RABBI JERRY SCHWARZBARD, LIBRARIAN FOR SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, REFLECTS ON HIS 20 YEAR SERVICE AT THE LIBRARY
Interview excerpted from News From The Library
When did you begin working at The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary?
I began working here about twenty years ago. I was a grad student at JTS at the time, and I was hired by The Library as part of a project to identify and catalog old Yiddish books. After I finished with this project, I just stayed on and worked full-time in Special Collections. I began under the leadership of Dr. Menahem Schmelzer, working under him until his retirement.
When did you begin giving your well-known Rare Book Room tours?
When I first began working in Special Collections, Mrs. Edith Degani would guide many of the tours. But soon I was giving them, and when I became the chief librarian in this department, my staff (Seth Jerschower and David Wachtel) would do them as well. The tours have always been a lot of fun.
One of the most noteworthy parts of my experience in offering these tours has been the opportunity to meet famous and important people. Over the years many notable persons have visited the Rare Book Room, such as former President Jimmy Carter; well-known columnist and essayist William Safire; Israel’s then-president Ephraim Katzir; Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington; the Samaritan high priest; a group of French bishops; and, of course, Dr. Ruth.
We often have visits from important book collectors as well. I remember that once a French collector from Paris traveled all the way here just to look at one of our rare Sephardic box bindings.
What was the funniest or most interesting experience you have had while giving these tours?
My experiences doing these tours are rarely funny, though they are almost always interesting. I guess the funniest thing I can recall is when the head of the Weizmann Institute, for whom I was giving a tour, asked me, “How much do you pay to work here?”
What are your favorite works in the collection?
I love the whole collection, but I admit certain “weaknesses” for particular works. Given my original scholarly leanings, I have a deep interest in historical Ashkenazic works and works in old Yiddish. Our great autographic manuscripts—Maimonides’ signature from the Cairo Genizah; the original copy of the well-known hymn, "Yedid Nefesh"; the holographs of Hayyim Joseph David Azulai, Moses Hayyim Luzatto, and many others.
I also have a particular affection for some of our ephemera—such as the world’s oldest printed Hebrew calendar, the first book printed in Amsterdam by Menasseh ben Israel (a siddur), and many of our early manuscripts and printed Haggadot.
In addition, I admit to a great love of our oldest Bible manuscripts and other Jewish sacred texts—the 1224 Toledo Bible, a Persian Bible manuscript from the tenth-to-eleventh centuries, and our famous Talmud manuscript of tractate Avodah Zarah. But also great printed works, our unparalleled incunabula collection; I could go on and on.
From your perspective, what are the major changes The Library has seen over the years?
Well, many of the changes are simply matters of size—we have more staff and many more requests. But new technologies have made more of a difference than anything else. Digitization of rare materials has opened up new worlds. The number of requests we get to digitize our rare materials is incredible.
What have you liked most about your job?
One of the things I have enjoyed is traveling to serve as courier for loans we have made around the world. In this capacity, I have been to Paris, Toledo, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Jerusalem. I have also accompanied loans to cities throughout the United States.
Even more, I have enjoyed my many interactions with students, faculty, and visiting scholars from around the world, facilitating their research. We here in The Library provide the resources for much of Jewish scholarship. New books in Jewish studies are constantly citing us and giving us credit. The truth is that they couldn’t do their work without consulting our books and manuscripts.
The essence of my joy is this: because of the comprehensiveness of our collection, my position has provided me with the opportunity to be exposed to the continuity of Jewish history and culture through the ages. Here, I have literally been able to touch artifacts from each period and location; there is nothing like the immediacy of actually touching the Jewish experience.