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A Festival of Jewish Books–Record Sales Mark Historic Day in Chassidic History

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By: Dovid Margolin

With more than 2,000 volumes in its vast catalogue, Kehot Publication Society is the world’s leading publisher of Jewish books. Yet nearly 20 percent of their annual sales takes place during a single week in December or early January. That’s when the publisher’s showroom bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y., fills to capacity. Adults can be seen dragging shopping baskets laden with books—tomes of Jewish law, Chassidic philosophy and history, rabbinical treatises—from aisle to aisle, while children buckle under the collective weight of their brightly colored picture books.

During this week the store, which has stood at the corner of Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights since the early 1980s, officially remains open from morning until midnight. In reality, it’s later than that.

The day has turned into the “holiday of the books,” with young and old coming out or logging on to purchase Jewish books for their home libraries. A sampling of the crowd at Kehot Publication Society’s showroom bookstore. (Photo: Kehot Publication Society)

“We’re there until the last customer leaves,” says Mendel Laine, Kehot’s managing editor. “It’s not unusual for that to be 3 a.m.”

Welcome to Hei Tevet, the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet, the Jewish festival of the books. Since 1987, this day has been marked around the world with an emphasis on a trait particular to the People of the Book—buying more of them, specifically Jewish ones. More than two decades ago, Kehot introduced a 50-percent-off promotion on Hei Tevet, but demand has grown so high in recent years that the sale was extended to a full week.

Now, throughout the week, checkout lines snake through the store and past display stands. To help cope with the crush, Kehot hires additional staff for both their store and warehouse. At the same time, orders flood their website—where the sale is also available—from places that are home to large Jewish communities to the most remote parts of the world. To cope with the online demand, Kehot increases its bandwidth to ensure the site doesn’t crash.

Kehot, founded in 1941 by the Sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—shortly after arriving in the United States from Nazi-occupied Europe is the central publishing house of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Its staff and scholars maintain the task and responsibility of editing and publishing new works on Jewish thought, knowledge and practice; preserving, annotating and reissuing previously published ones; and making available as much of its massive library of prints at one time as humanly possible. Since its founding it has disseminated more than 100,000,000 volumes in Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Russian, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, German, Farsi and Arabic.

In the run-up to the court case, hundreds of rare volumes were surreptitiously removed by an individual claiming them as personal property and then sold piecemeal on the open market. A bookshelf at the library containing the reclaimed books. (Credit: Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad)

But during this season of the books, Kehot is not the only one making more Jewish books available for purchase. Publishing houses, including Chabad.org’s own growing number of print publications, as well as independent Judaica stores, carry their own promotions during this time.

 

The Holiday’s Painful Origins

Hei Tevet marks the day in 1987 when the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled decisively that the vast and rare library collected by the Sixth Rebbe and spirited out of the Old World belonged—as the Rebbe himself did—to the Chabad movement as a whole.

For millennia, Jewish wisdom, thought and practice had been passed down from generation to generation via the written word. When printing presses came into existence, Jewish works were among the first to be printed, making Jewish books more than just items but links in the transmission of tradition stretching back to Sinai. And what better way to mark this holy library’s return to its rightful place than for each and every individual upgrading and expanding their own home library?

The holiday’s origins are painful. In the winter of 1985, the Sixth Rebbe’s estranged grandson began surreptitiously removing hundreds of rare volumes from the library’s home in the central Chabad synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. When confronted, he claimed that the books were his own private property, rightfully inherited from his grandfather. By the time his actions were discovered, he had already sold a number of them on the rare Judaica market, garnering a six-digit gain; the rare-book dealers in turn sold them for even higher figures. An emergency court injunction was placed to put a halt to this activity. The case had then gone to federal court.

