I had the pleasure of crossing paths with Avrum, owner of The House of David bookstore in Valley Village, CA on a rainy late-October afternoon just as he was closing up shop to prepare for the Sabbath. I found myself wandering his store appreciating this book collection as he took two calls – he’s a very popular man and recently had his phone-line fixed after being out of commission for a few days. One other person was in his store, a customer looking for reading material that would compliment a program he helps run at a local temple. In the SoundCloud recording above, you will hear the customer and Avrum discuss discounted options as he is buying a handful of books and has received discounts in the past for program related purchases.
I had previously met Avrum earlier in the month when I walked into The House of David, a timid 20-something who kind of knew what she was going to do, but didn’t practice. Jesus, take the wheel. Avrum himself came to my rescue when he saw me panicking as I struggled to get to my point as to why I had walked into his shop in the first place. With his calm and sweet demeanor I was able to finally ask if I could interview him and with delight he agreed. Avrum handed me a Jewish calendar that he told me I could keep free of charge and decided to an interview after October’s holidays ended. I reveled in the passion Avrum had for his cultural and religious heritage as he spoke of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. These holidays that were fast approaching and making me wish I too could celebrate such beautiful traditions. My nerves were at ease by this point since someone else was doing all the talking and I was doing all the learning.
I didn’t have the pleasure of really knowing any of my grandparents, so my experience with elderly people was nil. My experience with Avrum was how most people would describe interactions with their own grandparents. He gave me words of wisdom, shared “before your time” stories, and made me feel right at home in his little shop as he pulled leather seats out of a storage closet so we could sit in comfort.
Avrum is a Orthodox jew and observing such rich cultural traditions would be next to impossible from a participant observational point of view. My time spent with Avrum was to find out how I could integrate myself into Jewish culture as an Anthropologist and talk about his take on Judaism. He doesn’t look at Judaism as a religion but rather, a way of life. The key he says, is devotion to God’s commandments and how he respond to them. Things happen in life that are inexplicable such as natural disasters, dying young, automobile accidents etc., and the importance lies in how he responds to those tragedies. Judaism gives him that opportunity to respond in a way which is in accordance with God’s mitzvot. The word mitzvah meaning commandment also means “good deed.” Avrum believes that these commandments give him the opportunity to really enjoy life each day.
We spoke about the recent celebration of Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) which involved spending the entire month leading into it with prayers of forgiveness and blowing the shofar every morning except on Shabbat, to awaken ones soul. Traditions call for dipping an apple in honey to signify hope for a sweet year. Ending our conversation about Rosh Hashanah, Avrum said these are all just personal preferences and in each home you will find subtle nuances.
The Sabbath was upon us, it was 2:45pm on a Friday afternoon. Our conversation was coming to a close, he began to speak about his beloved observance of the Sabbath: The torah was used as a blueprint for Shabbat. Humans were created Friday afternoon, so the first thing they could enjoy is the menuha – not just a physical rest, but also a spiritual rejuvenation. Spiritual rejuvenation is what Shabbat is all about.
The most pressing question I had for Avrum had to do with cultural exploration. How could someone wanting to gain insight into Judaism explore it at a community level? Avrum said that within Judaism in the United States there’s reform, conservative, and orthodox. Most people wanting to explore Judaism would be most comfortable with reform or conservative because the Rabbi speaks in English, the prayer books are in both English and Hebrew, and one could ask particular questions at the temple to gain further insight. We ended it here and as I packed my things and thanked him for his time as we walked to the door, he took my hand in his and kissed the back of it. So kind, so classy, and a beautiful human being I wish I had more time with – Avrum was a pleasure to converse with and I look forward to seeing him again in the future since I have yet to conclude my exploration in Judaism.