leanor Foa Dienstag

Season of the Jewish Book: Two Exhibits and One Personal Discovery

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Totally by chance (although maybe somebody up there is watching), two exceptional exhibits focusing on collections of rare Hebraic and Jewish Books and Manuscripts are on view in New York.* Each has a different focus, given the nature of the Collections from which they are drawn, and each is fascinating for the multilevel stories they tell. For those interested in the extraordinary beauty of early printed and handwritten books, for those who love historical artifacts and what they reveal about the past, and for those interested in all things Jewish, these exhibits are not to be missed.

Part I

People In The Books Poster

I first went to visit Columbia University’s “People in The Books” for personal reasons. One of my ancestors is a famous Italian-Jewish printer. Between 1551 and 1559, I Fratelli Foà from Sabbioneta, a tiny walled city in northern Italy, printed 50 titles, and I wondered whether Columbia might have a book printed by them. Their books are extremely rare and although I saw several under glass in 2009 during an exhibition of 13,000 volumes of the Valmadonna Trust Library, the world’s largest private collection of Hebrew books, I’ve never held one in my hand. It was a wild hunch and through it I met the delightful and extremely knowledgeable curator of the exhibit, Michelle Chesner, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies (photo at top).

“Columbia has the third largest collection of Judaica manuscripts in the country, outside of a religious institution,” says Chesner. “It spans the 10th to 20th centuries, and traces the Jewish Diaspora from Cochin, India to Surinam in the Caribbean. Even many scholars in the field are unaware of this rich collection, which is one of the reasons I created the exhibit. I see it as a coming out party.” And in fact, it’s drawn enormous interest among scholars and collectors throughout the U.S.

The exhibition is located on the 6th Floor of Butler Library’s Rare Book & Manuscript Division. It focuses on individual, handwritten and illustrated pages of Hebrew and Jewish books. (The exhibit is free and open to the public.)

Hand written books (or a manuscript codex) remained common well after the invention of the printing press in the 1450s in Germany. And to this day, in Orthodox Judaism, sacred texts, like the Talmud, must still be done on parchment by hand, as is evident in the Portable Torah Scroll, below.

20th Century Portable Torah Scroll in Wooden Case from North Africa

Each manuscript page or book tells two stories – the first is the nature of the text itself. Is it a Bible? Is it a medical text translated from an original Greek text? Is it a traveling Torah or a wedding Ketubah? The second is the nature and history of the people who owned the book. Chesner emphasizes the people who owned these books (hence the exhibit’s title). As she puts it, “I truly believe that each handwritten book tells its own story through a variety of ways, including the notes on the flyleaves, the remarks on the margins, the names of various owners, the wine stains on a Passover Haggadah, the candle wax in a prayer book, and the countries where the book was used.” She adds, impishly, “I like dirty books.”

Karaites Cabinets

So the exhibition is organized by classes of book owners and users: Scholars (Linguists, Christian Hebraists, Students); Book People (binders censors, collectors), Doctors, Karaites (a Jewish sect emphasizing Scripture and rejecting rabbinic oral tradition of the Talmud), Timekeepers (calendars and holidays based on cycles of the moon), Life Cycle (birth, marriage, death), Communities (rules, crises and communal events), Congregants, Travelers, Mystics, Rabbis, Humanities (actors, philosophers, poets), and Writers.

Hebrew Bible with Miniature Writing (Micrography) from 14th Century Spain

An Ivory Traveling Scroll with the Story of Esther

A Book of Sermons

Astronomy Book with Persian Style Decoration

A Calendar Book

Chesner is a storyteller par excellence, and if you take the time to read the explanatory text next to each exhibit, you will enjoy her erudition as much as I did. There is, for example, a Hebrew bible that looks as though it has a scallop-edged decoration but, on closer view, the scallops are miniature writing. A book of sermons contains a “Cure for Scurvy” between two parentheses marks; a book of stories features a Hebrew Robinson Crusoe; an astronomy text appears distinctly Moorish in design. A calendar book includes Christian holidays so that Jews could plan to protect themselves from attack on those days.

Marriage Ketuba

Black and White Kabbalistic Text

Book Describes Laws Pertaining to Measurements of the Mikva, with an Extended Ruler

In the “Life Cycle” section there are two wedding Ketubas, one from Kurdistan, another from Corfu where there was a wealthy Jewish community, and in “Communities,” we find books about “plague, fire, and floods.” For example, a plague in Padua between 1629-31 killed two thirds of the Jewish community, and so we find a book with “what to do rules” if a plague hits your town. In the “Congregants” section, we find a prayer for women – something absolutely unique to Italy, says Chesner – that recognizes the work women do.

A Personal Discovery

Did I find an I Fratelli Foà book? Thrillingly, yes. We were both astonished. Yet, in a way, our discovery only reinforced the “people” aspect of this exhibition. I spent several hours looking at, handling and photographing the treasure, as well as discussing the world of early printing of Hebrew books in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. I’ve researched the subject, but Chesner added quite a bit to my knowledge. She provided me with a list of titles known to be printed by the Foà press, and also informed me that other Foà printers continued to carry on the family profession in 18th Century Amsterdam, Venice and Turkey.

I Fratelli Foà Book Images

The Book is a Commentary on the Bible Written by Don Isaac Abarbanel, Printed in 1551. Censored in 1602. This is its Frontispiece.

It was fascinating to see how the book was bound and to turn pages, some quite beautifully designed, and some with black censored lines and sections. I knew that Jewish commentaries on the Bible were frequently burned by the Catholic church, but I did not know that that books which escaped incineration were routinely censored. Apparently, Jews who converted to Catholicism often became official censors, in part because they were the only individuals who could read Hebrew.

Close Up of Two Italian Printers’ Marks or Colophons. One on the Right is the I Fratelli Foa Colophon

We discovered two printers’ marks (or colophons) on the last page of the book– which meant the book was collaboratively printed. Most moving to me was to see the Foà colophon. It looked as fresh as the day it was printed, almost 500 years ago.

Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

Columbia University: “The People in the Books”: Hebraica and Judaica Manuscripts from Columbia University Libraries, Through January 25, 2013
The exhibit is free, and open to the public during the Library’s normal operating hours. For more information about the Exhibition and its hours, go to the website.

Part 2

The Jewish Museum – Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries

Image of Sir Thomas Bodley (1545 -1613)

The Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. The old Bodleian, which attracts over 300,000 visitors a year, established in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley, contains some of the most important collections of medieval Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in the world. Since Jews were repeatedly evicted from England, one has to wonder why the English were so busy collecting Hebrew books. The answer is that as Protestantism gained ground in the 16th Century, so did the study by Christian scholars of the Hebrew Bible, thus sparking renewed interest in the collecting of Hebrew books, including the formation of the Bodleian’s Hebraica collection.

Room of Crossing Borders with Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, 1579

Bodley, a Protestant whose family fled England during Queen Mary’s Catholic reign, was just such a Christian Hebraist. After retiring as ambassador to Queen Elizabeth in 1598, he devoted the rest of his life to building his library, with a particular focus on its Hebraica collection.

Crossing Borders, organized by the Jewish Museum’s curator, Claudia Nahson, is a treasure trove of over sixty exquisite and rare works – Hebrew, Arabic and Latin manuscripts – shown for the first time in the U.S. Among them are two books written in the hand of Maimonides, and the world famous 1476 Kennicott Bible, the most lavishly illuminated Hebrew Bible to survive from medieval Spain. It combines Islamic, Christian and popular motifs and symbols, and is named after the English Hebraist, Benjamin Kennicott, who acquired it in the 18th Century. The history of the manuscript between the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and its reappearance 300 years later, remains a complete mystery.

The Fable of the Ancient, printed in Italy in 1497 by Gershom Soncino

There are more modest works, as well, such as an original Hebrew literary work, The Fable of the Ancient, which continued the tradition of illustration in printed works, once solely the province of illuminated manuscripts.

The exhibition unfolds in four rooms in three thematic sections. First, the interaction of Christians and Jews in the Middle Ages as seen through the books they produced; second, the cross-fertilization between Christians, Muslims and Jews during the late Middle Ages in arts, science and the culture at large; third, the importance of the Bodleian’s Hebraica collection as a sign of the Christian Hebraism’s resurgence in the 16th Century.

Illuminated Title Page with Word Panel Baruch (Blessed), Marking the Beginning of the Morning Prayer with the Ritual Washing of Hands

Much is made of how studying Hebrew texts and comparing the Latin and Hebrew Bibles brought Christians and Jews together. While it is true that scholars consulted each other, and Christian artists were sometimes brought in to illuminate Hebrew manuscripts, after the Inquisition of 1492 and the growing ghettoization of Jews in Europe, it’s difficult to make the case that books built much in the way of long-term cultural or religious bridges.

Nevertheless, this exhibition contains supreme works of art that, in their own way did transmit knowledge and learning across religious as well as national borders. It’s a visually stunning show.

Don’t miss the digital images of every page of the Kennicott Bible as well as other touchscreens in exhibition galley and on the Museum’s website.

The Jewish Museum: Crossing Borders: “Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries,” Through Feb 3, 2013

* Our Washington, D.C. readers will be happy to learn that The Library of Congress will be celebrating the centennial of its Hebraic Collection with an exhibition entitled, “Words Like Sapphires”: 100 Years of Hebraica at the Library of Congress. Drawn from 200,000 books and items, it will open on October 25 and will run through March 16, 3013. It will be on view 8:30 to 4:30, Monday through Saturday, in the South Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building at 10 First Street, S.E. It is part of the Library’s multiyear “Celebration of the Book.”


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E-mail at efoa@usa.net