There is an essay by Walter Benjamin which I very much like, and which I think everyone with large collections of books likes. It's called "Unpacking my library". He describes the intense pleasure and delight he feels unpacking his vast library of over 2,000 books. He revels as much in the bindings as in the stories or the illustrations in them. He remembers the history of how he got them, he remembers the pleasures of reading them and anticipates the renewed pleasure of re-reading them. He has so many stories of his encounters with them. He describes the delight he feels in setting the books up like a personal fortress with his own particular order, before he disappears into it to lose himself in reading.
The thing that really resonates with me is when he picks up with disdainful fingertips the question which any large scale book collector will have got from visitors, along the lines of, but have you actually read all those books you're got? No of course not, responds Benjamin scornfully. The whole idea of a library of books is not just to have only those you have read, but to have many for which the moment of reading hasn't yet come. Because we never know or can predict when and how a book will become necessary or important to us.
And it strikes me that this is really very like my situation with my family history "library". I started off with a collection of 161 individuals that Cousin Danny sent me from Haifa. Of course, most of them were duplicates I already had in the collection of my mind. But Danny's collection was the start of cataloguing them all. And today there are 1365... and still some more waiting to be added. The oldest in my own collection goes back to 1774. But I've got some on inter-family loan who go back to the 1740s. And there's always the excitement of finding ways to group them; who's related to who. And discovering who went to the same school, and which ones went to America, and what happened to the ones who stayed. I even have a little program on my Palm that lets me carry the whole catalogue around with me. It's got a wonderful little trick that works out the exact relationship between x and y, down to the last fifth cousin twice removed. Very pedantic, and how sad is that? But funnily enough, everyone in the collection always wants to know exactly how they are related to anyone else in the collection I introduce them to. Yes, says my impatient visitor. Very nice. But what use are 1365 known relatives to you? And have you met them all yet?
No, I haven't, and most I never will. But their stories are there, and many are constantly changing as I find more little footnotes and scraps of information to each one. And sometimes the greatest thing you can do with the collection is to reveal its treasures to someone else who they matter to. One of the most moving moments in my life happened to me this year when I was able to show Cousin Ze'ev from Haifa, who I'd never been in touch with before, what his grandfather had looked like, what his signature looked like, and who were his grandmother's family going back to the 1750s. And Ze'ev, whose holocaust survivor parents had never been able to talk about the family left behind in Krakow, sent me a fax after we spoke on the phone. It's not quite conventional English. But I treasure it as much as anything that was ever sent to me. This is some of what he said:
...our wonderful conversation, getting to know I make part of a tree, while always I had branches and leafs that had grown next to me.
Your words as well as your fax with my family tree did not let me, but read and go over and over the pages, to digest what ever you had sent of my past.
Finally to know more of my roots which since being a small child asked myself why I never had the opportunity to meet my old grandfather and grandmother while other children had. Why I could not know more of the history of our family, and to recall each one by name.
So you can feel the joy and happiness you gave me, to let me return and touch the tree of birth and imagine with sadness diluted with relief that finally the entire family M--- is in my life to be.
Still, one of the most exciting moments of all is the chance for a live meeting with a member of the collection I haven't met before. Well, there's some risk taking involved. How do I know we will get on? What if we really hate each other? And of course there's so much more at stake than whether you might like the books you ordered from Amazon.
But, so far, I've always struck it lucky. I always find I like the new arrivals. And it's been even nicer to hear so much more of their stories than I ever knew before. And usually, to find that there is something of the family embedded in each one that is beyond what could have been predicted.
Yesterday I met for the first time another member of my family, a family branch I found through an extraordinary chance, that must rank with the equivalent of finding a Shakespeare first edition in a pile in a second hand book shop. Cousin Kate is just 21 and she arrived with a fellow student from Penn University. They are here to do a term in different London colleges, and to my great delight, Kate will be studying at my old undergraduate College.
Cousin Kate is a distant third cousin. This is how I came to find this family, which none of the circle of members that Danny or I knew of previously. One evening, three years ago, my daughter and I went out to a concert by a Jewish accapella choir from Yale University. There was an opportunity to meet the members afterwards over a meal. As soon as I saw the programme, the names of the choir members caught my eye, because there was someone with the family name of my mother's family. And it's not a common name. When the choir came on, I spotted him instantly. Uncannily, he looked very like many of the men from our branch of the family. And he was the organiser of the choir. We eventually got to exchange a few words, I explained my connection with that family name, and asked if he knew if his family had any connections with Kanczuga, the Galician Polish shtetl my maternal grandfather came from. Yes, he said, that's where they're from. Eventually, through emails exchanged with his father, we established that his grandfather knew of my great uncle Nachman in Tel Aviv. I worked out that my great grandfather must have had a brother who was the founder of this branch of the family.
Since then, David brought the choir over again, and we had the world record for people staying at my house, with nine of them packed into any bedroom and living room floor space we could find. Then he went to spend time in Israel after finishing Yale. He worked at Ha'aretz and volunteered to do a year in the Israeli army. He was involved in supporting the disengagement on the West Bank. And we met up twice when I went to Israel last winter. I introduced him to my Tel-Aviv cousins, 92 year old Max, the son of Nachman, and his daughter Dafna. We met in a restaurant which was formerly the premises of a somewhat louche furrier.
So that was three generations together, whose only common ancestors are Avraham and Gitla, who lived at the same time as Jane Austen, Schubert and Napoleon.
The power of genetics and family culture is amazing. David looks so like Max, you could have sworn he was his grandson. But what's even nicer is that David has very much the same sense of humour as my daughter and myself. We all love absurdist games where we take an idea and play with it till we're helpless with laughter. Our subject when we did that in Jerusalem was colours and street cred status of Israeli army headgear and camouflage gear. It got into the helpless laughter stage when we introduced the idea of new variants based on showercaps.
So I knew I would really like Kate. She is David's sister. And she is lovely. Gentle, modest and charming, with a fragile, almond eyed beauty. And very appreciative. Well, she laughed at all my jokes. And she and her friend Alexis enjoyed a most untouristy drive to Hendon, where I introduced them to the joys of spotting Extreme Subversions of School Uniform, as the kids poured out of the local comprehensive school. In the evening, we went to eat felafel at Solly's, which I think is better than anything I've eaten on my visits to Israel in recent years. I was introducing them to our Tel-Aviv in London: superb felafel, full of noisy Israelis and Brits, an unmistakably Israeli approach to service from the cashier who said, I've got no time for you, come back later. But minus the beautiful Bauhaus houses, Rothschild Boulevard, the brilliant blue skies, the beach, the sea--oh, and the very large cockroaches. And the fame of Solly's had reached Philadelphia. It didn't disappoint.
And again, the power of genes was there. It's not so much that there's a strong resemblance, but when she turns her head a certain way, it's as if the 16 year old Dafna of Tel Aviv 1962 stood there before me.