Between the Lines: Vol. 9, No. 1 (Spring 1996)

Edith Degani: Thoughts on Leaving the JTS Library

Not everyone has the good fortune to have her life's dream realized. I am one of those so blessed.

While I was still attending Queens College (class of 1942), a rabbinical student teaching at my synagogue, the Astoria Center of Israel in Queens, would often speak at length about The Jewish Theological Seminary. Soon, I found myself caught up in his enthusiasm and dreamt that someday I also, would be connected with that great institution. My first step toward achieving that goal was to enroll in the library school of Pratt Institute. There, assigned to visit a few libraries for a term-paper, [JTS] was my first choice. Visiting JTS and seeing its wonders made me even more determined to work there someday. However, on graduating from Pratt in 1943, I was hired as a cataloger for the New York Public Library. Evenings, I started to implement my long term goal to work at The Jewish Theological Seminary by enrolling in the Israel Friedlaender adult education classes held at JTS. There, I began my first real study of Hebrew as well as other subjects in Judaica, hoping to learn enough to eventually qualify for a job at JTS. But, life moves on, I changed jobs, married, and had two children. No longer able to attend the Israel Friedlaender classes, I kept up with my Hebrew studies at various ulpanim. Sadly, I soon realized that I would never have the in-depth knowledge that would qualify me to fulfill my dream.

Then came the library fire on April 18, 1966. Suddenly, experienced catalogers were needed and I applied for a position at JTS's library, scarcely daring to hope that I might be accepted. I arrived at my interview with trepidation, carrying my Ulpan Hebrew text book and saying to Dr. Menahem Schmelzer, then Librarian at JTS, pointing at the book I was holding, "this is my level of Hebrew," to which he responded: "we have many people here who speak fluent Hebrew but what we need in these critical days for the library are your twenty-five years of library administrative and cataloging experience." So, as unbelievable as it seemed, there I was, working at the library where I have remained for close to thirty years moving up the ladder from Cataloger to Technical Services Librarian to Assistant Librarian.

I have seen the library grow from a handful of newly cataloged books to its current computerized Aleph catalogs and had the privilege of being associated with a number of people at the library who influenced my work. One of them was Anna Kleban, from whom I learned stories about the library's treasures, and subsequently, I too began telling them to tour groups and other visitors. Thus, I have had the pleasure of meeting many people from synagogues and schools throughout the country.

The highlight of my years at [JTS] was probably my involvement in the planning of the new building. I learned to read blueprints, make models of chairs and other library furnishings to scale, and to plan furniture layouts for the future building. Nothing, however, has quite equaled the thrill I experienced when I first set foot on the newly poured floor. I felt like shouting "It's real! It exists!" This was a particularly exhilarating feeling since I vividly recall the contrast of my early days working in a prefab structure with books shelved on stacks fourteen feet high.

Throughout my close to thirty years at The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary I have been enriched by the support and friendship of the two Librarians, Dr. Menahem Schmelzer and Dr. Mayer Rabinowitz. I leave now with mixed feelings. I regret leaving my many friends, and am aware of all the projects yet undone. But, I do have a sense of pride for what was achieved at the library and I am happy with the realization that, yes, I had fulfilled my dream.

Towards the Eternal Center

In celebration of the Jerusalem 3000 events throughout the world, the Friends of The Library sponsored an exhibition entitled: Towards the Eternal Center: Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple. The exhibition views the Holy Land through an exploration of the images and words created during the last six centuries.

The travelogue of the Sephardic traveler Benjamin ben Jonah of Tudela is certainly the best known work of all of Jewish travel literature. It serves as the richest source of historical information regarding Jews of the twelfth century. Benjamin began his journey from Saragossa, around the year 1160 and over the course of thirteen years visited a wide range of places including Greece, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Persia. In his travel diary he described the Jewish population, its customs, education, living conditions and occupations. In addition to his description of Jewish living conditions, Benjamin also reported on the secular politics, commercial welfare and geography of the different countries he visited.

Towards the Eternal Center is divided into three sections: Israel as depicted in maps, Jerusalem as represented in manuscripts, rare printed books and postcards, and the Temple as depicted in prints and mizrahs. Highlights of the exhibition include an exquisite selection of engraved, hand-colored maps, a thirteenth-century letter found in the Cairo Genizah and Jewish and Christian travel literature that reveals invaluable social histories regarding the living conditions, inhabitants and perils of traveling in medieval times. Charming and imaginative visions of Jerusalem executed by Jewish scribe/artists of Europe appear in a selection of illuminated eighteenth-century manuscripts. The expanding culture of Jerusalem is manifest in the resurgence of Jerusalem's printing industry in the nineteenth century and in the colorful depictions of the city and its inhabitants are shown in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century postcards.

