“People are always interested in the back story — how does a work of art come to life?” Jonathan Schwartz asked on a recent Friday in his office at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library. “And the library is the right place to have that discussion.”
Schwartz was speculating on why the library’s public programs are so popular. But when it comes to back stories, he has a pretty good one of his own — how a concert pianist who decided to teach himself Yiddish ended up with a career in libraries.
Schwartz, who is leaving the Jewish Community Library after 28 years, the last 14 of them as director, will be honored next week with a lifetime achievement award at the BJE’s annual meeting.
In 1980, Schwartz stopped by the library, then located on Balboa Street at the BJE’s offices. He had been learning Yiddish and wanted some new books to further explore his interest.
“The librarian was surprised I could read Yiddish, and she told me, ‘We have a garage of Yiddish books that no one can read to even know what we have,’ ” he recalled.
So the patron became a volunteer, translating Yiddish titles to English and cataloging the collection. A year later, he was hired as a page, working part time shelving books and organizing the card catalog.
In 1995 he was appointed director, and he began to create more public programming for the library, growing the number of cultural and literary annual events from 20 to about 50. The library’s offerings range from art to music to film to literature to family programs.
Howard Freedman, a librarian and the soon-to-be director, likened Schwartz to Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, who imagined Judaism as a civilization — of art, music, literature — and not only a religion.
“Jonathan has encouraged that same big picture of Judaism that incorporates all avenues of Jewish expression,” Freedman said.
Schwartz created the library’s signature “Book Club in a Box” program. Since 1996, it’s provided book groups with 12 copies of a book, discussion questions and the occasional facilitator. It has grown to 70 titles and been used by more than 100 book groups.
“It’s unique because we’re using unconventional texts — mostly fiction and some memoir — as the basis of serious Jewish discussion,” Freedman said.
Schwartz oversaw the library’s 2003 move to the Jewish Community High School of the Bay on Ellis Street — no easy task. One of the upsides was that the move allowed the integration of the school’s books with the Jewish Community Library’s 20,000-title collection, a merger that thrilled Schwartz.
“As a librarian I love the idea that Jewish books are mingling with all the others,” he said. “It places Jewish books in the whole world, which is how it is in reality.”
Schwartz, 61, grew up in New York and started playing the piano at a young age. He moved to San Francisco in 1975 and for a few years worked as a concert pianist and copy editor before joining the library full time.
His last day on the job is June 30. A month later, he and his partner will move to Orléans, France, about 1 1/2 hours from Paris, where Schwartz will return to pursuits he once loved but hasn’t had a lot of time for — practicing the piano and reading classic literature (he has 50 boxes of books and music packed and ready to go).
Freedman said although Schwartz will be missed, his vision of a library that’s inclusive and lively will continue.
Schwartz “is the rare person deeply devoted to the artistic and intellectual aspects of Jewish life,” Freedman said. “He pursues so many deep interests in his own life, and he’s pushed the library to be similarly diverse in how it reaches the community.”
Jonathan Schwartz will receive a lifetime achievement award at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s annual meeting, 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 20 at JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. He’ll also be honored by the Friends of the Jewish Community Library at 4 p.m. June 14 at the library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. For information, call (415) 751-6983.