Read Your Way to Cultural Literacy

Julie Sandorf recalls her immigrant grandparents telling her that they learned to be Americans at the public library, where they improved their English and learned more about American culture.

Now Sandorf wants this generation of Americans to use the public library to learn to be Jews.

Sandorf is the director of a new organization called Nextbook, a nationwide campaign dedicated to promoting Jewish cultural literacy through gateways such as the Internet and public libraries.

Replete with extensive reading lists, a daily cultural news digest and information regarding local library activities, Nextbook’s Web site — — has been up since early June.

“There’s an interest here in this being a gateway for disengaged Jews to learn about their culture, history and tradition,” Sandorf said.

Part of the program’s appeal is that it is not rooted in any particular denomination or synagogue, she said.

Reading lists have been a huge project for Nextbook. Books are listed in four separate categories: Discovering Myself, Portraits of the Artist, Sense of Place and Struggle & Justice.

Authors range from Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Potok to Grace Paley and Amos Oz.

Books include “Open Closed Open: Poems” by Yehuda Amichai, “Ideas and Opinions” by Albert Einstein, “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number” by Jacobo Timerman, and “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews” by Edda Servi Machlin.

“By nature, the book lists are very eclectic,” Sandorf said. “They offer a broad, eclectic view of Jewish life that is consistently high quality.”

Nextbook is a project of Keren Keshet-The Rainbow Foundation, a philanthropic organization formed by the Zalman Bernstein estate to enhance the religious background of Jews in the United States, Europe and Israel.

Nextbook currently has a “multimillion-dollar budget,” with no set end date, Sandorf said.

As a result, “there are no dues, no membership, no test; you can just go in and learn,” she said.

Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTNews Magazine, said she uses Nextbook’s Web site to stay abreast of the latest Jewish cultural news.

“I often end up sending articles to friends and family,” said Cembalest, who has been checking the Web site virtually every day since its creation.

Library sections devoted to books donated by Nextbook, and including information on upcoming events, have been installed in three libraries in Chicago and seven in the city’s suburbs.

Pilot library programs also should begin soon in the greater Seattle area and the Washington metropolitan area, Sandorf said.

Amy Eschelman, director of development and outreach at the Chicago Public Libraries, said it’s a “terrific idea to use libraries as an access point” because they’re free and open to everyone.

Eschelman said she has been “pleasantly surprised” by the swift success of Nextbook’s implementation in the libraries.

“The only difficult thing is that we have too many ideas,” she said.

Sandorf intends to employ a “library fellow” in each of the locales where Nextbook programs can be found.

Abigail Pickus, one of two Nextbook library fellows based in the Chicago area, said part of her job is “to work as a liaison between the New York Nextbook headquarters and participating libraries.”

Beyond installing an extensive Nextbook literary section in the libraries, there are plans to “engage the public at large in Jewish literature and culture,” Pickus said.

Events are in the works at venues ranging from libraries and other cultural institutions to coffee shops and book stores, Eschelman said.

Eschelman and Pickus are working to integrate literature with culture, music, art and dance, aiming to attract the 20-40 age group.

“We’re just hoping that Nextbook will have a universal appeal,” Sandorf said.

Nextbook advisory committees have been set up in the Chicago and Seattle areas.

“It’s so important for unaffiliated Jews like me,” said Glazer, who “got hooked on the Web site” and now checks it “on a pretty regular basis.”

Glazer was raised in the 1950s in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, where “family was really important growing up, but religion wasn’t.”

“As I approached 50, I found myself wanting to reconnect to parts of my heritage and the culture that I had never learned about,” Glazer said.

A single mother of two who works full time, “my ability to read novels, biographies or historical accounts of my heritage is nonexistent — my time is very limited,” Glazer said.

As a result, it’s critical for her “to have quick reading materials, whether it’s for pleasure, work or current events,” she said.

“This is the perfect media for me,” she said. “I think it’s a fabulous venture.”