Jewish Librarians Convene in Baltimore

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The Association of Jewish Libraries held its board and council meetings on Jan. 20 and 21 at The Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education (CJE). More than two dozen members from around the country, including Hawaii, came to Baltimore for the volunteer-run organization’s meeting.

This year, the AJL discussed president Dina Herbert’s idea to compile a list of Jewish books that would comprise a core collection for Jewish libraries. Herbert got the idea “when I was at the library with my daughter and they had a ‘1,000 books you should read before kindergarten’” challenge.

She thought, “Could we curate a list of 100 Jewish books you should read before you die, or the 15 most important Jewish children’s books, or the 10 most important Jewish novels, the 10 best reference books?”

She believes the AJL can produce these lists with input from other community partners, and hopes to complete this in the next year and a half.

“You don’t have to be a Jewish librarian professionally,” said Herbert of AJL membership. Herbert, who works as the social networks and archival context (SNAC) liaison at the U.S. National Archives, found AJL while “working on the Iraqi Jewish archive project a few years ago,” she said.

Kathy Bloomfield, AJL’s vice president, is a non- librarian member who traveled from southern California for the meeting. “I just have a very deep passion for Jewish children’s literature,” she said. “I was a clergy assistant at a synagogue. I helped with their library.”

One of the biggest issues facing Jewish libraries, Bloomfield said, “is funding and seeing the purpose of having a Jewish library. We’re the people of the book, but schools and synagogues are phasing out libraries.”

Jessica Fink, librarian at the CJE, says although Jewish libraries nationwide face challenges, she sees robust interest in Jewish books and materials. According to Fink, CJE library patrons checked out 3,102 materials in 2015. In 2018, that number had more than doubled to 6,811.

Children’s books translated from English to Hebrew such as Dr. Seuss books and “Pete the Cat” are popular, said Fink, as are books on the summer reading lists for the area’s Jewish schools.

The collection of 15,000 materials will grow soon, she said, as the library catalogs and incorporates a large library of materials from funeral home Sol Levinson’s collection. The collection includes books on crisis, grief, death and explaining death to children through a Jewish lens.

Jewish Books Recognized

The Association of Jewish Libraries’ Sydney Taylor Book Awards for Jewish children’s literature were presented alongside the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards this year. The ALA announced the honors, which include the prestigious Newberry and Caldecott medals, on Monday.

The 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Awards went to “All-of-a-Kind-Family Hanukkah” by Emily Jenkins in the Younger Readers category. “Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster” by Jonathan Auxier won the Older Readers category and “What the Night Sings” by Vesper Stamper won in the Teen Readers category. Local writers Elissa Weissman and Erica Perl were honored in the Older Readers category. Perl’s “All Three Stooges” and Weissman’s “The Length of a String” both won silver medals.

Baltimore County Librarian Rebecca Levitan, who attended last week’s conference, says Sydney Taylor Book Award winners are chosen for their literary merit as well as their ability to “authentically portray the Jewish experience.”

Librarians’ Recommendations

Levitan says librarians have a knack for “finding the book you’re looking for even though you gave us the wrong title and author. And we’re really big on tech help.” But they are perhaps most helpful recommending books for parents to read to their kids.

Levitan recommended checking out the list of Sydney Taylor Award winners, which date back to the 1960s. “One of my favorites that my mom read to me and I enjoy reading to my children is ‘Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins,’ which I feel you have to read with voices,” Levitan said. “One we’ve been reading a lot on repeat recently is ‘Chicken Soup, Chicken Soup,’ about a little girl who has a Jewish grandmother and a Chinese grandmother and how they make very similar chicken soups even though they’re not quite the same. And how it brings the whole family together.”

Bloomfield thinks “Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins” is “the best Jewish children’s book ever written. She also recommends the Sydney Taylor Book Award winner “Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster,” which “is about a chimney sweep who has a Gollum who protects her. She’s not Jewish but the Gollum is a part of Jewish folklore. It was such a well-written book about the abuses these poor children faced in 18th century London.”

Fink found it hard to choose just a few titles but loves “Bagels from Benny” by Aubrey Davis and “Once Upon a Shabbos” by Jaqueline Jules. Herbert recommends “Why Noah Chose the Dove” by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Erica Rimlinger is a Towson-based freelance writer.

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  1. As the immidiate part president, I thank the BJT for shading light on our Association.
    In addition to emphasis children books, the association’s division of academic libraries and archives promotes research. I value the support of the Association to librarians and volunteers in synagogues, day schools and community centers like the Baltimore’s center. At the same time we have members from the Library of Congress, the Holocaust museum and librarians in Israel, Europe, South America and even South Africa. The meeeting (not conference) dedicated time to planning the 54th conference to take place in Los Angels next June.


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