Rabbi Mark S. Glickman tells the story of how the Nazis looted tens of millions of Jewish books from families and institutions throughout Europe during World War II and what happened in the aftermath in his upcoming book “Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books.”
The Nazis initially tried to burn the books, but they discovered books don’t burn very well, says Glickman, who is serving as interim rabbi at Beth Shalom Synagogue.
“They ended up starting to save them, ostensibly so they could later do research on the extinct Jewish people after the war,” he says. “They stored them in castles and mine shafts and monasteries.”
After the war, the Allied forces found many of the books, says Glickman, who explores what happened to the books and how they reconnect survivors with their past.
Glickman, a collector of rare books, has a few of the recovered volumes.
One of his favorites is a large, heavy “Digest of the Laws from the Talmud,” printed in 1764.
As he carefully opens it to show the tiny Hebrew words, he surmises a story about it.
“In the 18th century, it made its way into some little study house in Eastern Europe where students, day after day, month after month, year after year, for 200 years almost, studied it,” he says. “Then one day, the door of that study house opened, and it wasn’t eager students. They had probably been rounded up and taken out of town and shot. And, instead, the Nazi thugs came in, took this book and other books, threw them into the back of a truck, probably brought it to a nearby castle and was found after the war by Allied forces.”
The 52-year-old’s new book, his second, comes out in February.
His 2012 book, “Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah,” described as “Indiana Jones meets The DaVinci Code,” details the 1896 discovery by Rabbi Solomon Schechter, of Cambridge University, of more than 300,000 Jewish documents stored in the 1,000 year-old Ben Ezra Synagogue.
“In Judaism, because the written word is so sacred, we’re not allowed to destroy or throw away sacred texts — ever! So, either you bury them, customarily near the grave of a prominent rabbi, or you put them into a genizah, an attic or a cellar or a closet in the synagogue that acts like a sacred document dump, a place where we put these unusable but indisposable Jewish documents,” he explains.
The Cairo documents ranged from scraps of love letters to court documents to scrolls and books that nobody had seen for centuries. All the documents are now in private collections, university libraries and Jewish seminaries.
Glickman says he first heard about the Cairo genizah from a professor during his first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, and read a copy of Rabbi Schechter’s book detailing his discovery.
“I found it fascinating,” he says.
To research his own book Glickman examined some of the Cairo documents in the Cambridge University Library, in England, and the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York.
“I got to page through the oldest known Passover Haggadah in the world,” he says, referencing a book Jewish families read during the Passover Seder meal.
“I got to hold in my hand, albeit in plastic sleeves, handwritten letters written by Moses Maimonides, the great rabbi who lived in Cairo (1138-1204),” Glickman says.
He took his then-15 year old son Jacob to Cairo in 2010, where they visited the synagogue and climbed a rickety ladder to look into the empty genizah.
“At the time we were the only outside visitors since 1911,” he says.
Glickman, a Torah scholar who calls himself a “Jewish book nerd par excellence,” says he has several thousand books in his personal library.
“I have a love of Torah, but Torah in Judaism has two meanings,” he says. “The most narrow meaning is the five books of Moses, but more broadly speaking it is all classical Jewish learning. It is the Jewish attempt to unpack what it is that God wants of us as written down.”
Glickman, who has been serving at Beth Shalom Synagogue for five months, will soon wrap his tenure.
“I’m here for one year with no expectation to stay,” Glickman says. “I come pre-fired.”
This is Glickman’s second interim post; he previously served Congregation Bar Hashem, in Boulder, Colorado, a much larger congregation of 500 families compared to just over 100 families at Beth Shalom.
One of his tasks here, he says, is to help search for the next rabbi and pave the way so he or she can succeed.
Glickman’s wife, Caron, a dentist, and their four children live near Seattle. Because of the distance from his family, he says he isn’t sure if he will take another interim position.
Many clergy have a life verse, and Glickman shares his with a smile.
“The verse that is the most guiding force in my life is Leviticus 19:2. ‘You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy. In Judaism what is important is not being wealthy, it’s not being famous, it’s not even being happy. The most important thing in Judaism is to be holy,” Glickman says. “Holiness is understood as doing what God wants you to do; obeying the commandments in the Torah, and there are 613 of them.
“So, to the extent I do what it is that God wants me to do, I am a holy person,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that I am holy, it means that I’m supposed to be holy. I don’t know if I’m a holy man, but I do know that I’m not a holy enough man.”