J. Levine Books & Judaica: Five Generations of Literature for Open Minds
While other bookstores might “define” literature in a certain way, putting labels on books that place one genre above another, hiding certain genres in back corners and others in prominent locations, J. Levine Books and Judaica refuses to define literature. In a way, the store’s entire inventory is literature, not just the books. Everything in the store can be “read” as a part of the Jewish tradition. Each item is telling the story of what it means to be Jewish, and isn’t that what literature is? A story?
There are thousands of interpretations and definitions of literature, but what they all boil down to is a superior collection worthy of being treasured. It’s more about the tradition of keeping close what we define as having value to us than defining literature as books. As Raymond Williams suggests, thinking of literature as a concept rather than a category allows for a broader interpretation of what literature can be. The importance of this concept, Williams writes, is priority. Priority in this sense is the things that we place above others in importance. At J. Levine this priority is evident in their focus on family. Generally, literature is defined as the important books, the classics, the ones we need to remember. In contrast, J. Levine places value on the traditions and culture of the Jewish family. Each item in this Jewish bookstore is able to tell the story of all denominations of Judaism once you know how to look for it.
The store itself is very familiar with this concept of tradition by keeping it all in the family. Five generations of Levines have been keeping the business going, expanding from what once started with a religious scribe in Lithuania named Hirsch Landy. He distributed copies of the Torah and religious articles in Europe before immigrating to New York City’s Lower East Side where he began what would eventually become a thriving family business.
At the time of J. Levine’s founding, the Lower East Side was the largest Yiddish-speaking community in New York. An article on Jewish bookstores was written at this crucial moment in the area’s history. It mentions the bookstore as a place to come together as a community: “there are usually from six to a dozen men…standing about in groups discussing with every appearance great excitement.” J. Levine has a similar vibe. The store’s online presence is full of family photos, but many of the posts on their Facebook page are shared or commented on by customers. Customers who have never stepped into the store can still feel as though they’re a part of the community, and a part of the family.
After a location change to Midtown, Manhattan in 1963, J. Levine still found itself a part of a diverse community, surrounded by imported culture. Here, J. Levine has found a home for its family. This history tells a story of tradition, religion, culture, and community, but above all family. There is a great celebration of bringing in something new and fresh to the equation, with a healthy respect for what previous generations have accomplished.
Those interested in reading J. Levine’s story might take to Facebook for some 21st century stalking before actually visiting the store. At first they may be taken aback at the sight of its big, inflatable dreidel and busy window display, but J. Levine doesn’t care about fitting the image of a stereotypical bookstore. Located just past the iconic sights and sounds of Broadway, this small Jewish bookstore is a place where one can immerse themselves and learn from a diverse selection of Jewish literature. Tim Cresswell defines “place” as a meaningful location which people value. This includes what people say about it, what they feel about it, how it is represented architecturally, and the type of people who frequent that place. J. Levine and the rest of W. 30th Street have placed value on their location, creating a community where family is encouraged to flourish. This is evident in the very name of the bookstore, named after the Jewish family that has operated J. Levine for five generations.
As Laura Miller suggests in her book Reluctant Capitalists, J. Levine offers their customers a chance to shop for community, a place where they can form “social bonds based on the effective ties and mutual support” while appreciating a past “steeped in tradition” (Miller 119). With Miller’s point in mind, and our understanding of how families form strong social bonds, we realized that by calling J. Levine we could understand the store’s diverse inventory. Danny Levine, a fourth generation, graciously fielded our questions. This allowed us to see how the store’s focus on Jewish culture made all their inventory literature, as every piece tells a story of Judaism. Everything in the store can be read as a part of this tradition, showing a different part of their family and cultural story.
Midtown, Manhattan, and more specifically W 30th Street, is a hub for the culturally diverse, allowing both tourists and residents to be drawn to J. Levine. The map below exemplifies how the stores surrounding J. Levine place value on their location and family history.
