Touring Jewish history, one object at a time

Touring Jewish history, one object at a time

For Jewish News Life magazine September 2023

Interested in Mozart’s love letters to his wife, Constanze? or the early writings of Isaac Newton? Or perhaps Rosh Hashanah greeting cards are more your thing, or gorgeous calligraphy showing the Gates of Heaven opening on Yom Kippur?

All of these and much, much more, can be found in a spectacular new book, published by the National Library of Israel, (NLI) showcasing just a fraction of the treasures in its collection, and published to mark the move of the Library to a stunning purpose-built edifice in Jerusalem, later in 2023.

You can almost sense the frustration of the NLI curators who have confined themselves to “just” 101 items. Choosing the items, they say was “daunting yet exhilarating”. But every choice “shares one essential feature: they allow us to tell great stories”.

And it is a whistlestop tour of 1,500 years of Jewish history, dipping in and out of areas as far apart as fifth century Babylon to the Vilna Ghetto, from Theodor Herzl’s only visit to the Land of Israel to the Israeli army’s triumphant re-taking of the city of Jerusalem in 1967.

In his foreword to “101 Treasures”, Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, observes that “a library — any library — is far more than just rows of shelves lined with books. A library is a treasury of knowledge, a universe of values, a meeting place, a research institution… with the establishment of the state of Israel, the National Library took on the additional and essential task of preserving and documenting the cultures of Israeli citizens of all religions and faiths, as part of its commitment to serving as an intellectual home for all the nation’s citizens”.

The NLI was founded 130 years ago and it is now home to world-class collections, including exquisite Islamic art and manuscripts. It was the dream, primarily, of one man, a Polish Jewish doctor, Joseph Chasanowich. Chasanowich, during his lifetime, was said to have sent 22,000 books and rare texts to Jerusalem and “sometimes accepted books in place of payment for his medical services in order to collect more material”. One can imagine his family not reacting well to this.

A year after Chasanowich’s death in 1919, the World Zionist Organisation appointed a philosopher and Zionist activist, Shmuel Hugo Bergmann, as the library’s first professional director. Bergmann hired academics and expanded the library’s work, bringing in, for example, a 6,000-volume research collection of Ignaz Goldziher, a renowned Jewish scholar of Islam and Arabic.

In 1925 this library merged with the Hebrew University and changed its name to the Jewish National and University Library. It relocated from Jerusalem’s city centre to the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. It was not a fortunate move, because when the city was divided during the 1948 War of Independence, the library — and almost all its holdings — became inaccessible.

But despite all the problems it faced, the future NLI kept adding to its collections: from material owned by fleeing European Jewish refugees in the 1930s, to 1964’s National Sound Archives, the world’s largest collection of ethnographic and commercial recordings of Israeli and Jewish music, and an incredible 1967 bequest from the collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda, which included 7,000 pages of Isaac Newton’s theological and alchemical writings, and an archive of Napoleon’s campaigns in the Middle East.

The NLI only became the NLI as recently as 2007. It now houses four main collections — Judaica and Israel, and Islam and the Middle East, plus a general humanities collection. The Library bought more than 10,000 rare books and texts assembled by Britain’s Valmadonna Trust, and it is also the beneficiary of major works by Franz Kafka. With Tel Aviv University, the NLI has digitised hundreds of historic Jewish newspapers from six continents in more than 18 languages.

Almost every week brings a new acquisition — most recently a Shakespeare First Folio fragment — whether a manuscript, a book, a map or a poster. The NLI offers the opportunity to learn about the Jewish people’s ongoing conversations with other cultures, and really whets the appetite for more.

101 Treasures of the National Library of Israel is published by Scala Arts price £40 in the UK.

  • 14 September, 2023