(JTA) — Just before locking down in early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, children’s book author Caroline Kusin Pritchard was waiting to pick up her two toddlers from preschool at Congregation Beth Am in Palo Alto, California, when she saw a thin volume poking out of a shelf in the synagogue library.
The 56-page book, called “Fire! The Library is Burning,” by Rabbi Barry Cytron, detailed a historical event she had never heard of before: the 1966 library fire at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in the Manhattan neighborhood of Morningside Heights.
The fire was a devastating event for the seminary, the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism. It destroyed some 70,000 books and 40 Torahs in the library’s collection, some of which had been saved from Poland. No people were hurt and few rare books were burned, but because of the way the library was constructed, in a windowless tower, the only way to put it out was to dump water from above, resulting in sweeping damage even to volumes that escaped the flames.
What grabbed Kusin Pritchard’s attention was not the fire itself, but the way New Yorkers who lived and worked near the school responded to it — volunteering to evacuate books from the library and protect them from lasting damage.
That response is the focus of her upcoming children’s book, “The Keeper of Stories,” announced this week and due out in the fall of 2024. The episode, Kusin Pritchard said, feels all the more meaningful at a time when activists and local governments across the country are banning books — including some about the Holocaust — and restricting them from school library shelves.
“I just never thought a story about saving books would feel radical in 2023,” she said. “People are proactively going out of their way to strip books from public libraries and school shelves.”
The message of “The Keeper of Stories,” Kusin Pritchard added, is that “it didn’t matter to people what necessarily was in the books. They just knew there was inherent value and the story is being told and to save and protect books more generally, like these sacred gatekeepers of our humanity.”
The book is on the road to publication at a time of significant change for the JTS library, a large and storied institution with 400,000 volumes that includes a notable collection of rare Jewish books. The library downsized its space after a 2015 real estate deal and has more recently drawn scrutiny for auctioning some of its rare books. The longtime lead librarian who led the efforts to recover from the fire, Menahem Schmelzer, died last year.
Schmelzer, a Holocaust survivor born in Hungary who served as JTS’ head librarian from 1964 to 1987, spoke to Kusin Pritchard about his recollection of the fire, which happened to occur on his birthday.
“He was able to share just gorgeous, textured memories about what the experience was like for him,” she recalled.
“There’s a refrain throughout about ‘the keeper of stories,’” Kusin Pritchard added, referencing the book’s title. “This idea of, ‘who are the keepers of stories?’ Is it the building involved? Is it the pages of the book?”
Kusin Pritchard is the author of other children’s books with Jewish themes. “Gitty and Kvetch,” released in 2021, features a character who is always complaining; “Where is Poppy?”, out next year, is about a girl’s first Passover after her grandfather’s death. The new book, meant for readers in elementary school, will be illustrated by Selina Alko, who is Jewish and has previously illustrated books about interfaith holiday celebrations and the effort to save Czech children from the Nazis.
“The Keeper of Stories” will depict the steps that JTS’s neighbors took to save the books that didn’t burn. They formed an impromptu chain to pass books out of the library, pack them in boxes and, in turn, clear the boxes out to make more space for additional evacuated books. Volunteers also mobilized to place paper towels between each page of books soaked by the firehoses that were in danger of growing mold.
“These volunteers came from across the city and dried these books with paper towels and you can still see the places where they taped them and glued them back together on some of these actual books, on the pages.” Kusin Pritchard said. “Their stories still kind of exist in person.”
Initially, Kusin Pritchard wrote the draft from the perspective of the person who came up with the idea of using paper towels to preserve the books — an effort that caused a run on the towels nearby. But she soon realized that the story was about more than one individual’s efforts to save the contents of a library, so none of the characters is named.
“This wasn’t about this one person,” Kusin Pritchard said. “It was about how everyone came together. Preschoolers, students down the street, the pastors, the company that heard about this and sent paper towels, or General Foods who had these freeze dryers and they sent their food scientists to try and freeze dry the books. It was a collective.”
Kusin Pritchard said she usually writes lighter fare, but as the parent of three young children — 6, 4 and 2 years old — she said she isn’t worried about frightening readers.
“Kids can take on and handle a lot more than we give them credit for,” she said.
She also hopes to show her young readers that they can play a role in safeguarding books, too.
“In a world where book banning seems more and more normalized,” she said, “a story about saving books feels really resonant.”
Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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