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Behind the Scenes

People of the Book

  • By Michael Lowenthal
  • Published in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, 1998

Three years ago, researching a novel about generations of a Jewish family, I found, in the stacks of Baker Library, a book called Pseudo-Aristotele Über die Seele, copyright 1891. Remarkably intact after more than a century, the volume hadn't been checked out for years. Its author's name was Abraham Loewenthal.

I knew my great-grandfather had written books, but I'd never seen one. Of the meager printing that would have been issued of his esoteric religious treatises, most remained in Germany, and most, I assumed, were destroyed by Nazis.

The text—in German, Hebrew, and Latin—was indecipherable to me. But the letterpressed characters, raised from the foxed pages like living growth, inspired a visceral eureka-sense of connection. I closed my eyes and let my fingers enjoy this secret braille of my heritage.

If Jews are the People of the Book, my family seems to have taken that moniker to heart. I grew up knowing little of my great-grandfather beyond the fact of his half-dozen monographs. My grandfather—like his father, a scholar and rabbi—also published a tome after he came to America, an exegesis of the biblical Joseph story. Papa Eric was a Holocaust refugee who had lost to the war, among family members and possessions, the priceless book collection bequeathed him by his father. I imagine his drive to publish his own book, then, as almost biological. After so many casualties, here was a creation, a legacy. From my earliest recollection, a copy of the book was displayed on my grandparents' glass-topped coffee table.

Also on that shrine eventually sat books by my father, who, though breaking the family's rabbinical chain, perpetuated the literary inheritance. His volumes—on the spread of Latin American democracy—were a far cry from the previous generations' Judaica, but still, they were books, and cause for pride.

This was our version of a family business, it seemed to me, our equivalent of a store awning: Lowenthal & Sons.

And so from a young age I dreamed of continuing the tradition. In a second-grade homework assignment, I answered the stock "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with creative chutzpah: I would play for the Boston Red Sox six months of the year, and in the remaining six, be a writer. Each dismal Little League season soon made clear that the Majors were not my destiny. But the notion of becoming a writer grew oddly more possible. In high school, I rose to editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. At Dartmouth, I completed a Senior Fellowship in fiction. All the while I was driven by the vision of a book—one with my own name on the jacket—someday stacked atop the family pile.

My grandfather died fifteen years ago. When my grandmother followed him, in 1995, the object I coveted most from her apartment was that small glass-topped coffee table. My relatives didn't ask why I favored this nondescript remnant over more valuable items in the estate, but they obliged.

It seemed, then, almost fated when that day at Baker I happened upon my great-grandfather's rare edition. Here was the long-absent wellspring of the legacy, symbolizing everything the family had lost in the flight from Hitler: our language, our culture, our history. (Even the spine's gilded lettering—Loewenthal, with two e's—marked what was given up in Americanizing our name.)

I knew the book would be best preserved in the library. But when I held it I was overcome with acute possessiveness. Like nothing else I'd encountered, this book, I felt, belonged to me.

In a barrage of phone calls and E-mails, I pled for the librarian's understanding. He resisted, citing the need for "scholarly access." But when I finally drove again to Hanover and knocked on the poor man's office door, he relented. The volume was de-accessioned and entrusted to my care.

I was tempted then to mount my exhibit. I had physical evidence of three generations' accomplishments. But my forebears' sense of perseverance told me to wait just a little longer.

This fall, my novel—the one I was researching when serendipity struck in the form of a yellowed book—was published. It's the story of a young Jewish man in search of belonging, whose quest is complicated by the fact that he is gay. He wrestles with the weight of his ancestors' history, seeking ways to do them justice while remaining true to himself.

I've struggled with similar questions in my own life. If my great-grandfather were alive today, he might have difficulty recognizing our kinship. He was an Orthodox rabbi, and I am nonobservant. I don't speak German or Hebrew. I'm gay.

But when I received the first copy of my novel and placed it on the coffee table—touching my father's book, touching his father's, touching his—I'd like to think I did honor to the family. It's official now: I, too, am a Person of the Book.