Chabad had retained well-known attorneys Nathan Lewin and Jerome Shestack to litigate the case, who were hailed in the ensuing celebrations. Lewin, a high-profile Washington, D.C.-based constitutional lawyer, can be seen being lifted onto shoulders amid dancing in the synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway. His wife, Rikki, snapped the photo. (Photo: Nathan and Rikki Lewin)

Throughout this period the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—the Sixth Rebbe’s son-in-law and successor—spent hours speaking about the spiritual challenge to the Chabad movement’s activities and international growth that the ownership claims over the books truly represented.

“As the saga unfolded,” writes Asher Deren in a long essay delving into the story’s events and significance, “it became apparent to the community at large that the issue was not merely a challenge to ownership of the library, but pivoted on such essential matters as the very definition of Jewish leadership, from the times of Moses to the Rebbe today.

“These existential and interconnected questions, whose answers flow from Judaism’s historical roots in the Divine Revelation narrative of Torah’s transmission from Sinai onward, fittingly revolved around the ownership of holy books.”

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s vast library, containing both valuable books and the priceless ksovim—the writings of the Chabad Rebbes dating back to the founding of the movement conveyed from generation to generation—was a physical and spiritual manifestation of the chain of tradition. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak had refused to leave the Soviet Union without it, and it had miraculously survived fire and hell. A suitcase of the most irreplaceable writings came with him on his 1929 trip to the land of Israel and the United States, and was with him through the Nazi bombing of Warsaw in 1939. If it was merely personal property, as was being claimed, it meant the chain had ended with him. The self-sacrifice, the mission, the calling … it had all come to an end.

The Rebbe took these charges very seriously. Once the trial was underway, he traveled to pray at his father-in-law’s gravesite, the Ohel in Queens, five days a week as opposed to the twice-a-month visits that had been his custom until then. As the Rebbe did not eat until he returned from the Ohel, this meant he was fasting for most of each week.

Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella organization for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, retained prominent attorneys Nathan Lewin of Washington, D.C., and Jerome Shestack of Philadelphia, and among expert witnesses to testify on the plaintiff’s behalf were the late Elie Wiesel and Professor Louis Jacobs. The Rebbe instructed the lawyers to follow the path they felt most appropriate, but did point to a letter written by his predecessor to Alexander Marx, the librarian of Jewish Theological Seminary in New York—in which the Sixth Rebbe had clearly articulated that his library was not a mere personal possession but a library containing works of infinite value to the Jewish people at large and belonging to the movement he led—as a key piece of evidence. Indeed, it would prove invaluable.

The Rebbe encouraged people of all ages to mark Hei Tevet by buying or reparing Jewish books, then studying them. A group of young girls with their teacher in Kehot’s showroom. (Photo: Kehot Publication Society)

“Defendants seek to explain this letter as duplicitous and of a piece with the wartime letters in German intended to be read by the Nazi censor. For reasons to be discussed more at length hereinafter, the explanation must be rejected … ,” wrote Judge Charles Sifton in his decision. “Not only does the letter, even in translation, ring with feeling and sincerity, it does not make much sense that a man of the character of the Sixth Rebbe would, in the circumstances, mean something different than what he says … .”

The other turning point was the testimony of the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the Sixth Rebbe’s second daughter.

“The books belonged to the Chassidim,” she said simply, but intensely, in her deposition, a tape of which was played in the courtroom, “because my father belonged to the Chassidim.”

Following a 23-day trial (Agudas Chasidei Chabad of United States v. Gourary, E.D.N.Y. 1987), the court handed down its ruling on the 5th of Tevet, corresponding to Jan. 6, 1987. “The conclusion is inescapable that the library was not held by the Sixth Rebbe at his death as his personal property,” wrote Sifton in his ruling, “but had been delivered to plaintiff [Agudas Chasidei Chabad] to be held in trust for the benefit of the religious community of Chabad Chasidism.”

(www.Chabad.org)

With thanks to “A Chassidishe Derher” magazine and Rabbi Avraham Vaisfiche of Kehot Publication Society.

To take advantage of the Hei Tevet annual sale, visit the Kehot online store.

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