In early 1947, a Bedouin shepherd boy scaled an escarpment rising above the Dead Sea in search of a lost sheep. A dark opening carved into the rock wall caught his eye, and the boy climbed closer to investigate. He didn't find his sheep, but he discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls instead. The shepherd boy couldn't read Hebrew, and the Jewish library of Qumran appeared to hold no spiritual or cultural significance for him-(he was interested in selling the scrolls as quickly as possible)-but we can all imagine the mystery and excitement the boy must have felt. I'd venture to guess, though, that my own library discovery experience was even more profound. The books that I found while taking refuge in a public library in rural Washington State in the mid-1980's were accessible to me and their spiritual power changed the course of my life.
I know now that my family tree is adorned with Rabbis and Hebrew novelists, Yiddish auctioneers and shtetl folk healers. But, as a kid, I didn't know a thing about it. didn't even know I was Jewish. My mother, Claudia, pulled up her roots as a teenager and came west to San Francisco in the Summer of Love, trying to find a new family - one based on a shared vision of communitarian love, not tribal bloodlines or ancient texts. She still hadn't found what she was looking for by the time I was born at the end of the Vietnam War, and my early childhood was spent wandering the American West in search of an elusive utopia.
By the time I was ten years old Claudia and I had hitchhiked for thousands of miles and befriended hundreds of exceptionally strange people. We had danced around bonfires and lived in vans, buses, and an ice cream truck. Some nights we slumbered blissfully under the stars, others I lay awake paralyzed by the howling of wolves.
Our quest for utopia stalled out in rural Washington State when Claudia married Leopoldo, a former Salvadoran guerrilla fighter who brought with him demons from the civil war in Central America and a serious drinking problem. My mother was convinced that he was a messianic revolutionary hero she had foretold in clairvoyant visions. I was pretty sure Leopoldo was going to kill us.
In the summer of 1986, we moved to a temperate rainforest on one of the San Juan Islands. Leopoldo told us he was going to build us an ancient Egyptian-style pyramid to live in, but we had to abandon the project after he threatened to kill the landowner. We took shelter in a dilapidated little apartment in the town of Stanwood on the mainland. Although the place was moldy and infested with rats, I couldn't complain about the novelty of running water and electricity.
That winter brought wild storms howling in from the Puget Sound, followed suddenly by calm and open skies. Like the alternating rhythms of rain and sun, I accepted the rounds of family violence and reconciliation as normal. Not ideal, not pleasant, but predictable and certain. The steady cadence of Leopoldo and Claudia marching grimly together as husband and wife. Home was bearable in times of peace, but in times of war I sought political asylum at the Stanwood Library. There I took to cruising the Dewey Decimal System for meaning and inspiration. But I didn't just leap into the tall metal stacks with my eyes closed. I had a destination in mind-- the vicinity of call number 296. Judaism. Whatever that was.
This was the fulfillment of a promise I'd made to myself out in the wilderness a year before when I discovered I was Jewish. "What does it mean 'we're Jews?'" I'd asked my mother when she finally decided to share the news with me.
"Jews, you know," she shrugged. "Like Einstein, Freud, Marx."
Having been home schooled by my mother, I knew who those men were. But I didn't see the connection. "Like we're related to them?"
"Sort of." And then she followed this up with a very Jewish answer: "You know, Joshey, I don't exactly know what it means to be Jewish. We'll have to go to the library and look it up."
The Stanwood Library opened its doors to me without question. The patient librarians didn't care about my frayed clothes and never questioned my determination to spend every waking hour under their roof. Mercifully warm and clean, the library was a shelter from the rain and the echoes of my mother screaming in the night. I washed my face in the clean white sink and took refuge in books about the Talmud, the Golem of Prague, and Israel. I piloted the reading room for hours, hurtling through space and time, discovering that I was part of something. Something profound. I wasn't just a lonely urchin raised on a tree stump. I was the descendant of an ancient tribe that had emerged from the mists of prehistory to write the Bible, introduce the world to God, and shine unto the nations like a beacon of righteousness. We had been scattered to the wind, driven relentlessly to the four corners of the Earth. Oppressed and demeaned in each generation, yet we wandered on, excelling in isolation wherever we went. We didn't need to be normal like everyone else; we were the Israelites. Each day when the library finally closed, I walked back home through the darkness, an only child no more. Now I knew I descended from the seed of Jacob, and somewhere out there were a million of my nameless brethren, clinging to diasporic rocks just like me, determined to thrive.
Thankfully, after many blessings and years of hard work, I now find myself an Orthodox Jewish attorney with a happy stable family, looking back at how much things have changed since those dark days. But one thing has remained a constant - I still proudly carry my library card, forever confident that some new hidden truth will be revealed to me on my next trip to the library.