Shelf life: Discovering the treasures of Berkeley, Stanford Judaica libraries

“It’s OK, you can touch the manuscript,” says Paul Hamburg, standing before a table laden with printed treasures.

Still, it doesn’t seem right. After all, he’s talking about a hand-scribed copy of Rashi’s Torah commentary, dating from 1300. Shouldn’t this rarest of rare books be in a glass case protected by crisscrossing laser beams?

Instead, it’s perched open on a foam bookrest in a humdrum library annex in downtown Berkeley. As it has for 700 years, the commentary stands ready to be studied.

Hamburg delicately fingers its vellum pages, made of kosher calf hide, and scans the Hebrew script. He then turns to his right and cradles a Hebrew Bible published in Venice, circa 1524. It features the Masoretic text and commentaries, as well as graceful woodcut illustrations.

Barely a dozen copies exist in the world, but Hamburg had to have this one, and he raided the cookie jar to get it.

“The library lacked an early-print Hebrew Bible,” he explains. So he went shopping, adding yet another gem to the U.C. Berkeley Judaica Collection. With more than 500,000 books, journals and rarities like the Rashi commentary, this collection is one of the finest in the country.

Collections like this make up a national network of Judaica libraries. Whether kept at universities like U.C. Berkeley or institutions like Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, these libraries are vital storehouses of Jewish knowledge, preserving the collected wisdom and history of the Jewish people.

Berkeley’s Judaica collection is not in a single location. Much of it lines the stacks at U.C. Berkeley’s labyrinthine Moffet and Doe libraries. It includes Jewish religious texts and commentaries; rabbinic, medieval and modern Jewish history; modern Jewish thought; and comparative literature. More than 60,000 titles are in Hebrew or Yiddish.

The rare works, which number around 1,800, are stored at the Bancroft Annex down the street.

“Jewish studies is interdisciplinary,” Hamburg says. “Religion, biblical, history, social sciences, art and science. We even have a Yiddish copy of [Darwin’s] ‘Origin of Species.'”

The Bay Area houses an equally valuable collection at Stanford University.

Since assuming the post of curator in 1999, Zachary Baker has overseen the steady expansion of Stanford’s Judaica and Hebraica collections. Like his friend Hamburg, Baker takes pride in the breadth of titles under his domain.

“Stanford made a strategic decision to acquire a collection that would serve the needs of the then-nascent Jewish studies program,” he says. “We aren’t just building for today. We try to anticipate the needs of scholars,” he adds, articulating one of the prime purposes of Judaica libraries like his.

“Both those libraries are superb,” comments David Gilner, director of libraries at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. “You need collections of books to support the research of professors and Ph.D. candidates. Librarians like Paul and Zachary know what’s being taught, and they help expand programs.”

The Stanford collection consists mostly of contemporary Jewish-themed books and journals. Baker keeps the oldest and most valuable under lock and key.

Students, scholars and curious visitors can examine them in a special climate-controlled reading room in Stanford’s Cecil H. Green Library. Library staffers check all bags and make sure visitors enter the room with nothing more indelible than a No. 2 pencil.

There, Baker shows off some of the crown jewels of the Stanford collection: a 1529 Hebrew grammar from Venice on paper made of rag stock; a commentary on halachah (Jewish law) from Bologna, Italy, complete with wormholes; a 1553 volume by Joseph Caro, famed author of “Shulchan Aruch”; a 1781 Haggadah from Amsterdam, with wine stains still visible on the Ten Plagues page.

For rare volumes in need of a facelift, Baker has a bookbinding and paper-conservation team ready to do triage.

“The vast majority of Hebrew texts before the 1700s are religious texts,” Baker says. “Nevertheless there were secular works published in Hebrew, like grammars and medical texts. Into the Haskalah [Enlightenment], even educated Jews did not know the Latin alphabet.”

Until the 1800s, Jewish scholars had little interest in chronicling contemporary history. Jewish librarian David Langenberg wrote that “whatever happened after the destruction of the Temple and exile from the Holy Land seemed only a transitory period of punishment, of exile, and of suffering until the coming of the Messiah and redemption.”

Some pieces in the collection fall under the “suffering” category. Baker points to a 1731 volume published in Germany that has engravings showing Jews being marched to the gallows —a “how-to” manual for the Germans.

Though Baker and Hamburg enjoy showing off their respective collections, neither spends much time doing so. Rather, they prefer scouring the Web and scanning journals and auction notices, looking for the next find.

“There’s a certain amount of ‘hondling,'” Hamburg says, using the Yiddish term for bargaining. “I acquire about 150 books a month. Most of them come from Israel.”

