likely
to have his modest library. A book was not to him, as to his
neighbor, an object of veneration, of mystery, of distrust. I t was
a sheer necessity of every-day life.
We Jews, above all people, venerate the memory of our martyrs.
But even among our martyrs the highest place is held by our
literature. If anything excels the brutality with which Jews were
treated during past ages, it is the brutality with which their lit-
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