She can tell you how many Jews live in Little Rock, Ark., (1,600) compared to Los Angeles (500,870). If it's chicken soup in Casablanca, Morocco, you want, she knows of three restaurants that will make you feel like you're supping on Fairfax Avenue.
Head librarian Hava Ben-Zvi has an answer for everyone who calls the Peter M. Kahn Jewish Community Library, a tiny resource center tucked away on the 12th floor of the Jewish Federation Council building on Wilshire Boulevard. Small as it is, the library, under Ben-Zvi's tutelage, plays a central role in the life of the city's Jewish community.
Even Judge Joseph A. Wapner, star of the television show "People's Court," consults its largely volunteer staff for guidance on research questions posed by his Jewish study group, which he and his wife have been members of for 13 years.
"Right now, Judge Wapner is preparing a paper that will compare Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish congress, with modern American law-making bodies," said Harold Friedman, the group's leader. "As usual, the Jewish Community Library will be his first resource."
Although the library is not Los Angeles' only source of information on Jewish life, it has been an important resource of Judaica since produce magnate Peter M. Kahn helped found it in 1946. Not only is its collection more extensive than most synagogue libraries, it also is geared more toward the non-scholar than the libraries at Hebrew Union College, the University of Judaism and Yeshiva University.
"My father was an early revolutionary in Russia who believed that people could be free only through information, and information could be had through the free circulation of books," said Kahn's daughter, Genie Shapiro. "He wanted it to be a people's library where everybody--not just scholars--could go."
Kahn would have been pleased to see who was using the library on a recent weekday afternoon. David Gross, 81, one of the Fairfax Avenue area's many retirees, had stopped by the plant-dotted center, as he said he does every week, to pick out a book of humorous Yiddish poetry.
"I heard these poems on the radio when I was in Israel," Gross said to Molly Ackerman, the library's primary volunteer, as he checked out the book. "Now I find them in the library."
Also in the library's 40,000-volume collection are materials on the history of the Jews of Los Angeles and on the teaching of Jewish life and experiences. Because the library operates under the auspices of the Bureau of Jewish Education, which coordinates the curriculum of affiliated schools, many of its visitors are teachers.
'Home Away From Home'
For Bob Frankel, 44, a Jewish studies teacher at a Jewish technical institute, the library is more than just an excellent place to find games and curriculum material on his subject.
"It's my home away from home," said Frankel, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C. "The people here, like Hava (Ben-Zvi), really make you feel special."
Ben-Zvi tries to make the jobs of teachers like Frankel easier by constantly expanding the library's film collection, an effort Shapiro said her father would appreciate because "he wanted the library to have the latest materials, not just the classics."
The library is also a valuable resource for other departments of the Jewish Federation Council that have offices in the same building, said Emil Jacoby, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education. Ben-Zvi said that she, in turn, uses the other departments as sources of information when someone asks her a tough question.
"I'll call the Board of Rabbis," she said. "The other day someone phoned who attended a Jewish funeral and wasn't familiar with Jewish customs. She thought the rabbi was angry because he tore one of the mourner's lapels."
Although the caller could have found out about Jewish funerals in a general library, such information is usually deeply buried, Ben-Zvi said. She cleared up the misunderstanding with one phone call.
"What the rabbi did--the tearing--is an old Jewish custom that symbolizes mourning. These days, in the Reform movement, they cut a piece of ribbon and attach it to the lapel instead."
The Peter M. Kahn Jewish Community Library, at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., is open Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. It is closed on Saturdays.