Towards the Eternal Center: Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple can be viewed on the first, second and fifth floors of the library building from March 13 through June 27, 1996. For further information please call 212-678-8975.

Jerusalem on the Rhine, Jerusalem on the Hudson

Ivan G. Marcus, Professor of Jewish History and Religious Studies at Yale University delivered the fourth annual Gerson D. Cohen Memorial Lecture at the Feinberg Auditorium at JTS on Sunday, February 4, 1996.

In his presentation of the topic, Jerusalem on the Rhine, Jerusalem on the Hudson: The Dynamics of Jewish Continuity, Dr. Marcus stated that Jewish continuity before the modern era was partly the product of a positive role non-Jews assigned to the organized Jewish community in the majority cultures of Christianity and Islam. It was also the result of the positive Jewish self-image Jews created for themselves based on the late biblical model of Jerusalem as a sacred Temple city to which Jews of different places imagined themselves the legitimate heirs, such as in the Rhineland during the First Crusades.

Questions explored in Dr. Marcus' lecture, given the disappearance of the two factors that promoted Jewish continuity up to modernity, were: Can there be a Jerusalem on the Hudson? How do we maintain Jewish continuity in an open democratic society that does not legally promote Jewish collective identity but that encourages individual freedom of expression? Can modern Jews who reject a collective self-image of cultural superiority to their Christian or Muslim neighbors survive the challenge of democratic egalitarianism?

The lecture, followed by a reception in Alperin Lobby, was sponsored by the Friends of The Library.

Library Receives Gift

A generous and rare gift of twenty-five ostraca (plural of ostracon, a fragment of pottery with writing on at least one of its surfaces) was donated to the library by Ms. Marilyn Feuer of New York City. Some of the pieces in this collection contain no writing or decoration and thus may fall into the category of pottery shards rather than ostraca. This collection is part of a larger collection of ostraca divided by the donor among three recipients, with The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary being the only recipient outside Israel.

Several experts have inspected the ostraca and have verified their apparent authenticity. Questions of date and provenance are complicated because, to the best of our current knowledge, they were not discovered under the auspices of a controlled archaeological excavation. Based upon very preliminary analysis, several, though not all of the ostraca, can be dated paleographically to the mid-fourth century BCE and thus antedate the earliest item previously in the JTS collection by approximately twelve centuries. The ostraca bear two additional features similar to other published ostraca that date from the mid-fourth century BCE, namely dating formulae and personal names. The language and script in which the documents are written is Aramaic, although with respect to ethnicity, the named individuals may include descendants of the Edomites, and Minaeans, early Nabataeans, as well as perhaps some Jews. The ostraca are documentary texts containing lists of names, receipts or orders for payment of commodities.

The Library on the World Wide Web

The library has launched its site on the World Wide Web. 'Navigators' from four corners of the earth can 'visit' the library by using an Internet browser (Netscape or Mosaic). One can connect to the library's online catalog, check a list of newly cataloged books, or view samples of library exhibitions. One can read the most recent issues of Between the Lines, the Friends of The Library 's newsletter and obtain information about the Friends. One can view and order library publications for sale such as books, posters, notecards etc.

The website is fully illustrated with items from our collection and photographs of our facility. Through our website we hope to attract 'visitors' from around the world who would otherwise have no opportunity or possibility of knowing about our library and seeing our collection. We have already received numerous reference questions, sent via electronic mail, from places as far away as Brazil and Argentina.

Project Judaica Library in Moscow

The library provided assistance to Project Judaica, the Jewish Theological Seminary's institute in Moscow, (now called the Judaica Library of the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow), in organizing its newly acquired collection of 5000 books in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and English on a variety of Jewish subjects. Most of the books in this collection were donated to the Judaica library in Moscow by the library.

As the library in Moscow did not have computers available to them, we suggested that it have catalog cards generated from a computer program here in the United States and sent to them in Moscow. The librarians in Moscow sent us the title pages of their books and we contracted with RetroLink, a company that would check their title pages against a national database of catalog records (RLIN - Research Libraries Information Network). As one third of the records were in Hebrew and Yiddish, one third in Russian and one third in English, the different languages and character sets were challenges to our colleagues at RetroLink. Once the obstacles of printing cards in Hebrew and Russian were overcome, RetroLink sent us catalog cards and spine labels for all the books and we shipped them to the Moscow library for processing.

The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary will receive a computer file of all the books that were cataloged for the Moscow library. This will help us in our own retrospective conversion, as many of the same books are in our collection and have not yet been converted to our online catalog. We will also have a database of the Judaica library collection in Moscow, which will assist us when we send them duplicate books from our collection.

We hope that the cooperation between the two libraries will be sustained and that we will have a mutually productive relationship with our colleagues in Moscow.