Baker makes similar purchases. But a large number of volumes at Stanford have been bequeathed to the university.

The library’s Taube-Baron collection, funded by local philanthropist Tad Taube, contains 20,000 books, including several priceless rarities. The “Baron” of the collection is Salo Baron, the first professor of Jewish history at Columbia University. When he died in 1989 at 94, he was considered one of the last century’s greatest Jewish scholars and historians.

He was a prodigious collector of Jewish books. Along with his personal papers, those books now reside on the Stanford campus.

Baker and Hamburg belong to the Association of Jewish Libraries. Hamburg co-chaired the organization’s annual convention two years ago, and Baker earned the group’s life membership award in 2004. Both men are ideally suited to their jobs, though their backgrounds couldn’t be more dissimilar.

Baker grew up in Minneapolis speaking Yiddish, thanks to his European-born mother and grandparents. By his teen years, he had become interested in Jewish history, a passion fueled in part by his father’s extensive collection of books, among them, Salo Baron’s multivolume “A Social and Religious History of the Jews.”

“‘You should read that,” Baker remembers his father telling him. “I did. It whetted my appetite.”

Baker later studied Yiddish formally at the University of Chicago, then launched his career at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. That led to two tenures in a similar capacity at YIVO, the New York-based Yiddish literature repository.

By 1999, he felt he needed a change of scenery. When Stanford’s first Judaica curator, Roger Kohn, retired, Baker landed the job.

Hamburg took a more circuitous route to Berkeley, where he has worked since 2003. A native of Los Angeles, he graduated from U.C. San Diego with a degree in medieval studies, specializing in Hebrew and Arabic literature. But Hamburg didn’t hang around long after that.

With a renewed interest in Judaism, he made aliyah at age 23, living and working on an Israeli kibbutz for the next 17 years. There, Hamburg led a dual life. By day, he was waist deep in muck, running the local cattle farm. By night, he would hose down and practice piano for hours. (Hamburg is a highly trained classical musician, and performed recitals all over Israel.)

A divorce led to his return to the United States in 1989. With his knowledge of Judaism, Hebrew, music and other disciplines, he thought library science might make a good new career. A year later, library degree in hand, Hamburg took librarian jobs at the Simon Weisenthal Center, the Zeigler School at L.A.’s University of Judaism and elsewhere.

He remarried, to Mimi Weisel, a Conservative rabbi who serves at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

One of Hamburg’s first tasks at Cal was to take inventory. When he started, the Judaica collection contained hundreds of thousands of volumes, some going back to the university’s early days in the 1880s.

He says the Judaica collection might best be understood as a three-part Venn diagram, with books by Jews, books about Jews and Judaism, and books in Hebrew or Yiddish about anything. The stacks contain more than 60,000 books written in Hebrew or Yiddish and 100,000 scholarly journals.

Last year Hamburg was sidelined for a while by an eye condition. (He wears a patch over his ailing eye, and the irony of being a librarian with only one good eye is not lost on him).

Some of the Berkeley collection falls in the category of fine art, such as a glass piece by David Moss inscribed with the Prayer for Peace by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Hamburg even has trading cards from pre-Israel Palestine, circa 1939 (they’re pictures of German cars).

Back at Stanford, Baker patrols the stacks in Green Library. With an annual budget of $150,000 to $200,000, he has enough resources to keep his collection current.

And like his counterpart in the East Bay, he likes to snag the occasional curiosity. A recent arrival included a goody bag of materials from Tel Aviv waiting to be catalogued, most of it curios from the 1920s and ’30s — glossy guides to the city, brochures on how to avoid malaria, children’s books.

Baker and Hamburg have fully integrated the Internet into their libraries. At Berkeley, Hamburg has begun acquiring electronic resources, ranging from online versions of Hebrew dictionaries and the Encyclopedia Judaica to Bar-Ilan University’s Responsa Project, purportedly the world’s largest database of Hebrew language texts.

Making collections accessible by Internet is an important component. Says the HUC’s Gilner, “Even if people within the Jewish community can’t go directly to these libraries, it may be they can go to a Jewish center or librarian with a question. These people can turn to someone like Paul or Zachary and say, ‘I’ve got a question.'”

Useful as the Web may be, Baker and Hamburg agree that nothing beats the printed page (or even the pre-Gutenberg handwritten page) when it comes to appreciating the many milestones of Jewish wisdom.

Ask Baker for his sentimental favorite among the Stanford collection, and he doesn’t pick a rare Torah commentary or compendium of Jewish law. Instead he points to a volume printed in Amsterdam in 1680.

It’s a bibliography.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.