“Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand,” — poet Ezra Pound.
Reading brings me great joy. Books in the process of being read are found in just about every room of my house and a large stack of “to be read” books grows ever higher.
Jews have long been known as the “People of the Book.” This year on May 28-30, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of our most important book, the Torah, at Mount Sinai.
Torah, the five books of Moses, is the lifeblood of the Jewish people. One tradition of Shavuot is to stay up all night learning Torah, to declare that when it comes to Torah study, there is no time like the present. Also, like most Jewish holidays, there is a food component. Dairy food plays an important part in the Shavuot culinary tradition and through the years this has translated into the eating of cheesecake. Now this is the holiday I was born for — books and comfort food, what joy! Studying the Torah is part of my practice and brings me comfort in difficult times. I must admit however, so does reading, shall we say, less lofty books.
“Rainy days should be spent at home with a cup of tea and a good book,” — cartoonist Bill Watterson.
Last year Congregation Sukkat Shalom, Juneau twinned with a synagogue of the same name in London, England. We have shared events with each other and recently have been invited to take part in their book club which is now meeting via Zoom. We call it the Across The Pond Book Club, a joining of disparate people connected by a love of books. With the nine-hour time difference it’s late morning in Alaska and mid-evening in London when we meet. We are just starting our day as our London friends are winding theirs down. Discussion starts tentatively as no one wants to be the person who hates the book everyone else loves, or love the one everyone else hates. Once the conversation starts flowing, however, it becomes wide-ranging, often surprising and delightful. Oftentimes more delightful than the book itself.
Reading is a solitary pursuit, but book clubs make it social. As the Across The Pond Book Club reviews the book of the month, other discussions take place. We learn about the one member caring for her 97 year old mother as well as her husband who has just started chemotherapy. Another member is dealing with her two college aged sons who are now sheltering back home and eating more food than she ever imagined was possible. We learn how we all are handling the stress of the pandemic. Yes, even amidst the joy of books and reading, the virus intrudes occasionally, but it is not the main character in our story, that distinction goes to the comfort and joy found in the companionship of readers and books.
It has been often difficult over the past few months to find comfort, to find joy. Our religious institutions that ground and support us through good times and bad, have had to transform. Families and friends are separated. Easter and Passover celebrations and traditions, both very much communal events, had to be done virtually or from a distance. As we look to Shavuot I expect to be studying Torah alone….with a cheesecake by my side. Like everyone, I would prefer to be with my community, sharing holidays and special moments. Until we able to do so again, we all must find our joy where we can. A walk, a Netflix binge, a comfort food — watch out for the pandemic poundage, a book. The Across The Pond Book Club gives me something to look forward to, and that is a comforting, joyous thing.
Treat yourself well and treat those around you even better, we are all going through this strange, discomfiting time. Let yourself be a source of joy for someone else. Head high, heart open, one day – or one book – at at a time.
“Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people — hiding between the covers of a book,” — writer E.B. White.
• Patricia Turner Custard is a member of Congregation Sukkat Shalom. “Living Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders.