This Hanukkah, kid sleuths help solve the case of the ghostly book thief
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Reporter's notebookBehind the scenes as a nighttime library comes to life

This Hanukkah, kid sleuths help solve the case of the ghostly book thief

Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem hosts an after-hours program in which children solve a mystery — and learn about strange creatures like card catalogs

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Poet Miriam Yalan-Stekelis is shocked by the desecration of books at the National Library's Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Poet Miriam Yalan-Stekelis is shocked by the desecration of books at the National Library's Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Michal Dan (10) discovers a missing clue in a card catalog at the National Library's Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Michal Dan (10) discovers a missing clue in a card catalog at the National Library's Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Siblings Yeshayahu and Nechama Leibowitz disagree over the existence of ghosts at the National Library's Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Siblings Yeshayahu and Nechama Leibowitz disagree over the existence of ghosts at the National Library's Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Gershom Sholem, Yeshayahu and Nechama Leibowitz, and Miriam Yalan-Stekelis help bring back the light at the National Library's Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Gershom Sholem, Yeshayahu and Nechama Leibowitz, and Miriam Yalan-Stekelis help bring back the light at the National Library's Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

There’s a mystery afoot at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem. Books are missing and even — gasp! — found torn to pieces. Who — or what! — could be behind such desecration?

Not to worry, on December 23-25, teams of next-gen Sherlock Holmeses are being put to the task of cracking the case of the ghostly book thief.

The Times of Israel was invited to join the first night’s sold-out tour and came with a pair of 10-year-old critics, who consulted on this report.

At the very late hour of eight thirty at night, participants assembled at the blacked-out National Library’s lobby. This is well past bedtime for much of the crowd — the event is geared to ages 8-12 — which adds to the excitement. The library, still located at Jerusalem’s Givat Ram Hebrew University campus until its big upcoming relocation to a brand new building nearby, is a forbidding structure and it’s eerie to walk its halls in the dark.

Poet Miriam Yalan-Stekelis is shocked by the desecration of books at the National Library’s Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

The narrative frame for the spooky event spring-boarded off the successful “Night in the Museum” film series. It gives a behind-the-scenes look at the after-hours library come to life. Special guest stars are resurrected for the occasion: literary giants Gershom Scholem, Yeshayahu and Nechama Leibowitz, and Miriam Yalan-Stekelis, who discussed the existence of ghosts in the library and how they can be exorcised.

Parents and children are first given a short briefing on the National Library and its activities, then split into four groups. Our green group was taken upstairs to the Jewish and Islamic studies reading room, where we met Yalan-Stekelis. She penned such childhood favorites as “A Flower for Nurit,” “Dirty Danny” (or “The Soap Cried A Lot”), and, in the spirit of our tour, “Ruah, Ruah,” a word which can be translated as wind or ghost.

Michal Dan (10) discovers a missing clue in a card catalog at the National Library’s Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Yalan-Stekelis was dismayed upon finding torn-up pages from books horrifically displayed on a table, and promptly blamed it on ghosts. Even more disturbingly, she couldn’t remember the words to one of her poems!

An ever-practical Israeli kid wondered out loud, “Aren’t there any security cameras that could help catch the ghosts?” But pressing along, the children were introduced to the idea of a card catalog and instructed to take a drawer and find the missing letters of a word from Yalan-Stekelis’s poem. (Notably, it was the first time all of the children, and many of their parents, had seen a card catalog.)

Clue collected, as we walked out of the reading room, several of the kids wondered why they weren’t called in earlier to help solve these crimes, seeing how easily they had restored the poet’s missing word. But along the darkened path to our next stop, a little girl whispered above the ghostly music soundtrack that this was all a bit scary.

A very energetic Gershom Scholem jumps on a chair at the National Library’s Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

The children were shown an old microfilm machine. With the increased digitalization of newspapers and manuscripts, the library will soon no longer have need of such dinosaurs and they’ll go the way of the card catalog, explained the guide.

We reached a closed door, guarding the world’s largest library of Kabbalah, which once belonged to mysticism scholar Gershom Scholem. The children were asked to guess how old the most ancient item in the library is, which is housed here. “A million years!” shouted one extremely extroverted first grader. Then, “25,000 years,” guessed a somber third-grader. Assured that it was less ancient than that, another suggested, “70?”

A very energetic Gershom Scholem showed the kids an 1,100-year-old incantation bowl and described its functions — and its ghosts. Afterwards, he told the spellbound kids that five volumes of books were missing, in retribution for his teaching of arcane knowledge. But suddenly, Scholem himself was spirited away!

The guide asks, “Is it possible that we imagined this?” “No,” reply several of the younger children, “because we wouldn’t all imagine it the same all together.”

Siblings Yeshayahu and Nechama Leibowitz disagree over the existence of ghosts at the National Library’s Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Our next stop was a visit with the Leibowitz siblings. Yeshayahu, singing a song about truth and chemistry, played the straight man, while Nechama pushed for a belief in the supernatural. Then Yeshayahu, too, was taken to a different realm.

Walking to our final stop, a mother protested the role assigned to the great pioneering female biblical scholar, and said,”I hardly think that Nechama Leibovitz would believe in ghosts.”

But with suspension of disbelief firmly belted back on, we were led to the library’s dark great hall. There, the men were restored, a final song was sung, and, with good wishes, battery-powered flashlights and a magical incantation, the ghosts were driven out. To symbolize their expulsion, artist Mordecai Ardon‘s famous stained-glass windows were stunningly backlit.

To this writer, the lit windows were the definite highlight of the largely enjoyable event. When the library moves house, they will be left behind and it is a joy to behold them in the meantime. But for my 10-year-old fellow critics, these windows were more of a mystery than the night’s program (which they found frankly too childish for their advanced age).

Gershom Scholem, Yeshayahu and Nechama Leibowitz, and Miriam Yalan-Stekelis help bring back the light at the National Library’s Night in the Library Hanukkah program, December 23, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“Why are there shovels and an atom on the window,” asked my daughter’s best friend. I explained that the windows are an artistic representation of the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of eternal peace. Intrigued, the boy said he’d like to come back and study them closer.

While he may never have need of a card catalog or a microfiche machine, to me, that desire to return clearly shows the night was a success.

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