Midtown is a place to discover new things and J. Levine is proud to create a place where one can appreciate and interpret their literature. With its location in such a diverse, flourishing neighborhood, it’s easy to see how J. Levine fits in: Midtown is a place to immerse yourself in culture. They don’t look like a Barnes & Noble and they don’t care.
Jewish family and tradition are at the core of J. Levine. Even with the passing of time and changes in location, the business has maintained its identity. They have kept up with today’s fast paced and commercial society while retaining what makes the store so great; its focus on family. This focus is evident almost immediately upon entering the store, but as you go deeper – into the store itself and with your interpretation of the store – it becomes clearer. This store is not simply selling Jewish tradition and culture, it is telling the story of Jewish tradition and culture.
Every store, intentionally or not, is telling a story through their layout. It is up to the customer to interpret that story. It is possible to “read” a store simply by observing how the layout and arrangement of objects reflects the store’s identity. In this case the identity of the store is tied to the family that owns it.
The first thing a customer is greeted with upon entering the store is likely to be a greeting. The register is right by the door, and a highly praised staff member (possibly a member of the Levine family itself) will be there to answer any questions you might have or point you in the right direction. The employees care about what they are selling, and are willing to connect with customers who likewise care about what they are buying. Both sides of this transaction are involved in the interpretation of J. Levine’s literature. This builds bridges between the store and owner, between the customer and the family, between the people and their culture.
This exchange depends on the type of customer entering the store, but with the sheer amount of things the store has in its stock, it is likely that anyone would be able to find something for their tastes (and if not it is probably on the business’s extensive website).
Website aside, the store itself is full of many things. Bruno Latour, author of “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam,” has complicated the idea of what a “thing” is, and what an “object” is. An object becomes a thing when it has meaning or importance placed on it. Every time you look at an object your mind associates things with it, drawing from your knowledge and experiences. We can say that the candlesticks that J. Levine sells are just objects, sticks of wax with strings running through them, but when a family comes in to buy those candlesticks for their menorah, those objects become things. That family has given those candlesticks a meaning and a purpose. In this way, J. Levine is a store of potential “things.” Every object in the store has been given a potential meaning just by the fact that they are labeled Judaica. They are not just objects, they are Jewish objects, and that means that they have been given importance.
Below is an interactive floor plan of the store where you’re welcome to browse their diverse collection of literature.
The store is organized with this association of things and ideas in mind. Each product is grouped with others that may invoke similar feelings, allowing customers interested in one type of thing to have a similar interest in neighboring products. The store’s clutter makes it feel as though the differences and distinctions between objects have become erased due to their common Jewishness, and they are merely placed next to and among each other on account of everything in the store being Jewish. Although disorganized, most of the main attractions have a system. The store’s floor plan clearly organizes the major objects by type. If anything, the store’s “mess” is a testament to the sheer quantity of books and Judaica the store carries. The branching paths from the entrance create a logical progression of things and ideas.
To the left of the entrance is the main portion of the store’s Judaica and gift items. These things serve as a representation of Judaism’s rich history, meant to be displayed or used by families to celebrate their culture. They become physical symbols of a family’s faith, allowing them to add to their own family story.
As you progress further into the store, you come across objects that are less about decorating and more about inhabiting. Though these objects are still inherently rooted in tradition and culture, they are more introspective and personal. The bulk of these objects are books. Books carry the ideas of culture and tradition. In this bookstore those ideas of family and tradition are brought to life through physical objects. As you head to the back of the store, the sections become more specialized (children’s books, Jewish Law, etc.). The categories all appeal to a desire or a need for knowledge in specific branches of Judaism, a contrast to the more general items in the front. Heading toward the back of the store, you are passing different stages of knowledge and familiarity.
J. Levine proves that there is more to being Jewish than reading classical Jewish texts. The diverse categories and friendly employees allow J. Levine to be a place where members of the Jewish community (and even those who are not part of the community) can feel welcome and create their own tradition and memories. The store’s variety allows customers to be as passionate as they want to about their Jewish heritage, picking and choosing from the vast options J. Levine provides. Whether it is learning about the general concept of the religion, or more detailed cultural ideas, the store allows the customer to create their own version of the Jewish story being offered to them.
