Antiquarians historic offerings trace history of Jewish state

A rare typed letter from Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism. Hebrew newspapers from May 14, 1948, whose headlines trumpet "The People Declare the State of Israel." Original black-and-white sketches from the 1961 Jerusalem trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann.

To celebrate Israel's 50th anniversary, antiquarian dealer Rabbi Irvin Ungar has amassed a collection of these and other historic items that help bring to life the story of the Jewish state. The Burlingame collector specializing in Judaica has already sold some of the pieces, which range in price from less than $100 to nearly $10,000.

"But there are some great pieces left," he says.

Ungar, whose business Historicana sells rare books, manuscripts and historic art, spent two years putting together a catalog titled "The Birth of a Nation: The Jewish People and the Land of Israel."

The purpose of the $10 anniversary catalog, he says, is not merely to offer items for sale, but to tell the story of the Jewish people. "It's my hope it will shed some light on the history of the region and the potential it holds for commonality of purpose," he says.

Most catalogs, he notes, are organized alphabetically or according to author or title.

"The Birth of a Nation," on the other hand, is divided into 10 chronological sections, starting with "The Holy Land Under the Ottoman Turkish Empire" and ending with "Through Three Wars — To a Troubled Peace," which covers the period from 1956 to 1995.

Among items in the latter section are a 1956 letter from David Ben-Gurion to Israel's consul in Johannesburg calling for South African Jewish recruits to train in the Israel Defense Force. Photographs signed and dated in 1980 by slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin are also available.

Much earlier in the historical timeline is a rare original of the most famous newspaper headline in the modern fight against anti-Semitism — "J'Accuse…!" — French writer Emile Zola's bold 1898 accusation of an anti-Semitic conspiracy within the top ranks of the French army.

Also included in the section titled "Roots of Modern Zionism" is a series of articles from The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper owned and published by automobile magnate Henry Ford. Beginning in May 1920, Ford launched a campaign accusing American Jews of a plot to subvert traditional American ways.

In June 1927, Ford delivered to Louis Marshall, head of the American Jewish Committee, an apology to the Jewish people for the calumnies published in his paper. He also completely retracted the statements.

Ungar is particularly excited by a collection of 23 letters and notes signed by Albert Einstein between 1928 and 1940. The correspondence between the scientist and others documents the divergence between Einstein's perception of the role of Jerusalem's Hebrew University and the prevailing view of American fund-raisers led by Judah L. Magnes.

Magnes aimed to establish a modern Jewish institution, creating a generation of Jerusalem-based educators. Einstein viewed the university as a haven for scientists displaced by the Nazi regime in Europe.

"You will be aware that in my field, Theoretical Physics, there have become available through the changes in Germany some excellent young talents," he writes. "Also in Poland there are two very outstanding researchers, who have no job possibilities there."

Einstein's signature also appears on a catalog for a 1938 rare book auction to benefit German refugees. The auction, which took place in New York, was organized by leading philanthropists and bookseller A.S.W. Rosenbach.

Ungar keeps some of his historic pieces in a bank vault. He keeps others at his home in a gallery, which is open for viewing by appointment.

The rabbi admits he has difficulty parting with certain items. "But I really see myself as a caretaker of these pieces, and it's my function to get them into the proper hands," he says.

Besides, Ungar does occasionally set aside special pieces for himself and his family. His daughter Avital, as a young girl, set her sights on a turn-of-the-century Hebrew mantle clock with a music box in the base and an image of Herzl on the pendulum.

Ungar told his daughter he would give her the clock as a bat mitzvah gift. She celebrated the occasion in May; the clock is now hers.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.