December 17, 2018

Library Collection of Judaica Stands Out

Growing up in the 1950s, Bonnie Stark remembers department store advertisements that ran in the local Pasadena Star-News around Christmastime: “Christian Help Only,” they read.

A half century on, Stark sees her role as combating the ignorance that leads to such hateful and hurtful anti-Semitism. As the Judaica librarian at Culver City Julian Dixon Library, she has the responsibility of buying books on Jewish history, culture and religious studies that help Jews and non-Jews alike better appreciate the contributions made by this small minority.

“People should know more about Jews beyond the stereotypes, the TV comedians, the Jewish mothers and the Tevye characters.” said Stark, standing before a library display showcasing Jewish-themed books and posters for “Jewish History Month.”

Stark does more than simply fill Culver City’s shelves with the newest Philip Roth novels or Alan Dershowitz polemics, although she prominently features their works in some displays. In three years as the Judaica librarian, Stark has introduced guest speakers and even playwrights to large, appreciative audiences.

In April 2004, Janet Hadda, author of “Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life,” spoke about the late Nobel Prize winner’s writings. A few months later, actress Kres Mersky performed her one-act play, “A Day in the Life of Albert Einstein,” to coincide with the Einstein exhibit at the Skirball Museum.

Rabbi Allen Maller of nearby Temple Akiba of Culver City said he’s so impressed with the library’s Judaica collection that he refers students in his Introduction to Judaism class there to deepen their knowledge. He personally visits the branch two to three times a month for the Jewish-themed DVDs.

Scouring such publications as Jewish Book World, Commentary and Jewish Currents magazine for leads, Stark buys Jewish novels, Jewish biographies, Holocaust literature, children’s books, Jewish spiritual guides and contemporary nonfiction. In a reflection of her eclectic tastes, Stark’s recent purchases, include: “Rashi’s Daughters,” Maggie Anton’s historical novel about Jewish life in medieval France; Bernard Reich’s “A Brief History of Israel,” and “Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods” by Michael Wex.

“I am so proud of her ability to promote and develop this collection,” said Evelyn Udenyi, the former community library manager for the Culver City Library.

Many of Los Angeles County’s 84 libraries carry Jewish-flavored works, but Culver City has the only stand-alone Judaica collection. Among other Southland public libraries, Agoura Hills Library has a Holocaust and Hebrew language collection, and the Los Angeles Central Library in downtown — part of the city of Los Angeles’ library system — has a Yiddish collection with 3,000 books.

Over the past three years, the county has trebled the budget for Culver City’s Judaica collection to $3,600, said Linda Chavez Doyle, assistant regional administrator for the west region of the Los Angeles County library system. An estimated 4,500 out of Culver City’s 208,000 books belong to the Judaica collection, she added. The Jewish books are integrated throughout the library.

Stark, an elegant woman in a blue suit set off by a colorful scarf, has worked as a librarian for 35 of her 66 years. A UCLA graduate with a degree in English and a master’s in library science, she formerly plied her skills in connection with Hollywood, working as a librarian for the California Film Commission and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But she also has held a variety of other positions in the industry during stints at 20th Century Fox and MGM.

Among other assignments, she researched period license plates and vintage clothing for the 1981 Steve Martin film, “Pennies From Heaven” and fashion and manners, circa 1900, for “Hello Dolly,” with Barbra Streisand. Along the way, Stark met James Stewart, Anthony Quinn, Cary Grant and Shelley Winters; she had her picture taken with “Dallas” star Larry Hagman, at the insistence of her aunt, Dena Mae.

But Stark insisted that nothing in her career surpasses the decade at the Culver City Library. In addition to her Judaica duties, Stark works as a reference librarian and program planner. Although she’s not schmoozing with stars, Stark said she gets a particular thrill when she can make a difference for somebody.

“I love to expose people to all aspects of Judaism, the serious stuff, the humorous stuff, the new authors and, especially, the Holocaust,” she said. “I, myself, have learned so much doing this.”