Just in time for the High Holidays. Here we are, at the Jewish New Year -- Rosh Hashana to you and me, or, at least, to me, and here's what I've realized, very suddenly, in the last hour. The Institute Library (which regular readers will recognize is a place toward which I direct a lot of my energy) is a long-lived if low-profiled literary institution in downtown New Haven, and it's going through a weird transformation. It seems to be morphing from a place with an extraordinarily WASPy vibe to a place that looks WASPy but is thinking of converting. For all I know, in fact, it has converted, and it's just that nobody told me.
I mean, I know the place was founded to be a working man's library. I know that, and I get it. But I also feel like somewhere along the way it got kind of Edith Whartony. Or maybe that's not right. John Cheevery. Maybe I'm wrong -- I haven't done real research into this -- but I feel like it ceased to be a middle-class hangout -- or, a working-class/middle- class hangout -- and became more of a private club, more the kind of place where you'd've seen the guys who worked at New Haven's white shoe law firms hanging out after having a long lunch at, I don't know, George & Harry's, or something. Certainly by the time I became a member of the library, it seemed like a kind of elitist joint that, ok, had maybe fallen into obscurity, but still retained a certain grandeur; and it also retained a sense of exclusivity even though on paper anyone could join. There was a closed feeling, a sense of it being a private club, and not always in a warm, welcoming way. The place was fascinating, certainly, and I never felt unwelcome there myself, but I could imagine people being wigged out by the library, and taking one look, and just... never coming back.
Something's changed. The Institute Library's gotten haimish while I wasn't really paying attention.
Is it because three out of the three events I've paid attention to at the library recently featured Jewish speakers? I don't know -- but I know it to be true. And I find it funny -- I imagine the Cheevery types of the 1940s and 50s raising their eyebrows every so slightly. But listen: this is good stuff. Josh Foer has twice now hosted these fabulous evenings where we in the audience got to hear people speak of their weird passions -- the series is called Amateur Hour at the Institute Library, and it is wicked fun. The first time Foer did this, he interviewed Jack Hitt, who of course is fun to listen to -- but it was, actually, Foer's questions that tickled me the most. Unfortunately, I cannot remember why now. I just remember that while I enjoyed Hitt's answers to the questions, I actually liked Foer's delivery. The third degree, but, you know, friendly.
Then, a few nights ago, Foer hosted Alan Abel, the world's greatest hoaxster, for the second Amateur Hour. Let me tell you: if you can't spend an evening listening to Josh Foer interview Milton Berle -- and you cannot -- you could spend an evening listening to him question Abel, and it would not be so different. The material is different, granted, and there were slightly fewer jokes about schlongs or mothers-in-law, but the mode was distinctly Jewish. Even if the guy spent twenty minutes talking to us with a tampon up his nose, something my mother would not recommend you do in polite company. You have to take my word for it. The refreshments that Atticus brought -- they shouldn't have brought brownies, they should have brought rugelach. Not that I'm complaining. I love brownies.
And now, tomorrow night, to close out Rosh Hashanah, we've got Davy Rothbart -- a Jew of younger vintage, but still. A guy with remarkable comic timing, Davy Rothbart: even written on the page, it makes me laugh aloud. (You've probably heard him on This American Life and thought he was hilarious, but I never have; I don't listen to it.) He's coming with his brother Peter, to talk about Davy's new book of essays, My Heart is an Idiot, and to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the remarkable magazine they publish, FOUND, which is, if you don't know it, something to behold. Between the book and the magazine and the New Year, there's a lot to celebrate at the Institute Library tomorrow. I suddenly wish I'd organized my weekend differently; if I'd planned ahead, I could have made a babka to bring to the Library tomorrow night. I'd've cut you a slice to have with your coffee. I would definitely serve some to the people from the New York Times who're going to be there. (Yes, the New York Times is paying attention to Davy and Peter Rothbart and the Institute Library: maybe you should, too.) I'm sorry; I wasn't thinking ahead. But you should come anyhow. Monday night, September 17, at 8: Davy and Peter Rothbart. A night to remember. The Institute Library, 847 Chapel Street. For information on buying tickets, please visit the library's website, www.institutelibrary.org.