By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood
Some misguided souls believe that books are becoming an anachronism.
You can see these mutants on planes and on the el, looking smug as they turn “pages” with a finger-touch on their shiny new Kindles.
Try telling any of this to the women from North Shore Hadassah’s “Bookies” book club, though, and you’ll have a fight on your hands. A huge fight. These women love books.
They demonstrate that devotion once a month (and far more often than that at home, as they read the assigned volumes) when they meet to have lunch at a member’s home, then listen to a discussion of the chosen book, then discuss it themselves.
This book group is unusual on many fronts. It started more than 20 years ago (none of the current members are sure of the exact year it was launched), long before the start of Oprah’s book club and its hundreds of offshoots and the many such clubs sponsored by libraries and organizations, or started by individuals.
Seven women from Highland Park Hadassah simply decided they wanted to get together and discuss books, according to Sandy Kaminsky, the group’s unofficial historian and public relations person. The format was the same – held in a member’s home, lunch followed by a “review” of that month’s book, then a discussion – but the meetings were led by a paid professional who chose the book, gave the review and led the discussion.
When she became ill and could no longer continue, about three years after the group started, the members decided to choose the books and lead the discussions themselves, and that formula has worked ever since.
In fact, the group became so popular that when membership reached 25, members decided to split it into two groups, and the “Page Turners” was born. Now there’s a possibility of forming a third group to keep membership in each to 20 – more manageable for the hostess, who prepares lunch for the attendees, Kaminsky says.
At the meetings, every woman donates $5, which goes toward Hadassah’s Youth Aliyah programs.
Choosing the books for discussion is a democratic process. At the November meeting, each member is asked to bring in two or three suggested titles.
“They have to have read the book,” Kaminsky says. “We have lunch, and then everybody explains the title they brought in. We put them all up on a blackboard – we have many, many titles. Then we vote.”
There’s a definite art to the selection, Kaminsky says. The group tries to keep a balance between fiction (which is generally preferred) and non-fiction, classic and modern, and between books with Judaic content and those without.
“If the woman recommending the book doesn’t promote it well, it probably won’t be voted in. It has to be something that is generally accepted as a good book,” Kaminsky says.
Also chosen at the meeting are those who will “review” the book and lead the discussion about it, generally, but not always the woman who has suggested the book.
Generally the books chosen are well accepted, if not always well loved, Kaminsky says. With “March,” a fictional account of the life of author Louisa May Alcott’s father, Kaminsky says that “a lot of the women weren’t sure they liked the book, but they all thought they learned something from it.”
Another longtime member, Del Sklare, says one of the things she likes about the group is that “the books have been diversified. Many of the books I would never have read,” among them “The Pearl Diver,” a much-acclaimed novel set on an island leper colony in 1940s Japan.
“I thought, why would anyone want to read a book about leprosy?” Sklare says. “I didn’t like it, didn’t enjoy it, I was really annoyed that it had been selected, but when I went to the discussion, I had a totally different outlook. I realized how much I learned about something I don’t know anything about at all. That’s the beauty of reading.”
Member Betty Sandlow had a different experience with one book, “Crashing Through,” the true story of a man who lost his sight as a young child then had it restored years later.
“I was very very impressed by the story. He was a courageous person, a real risk-taker. When I read the book, I just felt so wonderful. He had problems afterwards, but that was my view of the book. But there were other people who read the same book and thought the story was depressing because it wasn’t strictly a happily-ever-after story,” she says.
Many of the women talk about how important the book club is in their life, how the combination of camaraderie and intellectual stimulation gives them something special to look forward to every month.
The women themselves? They’re all members of Hadassah, naturally, all Jewish, all live on the North Shore and are generally middle-aged or older. Some are working, others retired. They are wives and widows, mothers and grandmothers. They share a love of books and a chance to discuss them in a comfortable setting.
“The only thing I did after my husband passed away was to go to my book club. I didn’t want to miss it,” Sklare says.
One of the group’s members is herself an author. Marvell Ginsburg wrote a children’s classic, “The Tattooed Torah,” and several other volumes as well as a book about Jewish holidays for religious school teachers. As the director for 32 years of the early childhood department of the Board of Jewish Education, her knowledge of books and Judaica is vast, yet she says she still learns much at the book club, which she joined when she retired in 1995.
After joining Hadassah, “I gravitated to the book club immediately,” she says. “I am a voracious reader and I love to write. I found the women all very interested in reading and the discussions lively.”
Janice Temple is one of the group’s original members. “Nobody seems to remember what year it started. We think it was around 20 years ago,” she says. She joined because “I love reading, I loved books my whole life. It was a no-brainer.”
The book club even led to Temple having a personal relationship with an author. After the group read “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” a novel about two women in 19th-century China, Temple met author Lisa See when she was speaking at a library in California. She met See again at a speaking engagement in Winnetka, and now “we have a correspondence going on,” Temple reports.
Phyllis Ehrenberg is the newest member of the group. Originally from New York, she moved to Chicago from Los Angeles a few months ago and met Kaminsky at a current events class. She belonged to a book club before and sampled this one at Kaminsky’s invitation.
“I enjoyed it; it was a nice meeting, the women were knowledgeable, it was well run. The leader did research about the author and we had a very good discussion. There was not a lot of time wasted on any personal stuff. They were an experienced group that had been around a long time. I like book clubs and these are nice women, so the whole thing sort of fell into place for me,” she says.
Another member, Ina Begoun, joined the club about nine years ago when she received a gift membership to Hadassah. “I just love it,” she says of the club. “I can’t say I’ve always enjoyed all the books, but it kind of forces me to read, which is one of the reasons I enjoy it. And the discussions are interesting.”
Gladys Kane, who has been a member for about 10 years, says that while she enjoys the books and discussions, the group has meant much more to her.
“Everybody is very congenial, and many of them have become close friends of mine. Usually at this age you don’t make new friends,” Kane, who managed the gift shop at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies for 10 years, says. She also has a degree in Jewish Studies from Spertus, used to sell textbooks and has a son who is a rabbi, so brings an extensive knowledge of Jewish books to the group.
But it was the warmth and friendship of the members that helped to keep her going when her life hit a rough patch several years ago. “I went through a couple of years that were terrible,” she says. She suffered a stroke, her son-in-law died and her daughter had to undergo brain surgery. “The women were absolutely wonderful,” she says.
Zella Ludwig, who has been a member about 12 years, says that the group is unusual among book clubs because the members do the reviews instead of having a professional leader.
“The larger groups usually hire people to do it, but when we tried doing it on our own it was very successful,” she says. “It is a diverse group of women from all different parts of Jewish life. Some are quite knowledgeable and some are not but like to learn. Most of them are extremely well read, which I love.
“I can’t say enough about it,” she enthuses. “I probably wouldn’t socialize with some of the women because I don’t know them, but because of the group we are together once a month. It brings together married women, widows, divorced – we’ve got the gamut.”
Another member, Beverly Grossman, agrees that in the book discussions, “everybody has different input. Sometimes it become very lively, and that makes it even more interesting. I love it, I look forward to it,” she says.
For Bea Gerstel, who joined the group a few years after it formed, it’s a book club and much more. “It’s fascinating – you get to know the women very well, and everybody expresses themselves,” she says. “Any discussion we have about any
thing in a book, you always start to bring in personal information.” Longtime member Del Sklare says that the women in the group are currently deciding whether to form a third group, as they want to keep the discussions small enough so that everyone can participate. That, for her, has been one of the best parts of the experience.
“We have good women. It’s been very educational and socially it has been extremely nice, it’s comfortable that it’s in people’s homes. People like coming, they love the discussions. Sometimes it gets very personal.”
She is proud, she says, that the group is so “popular and long-lasting. It started before we had all these book groups. Now both groups are filled to capacity. It’s a wonderful thing. I think we were really one of the first.”
The original text of the review may be found here.