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Jewish Journal

Hidden Stacks

by Sheldon Teitelbaum

May 31, 2001 | 8:00 pm

From left, Raya Sagi, Edith Allweil and Sondra Gorodinsky.                 Photo by Adam Teitelbaum

From left, Raya Sagi, Edith Allweil and Sondra Gorodinsky. Photo by Adam Teitelbaum

Read any good Hebrew books lately?

If you live in the Valley -- we'll assume you read Hebrew -- you'll most likely have picked up the latest Ram Oren techno-thriller or Naomi Ragen frummie-potboiler at the recently opened Steimatzky bookstore on Ventura Boulevard near Corbin.

Another option is to make a quick run up the 101 to the Las Virgenes Public Library in Agoura Hills.

Here county library patrons can avail themselves of stacks upon stacks of vintage and hot-off-the-press Israeli novels, biographies, political and military accounts, journalistic memoirs, cookbooks, compact discs and videos. Moreover, the library has become a repository for one of the most extensive collections of Hebrew-language children's books in Los Angeles, as the children of local Israeli émigrés grow out of them.

Nor does this trove stop with Hebrew literature. The Agoura library also houses one of the city's most extensive collections of Holocaust literature, as well as a substantial number of books by Jewish writers and a Judaica collection.

According to Raya Sagi, the library's manager and a decade-long resident of Agoura, the county provides some resources for the various ethnic and other specialized collections that have sprouted throughout the system. The Agoura library has used these funds to build up sizable collections of Chinese, Persian, Spanish, and Japanese material alongside the Jewish and Hebrew collections.

Sagi credits funding provided by the Friends of the Library and a book-donating Israeli community for the growth in the Hebrew and Jewish collections. But perhaps the greatest credit, Sagi says, is due to reference librarian Sondra Gorodinsky and library aide Edith Allweil, both of whom have developed guerrilla tactics for securing new titles and filling holes with titles that might otherwise have found their way to the Dumpster.

Gorodinski is a native English-speaker with an intense passion for Holocaust literature. She has found that interest in this searing and unparalleled event has not diminished but seems to grow each year. In response, Gorodinski has put out a systemwide APB asking for titles that might otherwise be cleared from library shelves. The result, Sagi says, is a comprehensive and eclectic collection that could easily vie with anything outside of academe or the institutional collections one might find at a Wiesenthal Center or Holocaust Museum.

Credit for building up the Israeli collection, meanwhile, goes to the Israel-born Allweil, who finds titles at lectures, in literary supplements, through Israeli bookstores and on trips to Israel. Allweil's greatest pleasure is seeing parents of local Israelis come in and stumble on this hidden Hebrew treasure.

"They are older people," she says, "and often they don't have any English. Here they find a selection as formidable as anything they might find at a neighborhood library back home. I can't recall how many times they've told us we saved their lives and sanity."

For the Las Virgenes librarians, though, salvation of life and sanity will come at the end of the summer, when they vacate their old digs and move into a 17,500-square-foot facility in the new Agoura Hills Civic Center, in construction less than a mile westward. Here, collections now relegated to specific shelves may find their way into rooms of their own. Of course, as anyone who has built new space for books knows, shelves have a way of filling up quickly.

The Las Virgenes Library is still at 29130 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills, CA 91301, (818) 889-2278. Contributions are welcomed, and tax receipts are available.

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