TALLINN - I caught up with Wyman Brent at a hostel in Tallinn's Old Town just after Christmas. A few days earlier the 45-year-old American had e-mailed the editorial offices of The Baltic Times with a story that was too intriguing to pass up, namely his plan to create something called the Vilnius Jewish Library 's not just a small reading room, but a true public library containing over 100,000 Jewish-related books in English, as well as CDs, DVDs and about 20,000 reference books.
For anyone familiar with the history of the Lithuanian capital, the idea will strike a chord. Before World War II, the city was referred to as the "Jerusalem of the North," a great center of Jewish learning and culture. Like many cities in Europe, however, its Jewish population was wiped out during the war. Today the Jewish people living in Vilnius number just a very few thousand and the pre-war Jewish neighborhood in Old Town is simply gone.
"There were more than 100 synagogues and prayer houses in the city," Brent pointed out when we met. "Now there's one."
What truly hooked me into this story wasn't the history lesson though, but the grand "Why" behind it all. Why would a book-lover living in San Diego devote so much time and energy on a project like this?
"It's kind of strange because I'm not Jewish and I'm not of Lithuanian descent," said Brent.
As Brent describes it, it's not so much a project as a labor of love.
"I've always loved libraries, I've been volunteering in them for years. I love reading, that's something my parents gave me, and I'm fascinated with Jewish culture. I fell in love with Lithuania when I went there the first time in 1994. So it was kind of like, I love libraries, I love Jewish culture and I love Lithuania, so let me put this all together into this Jewish library," explained Brent.
That said, for Brent there's a more selfless impetus behind the library project.
"I've always hated prejudice and discrimination. I've never seen the need for intolerance or prejudice of any kind, but I wanted a library that was focused on one subject. For me Jewish culture is so fascinating, and I thought it would be a good way to reintroduce Jewish culture to Lithuania, but at the same time make it appealing to Lithuanians," he said.
The library, he points out, will not be aimed at Jewish people, but at a wider Lithuanian audience. The hope is that because the materials here will be in English, and because the atmosphere, the resources and the overall presentation will be of such high quality, the library will attract locals who are looking to improve their English. And if they gain some familiarity with Jewish culture and shed some prejudice along the way, all the better.
"I hope to have 100,000 Jewish-related books in English so that when people walk in, they'll be coming in to learn English, but they'll be doing it with books that are Jewish in nature. There will be everything from mysteries to the most scholarly religious books to books on the Holocaust to biographies to books on movies and music... So when someone walks in they can find a book literally on any topic."
"I don't want to convert anyone to Judaism, I'm not Jewish. I want people to come in and see with this vast collection of books that Jews are just like everyone else."
At the moment, the library is still in the development stage, but is gaining momentum. Brent has been working on the project since 2004 and has established relationships with the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum and the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. He has also made some headway on the collection, having gathered about 4,000 books so far.
The next key step, Brent says, is securing a location to house the library. It's his hope that the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture will loan out a premises for the project.
Once that's secure, he believes, Jewish organizations from around the world will be willing to donate books and other materials.
His goal is to have the library up and running by the Jewish New Year in 2010, which will also be the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Once up and running, the library won't be so much a place full of dusty shelves and stern, matronly guardians, but an attractive place to spend time.
"I want it to be a place where when you walk in it feels exactly like home," said Brent. "I want that when people go into the library they can sit on comfortable sofas and have funky tables ...they can sit in the window if they want or on the floor, whatever they choose. I want people to feel like they're in a comfortable cafe or in someone's flat so they can totally relax."
The success or impact of the Vilnius Jewish Library project, of course, is going to depend on a lot of factors, including support. But if all goes well, the now-faint echoes of the "Jerusalem of the North" won't fade forever into silence.