An English oasis in Safed

The Edyth Geiger Memorial Library is both a community center and haven for book lovers in the Galilee

Edyth Geiger refused to charge even the smallest fee for borrowing books. (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Edyth Geiger refused to charge even the smallest fee for borrowing books.
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Safed is a windy town on top of a mountain. Up the steep road are the remains of a Crusader fortress. From that vantage point, you can see the rocky ledge where, long before the Christian knights arrived, bonfires signaled the start of the new Hebrew month to those in Tiberias, a link in a fiery chain that crossed ancient Israel.
Safed’s main street, Yerushalayim Street, has replaced the moat of the fortress. Shoppers pop in and out of stores, stop for coffee at one of the charming cafes or visit the bank, the post office, the supermarket. It looks busy, yet the pace is slow as befits a semi-rural small town.
Safed has always been plagued by underemployment, poverty and inertia, content to live on its history and beauty. The biggest business event is the annual three-day Klezmer Festival, and the main employer is Ziv Medical Center, down the hill.
New immigrants are housed in slummy shikunim. Large haredi families struggle to feed and clothe their children. Young people leave town to find work somewhere else.
One American woman with ties of love to the town determined to better the community in any way she could. And she succeeded in improving the quality of life of hundreds not only in Safed but all over the Galilee and the Golan. That woman was Edyth Geiger. Her passion for the English language and for books ignited a spark that, like those ancient bonfires, illuminates the mind with knowledge. And her work lives on, even after her death in 2013.
In the early days, you would climb stairs off 38 Yerushalayim Street and open the door to a small apartment.
You’d have been astonished at how every possible space was crammed with books. Bookshelves lined every wall, every square foot over every doorway, even in the tiny kitchen. The couch and table were blanketed with soft-cover reading material: current magazines, comic books, paperback best-sellers. Venturing farther in, you’d find a petite, white-haired woman in a housecoat playing Scrabble with a young visitor.
Geiger sat at a table next to a picture window overlooking the Old City and the distant hills.
The bedroom walls – for this was Geiger’s bedroom – were lined with books as was the rest of the apartment, and the double bed was covered with magazines and sheets of stamps. Not only that, but smiling at you from every nook and cranny were giraffes. Stuffed toy giraffes, wooden giraffes, ceramic giraffes, posters and pictures of giraffes, giraffe-shaped objects of every material and size. In all, her collection had grown to some 3,000 giraffes.
“They’re a beautiful, graceful animal,” explained Geiger once, adding humorously, “Being so short myself, I just admire them.” The woman focusing on the Scrabble board could have been a retired office worker enjoying a morning in the company of her grandson. She didn’t seem like someone who made important changes or influenced lives. Until she looked up. Then her penetrating hazel glance would take you in within a second, revealing unflagging determination and the energy that continued to burn until her death at 94. Energy that she spent in bettering the world through books and the English language.
“My mother loved words,” says Aliza Shpiegel, Geiger’s surviving daughter. “She loved books, and she loved people. She loved people’s stories – she was a great, attentive listener. She had a special connection with young people. Teenagers would come and spend time with her, sometimes confiding their ideas and problems. The most important thing in her life was giving. She taught me that you can always find a way of giving.”
Geiger was awarded the President’s Prize for volunteering by president Ezer Weizman. His wife, Reuma, was so impressed by Geiger’s work that she visited her in Safed twice, donating generously each time.
Geiger was born in Chicago in 1919. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a law degree at age 18. Although she never practiced, it seems her early training helped in later life, when meticulous organization and persuasive skills would be essential to her fund-raising efforts. When the United States joined World War II, Geiger served in the Women’s Army Corps. She was sent to England and France, where she worked with Jewish child refugees. She lectured on her wartime experiences afterward, and met her first husband at one such event. Leo Geiger, born in Safed and a US army chaplain, took her back to Palestine with him.
They lived in Jerusalem briefly and returned to the US.
They had been married for only six years when Leo died.
Edyth remarried and moved back to Israel with her new husband; however, the marriage lasted only a short while. Once again she returned to the US, this time with four children. She worked as a fund-raiser for the UJA and the Hebrew University.
Israel stayed close to her heart, and in 1970 she acquired an apartment in Safed. Geiger established the English Library in that apartment, giraffes and all. The next years were spent traveling to more than 60 countries.
Everywhere she went, she talked about Safed and the English library. People she met on her travels years ago are still sending donations today.
People hungry for books in English came to Safed from Haifa, Jerusalem and Beersheba. Geiger was obliged to post library hours on her front door. With donations, the collection grew. Magazine subscriptions were added, as well as audio books and videotapes.
