By MARK OPPENHEIMER | The New York Times
IN 2004, HAROLD GRINSPOON, A LOCAL REAL ESTATE MOGUL, heard a story on National Public Radio about the Imagination Library, founded by the singer Dolly Parton to give free books to children in her native rural Tennessee (and which now gives books around the country, in Canada and in England). Mr. Grinspoon, who has long given millions of dollars to Jewish summer camps and to schools and synagogues here in western Massachusetts, had an idea: do what Dolly does, with a Jewish twist.
The PJ Library, a program of his Harold Grinspoon Foundation, made its debut in December 2005, sending 200 books with Jewish content to interested families, primarily those with young Jewish children. Initially, the books were sent to children in western Massachusetts. The program has grown every month since, and in July the PJ Library will mail 76,000 books to children in every state and across Canada.
My daughters have been enrolled for three years, and every month the books, selected by a committee of Jewish educators, arrive in the mail. Some have become instant household favorites, like Latifa Berry Kropf's book It's Challah Time, about baking the traditional Sabbath bread. Some of the books my kids enjoy but I find dismal, like the Zionism-for-toddlers tract Let's Visit Israel.
Some of the books are secular classics that happen to feature themes important to Judaism, like The Peace Book by Todd Parr, the decidedly non-Jewish genius behind Otto Goes to School and It's Okay to Be Different.
Some are about Jewish heroes, like the baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax. Some are old classics introduced to a new generation, like Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind Family, her 1951 chapter book about growing up on the Lower East Side.
Some of the books we never open. Some are kitschy but winning, like a picture book of the song Sunrise, Sunset, from Fiddler on the Roof, illustrated by Ian Schoenherr. It's not easy to sing that to your own children and keep a dry eye.
Mr. Grinspoon, who was born in 1929, belongs to five synagogues, four in western Massachusetts and B'nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, but he rarely attends. His Judaism is not about religious observance. He is a Zionist, and he gives $100,000 of his own money, not his foundation's, to the Jewish lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, every year. He is worried about intermarriage. He believes his people have something special, and he hopes these free books will help that something persist.
"I think the Jewish mind is an incredible mind," Mr. Grinspoon told me when we chatted on Thursday in his backyard. "We have 181 Nobel awards out of all the awards given out. I think the money I have made does not belong to me. I think I am a custodian of the Jewish people. My entrepreneurial skills came from the tribe."
It is hard to check numbers on Nobel laureates, although several estimates allow that Jews have won more than 150 Nobel prizes, between 20 and 30 percent of the total. It is easier to confirm Mr. Grinspoon's substantial business skills. Born outside Boston and an early failure in ice cream vending and selling insurance, he finally got into buying and selling properties, and says he is now worth "over $500 million."
Children can receive books from 6 months through age 8; the foundation asks for every child's birthday and sends age-appropriate books. The PJ Library spends about $3 million a year for books in North America, just over half the total cost. Of the $83 it costs to mail a child 12 books a year, the foundation pays $43, and a local partner must pay the rest. In the New York City area, where the foundation expects to mail 10,000 books a month by this fall, making it the largest PJ region, the local partners pay more of the tab.
In my family's experience, the PJ Library does increase children's Jewish literacy, as well as parents'. But the project also has an unquestionable effect on children's publishing. Marcie Greenfield Simons, the director of the PJ Library, said that publishers now green-lighted a new children's book if they had her assurance that the PJ Library would place a bulk order. The PJ Library can also have a book brought back into print, as it did with Chicken Man, Michelle Edwards's 1991 story about a happy chicken-keeper on a kibbutz.
Best of all, from my household's point of view, the PJ Library has commissioned its first new book: I Love Camp, a picture book about the pleasures of Jewish summer camp -- challah baking, Israeli dancing, "noshing on tasty treats" -- by Todd Parr.
Mr. Parr, who is 48 and lives in Berkeley, Calif., grew up in Wyoming and was occasionally dragged to church on Easter. But The Peace Book, which he wrote in 2004, was selected for the PJ Library, and Mr. Grinspoon's family liked his art so much they asked him to draw a special book for Mr. Grinspoon's 80th birthday. The Harold Book turned out so well that the PJ Library hired Mr. Parr to write and illustrate a book about Jewish summer camp.
"I was a little like, 'I have never been to a Jewish summer camp before,' " Mr. Parr told me, by telephone. "It was at the end of the season last year, so there was no time for me to get to one." Mr. Parr read materials the PJ Library sent him, and he watched camp promotional videos online. "I worked really closely with them until I knew what went on at camp," he said.
I Love Camp arrived at our house last month. My 4-year-old is still too young for camp, but she sleeps with the book next to her pillow. It's Challah Time lies in tatters on her bookshelf, near The Matzo Ball Boy. She is tired of those, for now at least. But for four more years, anyway, there are always more to come.