One of the reasons that Yoni and I choose to live in Tsfat 18 years ago was the library.
At the time, we had lived in Israel for 2 years on a kibbutz, and had decided that it was time to move into a larger community. We agreed on the basic guidelines of where we wanted to live…we wanted to stay in the North of Israel, in a smallish community where there would be enough of an economic base for Yoni to open a carpentry shop. We needed a place which offered government-subsidized housing to help us get started, and a place where there would be some sort of English-speaking community.
So, on our free afternoons from the kibbutz, we visited a couple of towns. When we planned our visit to Tsfat, we called the local representative of the AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) to ask if she could meet with us. “No problem” she assured us. “The library is open”.
Turns out that Edyth, who was (and probably still is) the local representative of the AACI, also hosted the local English library in her 1-bedroom apartment. Books were double-and triple stacked on bookshelves throughout her apartment. Romance novels were in her bedroom, humor books were laid out in cartons on her bed (the cartons got shoved under her bed when the library closed), mysteries were in the living room, cook-books in the kitchen, and magazines on the couch. During our first visit to Tsfat, we were able to meet many residents due to the fact that we came on library day, and it certainly influenced our decision to settle there.
In the years since, I rarely begin a Friday morning (the Israeli equivalent of “Sunday”) without a stop at the library. A few years ago, the library moved into a small apartment under Edyth’s, but Edyth, now 82 years old, still manages the library with an eagle eye. All of the books are donated, and various kind donors donate magazine subscriptions and the money to pay the rent and utilities. The work of checking in and out books, shelving, registering, etc., is done by volunteers, while Edyth sits at the front desk, keeping everything in order.
“Let’s check your page” she tells visitors as they arrive, and then proceeds to take anyone with overdue books or magazines to task. (Though it must be said that, after a tongue lashing for a late return, she rarely insists on a fine) “Have you paid for your Rosh Hashana greeting in the Western Settler’s bulletin” she queries everyone – she’s the one who collects the roughly $3 yearly fee for the service. Edyth is also the person who collects money for the community Noam Fund, which distributes weekly food packages to the needy. When the library closes, Edyth heads upstairs to her apartment for e-mail correspondence, searching for donors to keep the library afloat. “I’m over 80” she lamented once. “What is everyone going to do when I kick off?”
When I arrive at 9:00a.m. on Friday mornings (I try not to be late, because it gets crowded soon afterward) I usually spent a half hour signing in new magazines (partly an altruistic gesture on my part to volunteer, partly an attempt to get the new magazines first!) and then start my book search. The newest releases (Edyth reminds anyone who is traveling to pick up a few new books on their journey) sit behind Edyth’s desk – she won’t let anyone who has a bad record of returning books take too many of those. The rest of the library doesn’t go according to the Dewey system, since there isn’t room, but there is a science fiction section, a romantic novel section, a “high-brow” section, sections for animals, psychology, health, Jewish issues, Israel, short stories, and others. There are audio-tapes, large print books, video tapes, and a large children’s section, which is open, free of charge, to the city’s children.
Twice monthly, after the library closes on Fridays, Edyth runs a stamp club for dozens of Tsfat’s schoolchildren. Together with another volunteer, they help the children learn about stamp-collecting, trading, and organizing, and Edyth hands out free stamps to the children, which she receives from donors from around the world. My children are not collectors now, but numerous schoolchildren in Tsfat have learned their geography, not in the classroom, but in Edyth’s living room.