Every aspect of J. Levine, from its history, to its community of customers, to the things it sells, to the encouraging family behind it that is always eager to help, cements this bookstore as a major landmark in Jewish American culture. With everything we have said about it, this is only a logical conclusion. After all, bookstores have always been places of learning and culture and J. Levine is no different. Okay, maybe it’s not exactly the same as most other bookstores. One only needs to look at the front of the store to realize that books are only half of what J. Levine sells. Does this make the legacy of the Levine family any less culturally relevant than any other bookstore? Of course not! Everything for sale, from the books and Judaica to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kippot and mini Zionist action figures, have just as much cultural and literary value as the books you are likely to find at the front of another bookstore.
Understanding this connection is important to seeing the significance of J. Levine, especially with the above context in mind. Through the sale of Jewish texts, Bibles, and even cookbooks, Jewish culture is kept alive and strong through the written word. Each of these things carries with it a personality and history that is unique to Judaism, telling and retelling a story of culture in its own way. Through the collection and study of the literature available at J. Levine, its customers become a part of this tradition and carry the culture with them.
This aspect of collection is key to endowing objects with cultural significance. James Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture reveals that collectible material objects are the embodiment of culture, and even things that are not necessarily “fine art” can eventually move up to that position with the right historical and cultural context. Some things that aren’t necessarily seen as literature can eventually become literature. These objects evolve into valuable things through the sole virtue of carrying with them cultural life.
And why not action figures? The mini Zionist action figures are representative of a part of Jewish culture and represent a family. They can be purchased, collected, analyzed, and read by customers to understand the significance of the thing before them: What story does this object tell and why is it being presented in this way? That sounds almost exactly like what we do with literature. In fact, a book on the Zionist movement would spark the same process of cultural analysis, the only difference being the more literal use of the word “read.” Literature reveals and expands culture. The Judaica, kippot, and toys do the job just as well as the books, provided you have the open mind to see their value.
The Levines know the importance of the literature on their shelves, having dedicated themselves to this role of cultural collection for five generations. Their passion for selling books and Judaica only adds to the cultural significance of everything in stock. The store reveals that being part of the Jewish family means so much more than a religion or system of belief. It is cooking. It is history. It is women and children. It is celebration. It is buying and selling. It is a way of life. The story this store is selling is one of family. Not only does that TMNT kippot carry with it a mixture of Jewish tradition and modern culture, but its location in J. Levine’s collection also gives it the history of the family that was so eager to see it added to someone else’s collection. They want their culture to be shared with others by letting customers buy into the family. Their willingness to help us make this blog and supply information is proof of that. They want you to know about them, and they want their collection of culture in your collection of culture. But don’t take our word for it. Take theirs:
This is a short documentary of J. Levine.
All images from J. Levine Books & Judaica Facebook page unless otherwise noted.
Google Maps: Geography of J. Levine Books & Judaica, View of West 30th Street
-Benjamin, Walter, and Martin Jay. Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Collecting. San Francisco: Arion, 2010. Print.
-Brannon, Barbara A. “The Bookshop as ‘An Arsenal of Democracy’: Marion Dodd and Hampshire Bookshop during World War II.” PBSA March 1998, 5-31.
– Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988. Print.
-Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
-Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”
-Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
-“Jewish Bookstores of the Old East Side.” The Book Peddler; Newsletter of the National Yiddish Book Exchange: 20-23. Rpt. in Brandels University Libraries ILL. 17th ed., Summer 1992. Print.
-Williams, Raymond. “Marxism and Literature. 1977. Print.
“Jewish Bookstores Writing New Chapters in Competition with Internet.” The Times of Israel. Web.http://www.timesofisrael.com/jewish-bookstores-writing-new-chapters-in-competition-with-internet
J. Levine Co.A Modern Tradition “JUDAICA BOOK NEWS”, 1981″