From the Rare Book Room

The library recently acquired a volume of an incunable, (books published before 1501) Sefer haShorashim, circa 1469-1472. In doing so the library now has a complete set of the first Hebrew printed books and it is the only site in the USA to have a complete set.

The questions of when and where Hebrew printing began is an ongoing matter of research and discussion among scholars. A number of scholars and researchers believe that Hebrew printing began in Rome circa 1469. With some reservations, all scholars in the field believe that out of the eight or nine Hebrew books from that time and place, six can be definitely attributed to Rome circa 1460. The library, until recently, owned five of these books and a fragment of two folios from the sixth book. With the acquisition of this sixth book, the library now has the first group of printed Hebrew books in its entirety.

The sequence of the publication of these volumes is not known. The bibliographer, A. K. Offenberg of Amsterdam, has tried to prove that the first of the Hebrew printed books printed in Rome is Sefer haShorashim, now at the library. This volume is the only copy in the United States. It is almost complete and consists of 181 pages. Three pages are missing from the text itself and probably a few blank pages as well.

Sefer haShorashim was written by Rabbi David Ben Joseph Kimhi (1160?-1235?), who lived in Narbonne, Provence. Kimhi was a member of a family immersed in the study and research of Hebrew philology. Both his father and brother were philologists. Sefer haShorashim, is the second part of a two volume composition by Kimhi named Michlol. This volume, which is a glossary of biblical Hebrew words, became a book on its own called Shorashim (Roots), a title deriving from both the form and method used in the book. The root letters of the individual words are printed in large and bold letters followed by a philological explanation. This dictionary also includes Aramaic roots and was the most used reference tool for the study of biblical vocabulary in the Middle Ages for Jewish as well as Christian scholars. It was reprinted three times during the fifteenth century, first in Rome, and twice in Naples, in August 18-September 15, 1490, and in February 10, 1491.

The newly acquired copy of Sefer haShorashim does not contain handwritten comments in the margins but only the markings of the censor of the Catholic church. Hebrew books during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were checked by censors of the Catholic church for any words or sentences that in their opinion were offensive to the Christian faith. Our copy does not have a signature of the censor since it is missing the last page where this signature was always placed.

The acquisition of Sefer haShorashim significantly augments the library's world renowned collection of Hebrew incunables, the largest in the world.

Library Publications

The library is proud to announce the following recent publications:

  • Text and Context: The Development and Dissemination of Medieval Sephardic Culture - A catalog of an exhibition held at the library October 28, 1992 - February 5, 1993.
  • The Jew as Other: A Century of English Caricatures 1730-1830 - A catalog of an exhibition held at the library April 6-September 28, 1995.
  • An Inventory of the Herbert Fromm Collection cataloged and annotated by Elliott Kahn.
  • A facsimile of a Commemorative Wedding Volume, Hamburg 1831, from the collection of rare books at the library. The facsimile, a limited edition of 300, was funded by Dr. Samuel and Francine Klagsbrun in honor of the wedding of their daughter Sarah.
  • Towards the Eternal Center: Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple - A newly published catalog of a current exhibition on view at the library through June 27, 1996.

If you are interested in sponsoring or providing help in funding library publications, contact Rickie Weiner at 212-678-8962, fax 212-678-8998

For information regarding purchase of the above mentioned published catalogs and other items for sale at the library see the library's homepage on the World Wide Web

Library Receives Grant for Music Archivist

The library recently received a grant from the Arthur Rubloff Residuary Trust to have a music archivist work on collections over the next two years. Eliott Kahn, a doctoral candidate in choral conducting from the University of Iowa, who has been doing music archival work at the library, was appointed to this position.

Over the last few decades the library has acquired several sizable collections of Jewish music from cantors, collectors and composers. These collections will now be cataloged into the ALEPH online catalog. This information will facilitate future publication of separate inventories of each collection. In 1995, the library published An Inventory of the Herbert Fromm Collection, cataloged and annotated by Eliott Kahn, and is now in the final stage of preparing the publication of The Inventory of the Papers and Music of Solomon Rosowsky. The Solomon Rosowsky music collection yielded several unpublished manuscripts by his father, Cantor Baruch Leib Rosowsksy (1841-1919). The library's copies may be the only ones that survive of Baruch Leib's music for Sabbath and the festivals. Both the Fromm and the Solomon Rosowsky collections contain many unpublished works by the composers. Future publications include inventories of the music manuscript collections of the late Max Wohlberg and several other prominent hazzanim.

"So many extraordinary Jewish musicians emigrated to the US before and after World War II," says Eliott Kahn, "They carried with them a musical culture that no longer exists in Europe or Russia. I consider it a privilege to try to preserve their work and hopefully make it available to a wider circle of scholars and musicians."