Geiger stored books under all the furniture and under her bed. When 6,000 books were squeezed, three deep, onto the shelves, it became clear that the library needed separate housing. Another local American woman, the late Rachel Ben-Zeev, had opened a children’s English library in the Old City. Upon Ben-Zeev’s becoming ill, Geiger took over the books and rented a basement storage room in the Yerushalayim Street building, with a separate niche for the children’s collection.
Gerald Sack, social anthropologist, teacher and close friend of Geiger’s, persuaded her to turn the library into a nonprofit organization. The library runs entirely on donations and volunteer work. Geiger herself lived in the utmost simplicity, her small space open daily to dozens of friends, book borrowers and visitors. She was fiercely protective of the library’s most important rule: All material should be available free of charge. Knowing how poor many of the families in Safed were, she refused to charge even the smallest fee for borrowing.
“She wanted to make sure that everybody could borrow books,” says Shpiegel.
Geiger's wish, set down in her will, continues to be honored. Today, the only paid workers are a part-time librarian Anna Folberg and the accountant. But there are more than 30 regular volunteers, as well as some that drop in on occasion to lend a hand with cataloging and upkeep. A surprise bequest from a stranger, who only weeks before his death heard a radio interview with Geiger, provided funds for buying and improving the facility.
The library is now housed in five spacious, well-lit rooms above street level, still at 38 Yerushalayim Street.
Folberg recalls, “I entered a different world when I started working at the library. It’s much more than a place to borrow books. It’s a community center, unusual in that people from every stream and walk of life meet here and stay to talk. We often have very interesting and colorful discussions in here, everybody feeling free to express their opinion – religious, secular, Jew, Arab, Druse. Once a month, a volunteer holds a story hour for preschool kids. We’re working on establishing a story hour for the grade schoolers, too. And then there’s the stamp club, which Edyth originated.”
About the stamp club, Sack says, “Edyth had a fine collection of stamps, and she persuaded many donors to add to it. This was one of Edyth’s ways of introducing the world to Safed’s children. There are kids who have never heard of the country Venezuela, but when they see a beautiful stamp with an exotic bird, they want to know more about it. The stamp club meets twice a month, and each participant takes home about 20 new stamps. A knowledgeable volunteer gives a five- to 10- minute talk on a theme represented by the stamps: nature, politics, religion, history, geography. There are only two rules: Everyone must have clean hands, and everything has to be conducted in English.”
English is the theme that ran through Geiger’s philanthropy.
“Edyth was frustrated by the backwardness in Safed. She knew that in today’s world, English was a key element to getting ahead. You need English to manage a computer, to get employed almost anywhere. Getting people, especially children, to read and speak English was the great cause,” says Folberg.
To date, the library contains 50,000 books for adults, among which is the largest collection of large-print books in Israel. The children’s library has about 5,000 books, from preschool picture books to the Harry Potter series for teenagers. There are also scores of audio books and CDs, much appreciated by blind members.
They say they are better served in Safed than anywhere else. To find out more about the vast range of topics, visit the library’s website (link below). Regular members number about 300, with 100 to 200 occasional borrowers.
The current board of directors continues Geiger’s tradition of helping to establish new English sections in existing libraries, sending out boxes of books all over the country and giving advice on cataloging and setting up.
Geiger’s efforts extended beyond the library and stamp club, but she never discussed her private activities on behalf of Safed’s needy.
In regard to Geiger’s anonymous charities, Sack says, “If a poor family had a sick child, she would have someone drop a box of toys off at their apartment. She had a knack for choosing exactly the right toys and games to suit the child.”
Geiger also raised between $25,000 and $30,000 a year for holiday food packages, which were delivered anonymously.
In addition, she established a fund to support a student nurse from Safed’s Ethiopian community every year in memory of her father, who had been a doctor.
On a personal level, Geiger was forthright and outspoken.
She never allowed failing health or personal tragedies to overpower her dream, although two of her adult children died during her lifetime. With her charisma and indomitable drive, she gathered and fostered a team of dedicated volunteers around the library, thus ensuring that her rich vision of education in English would continue to shine after her passing.
“Her life was about giving,” says Shpiegel. “Even when she lost the sight of one eye, she’d be on the computer with her emails, managing donations and directing the library. She died in June 2013, on her 94th birthday, right after she’d smiled at the giraffe-shaped birthday cake we made her.”
Most of Geiger’s giraffe collection now adorns the library.
Go and visit, and you’ll feel some of her dedication, as well as her whimsy, in the heart of her Safed.
Donations to the Edyth Geiger Memorial English Library can be made via Books may be donated, but please send a list of the books first to avoid overstock of copies. To receive book donations, contact librarian Anna Folberg via the site. Mailing address: The Safed Edyth Geiger English Library, P.O.B. 54, Safed 13100, Israel. Tel: (04) 6820-968
Library hours: Sunday 9 to 11:30 a.m. Monday 7 to 9 p.m.Tuesday 2 to 4:30 p.m. Friday 9 to 11:30 a.m.