From the cover of "Prince of the Press" by Joshua Teplitsky
From the cover of "Prince of the Press" by Joshua Teplitsky

Books on books: uncovering the role of libraries in Jewish history

J.’s books coverage is supported by a generous donation from Anne Germanacos.

With such a radical shift in how we access ideas and information, it is difficult for children like mine who were born into the internet age to grasp how we were able to function without the ability to perform a Google search.

Yet for centuries, intellectual and spiritual inquiry has often meant turning to libraries, both private and public. Three new books show the role that such book collections have played historically, especially among Jews.

Jerusalem: City of the Book” explores the relationship of Jerusalem to the texts that have found a home among the city’s diverse religious communities, from Sufi to Karaite.

Cover of “Jerusalem: City of the Book” by Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint Much of the book records the visits that authors Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint paid to the city’s varied repositories of the written word. For example, the Syriac Orthodox Church, whose adherents still speak a variant of Aramaic, includes a monastery library with stunning manuscripts at risk of deterioration because of poor storage conditions. Meanwhile, the library of the Karliner-Stoliner Hasidim remains off limits to nearly everyone, seemingly because the rebbe remains traumatized by the complete loss of the sect’s legendary library in Belarus during World War II.

In their wide-ranging book, Mack and Balint address rediscovered manuscripts, stolen texts and books that were looted during the 1948 War of Independence. Finding a rare manuscript at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate Library in which erased portions of a lost play by Euripides were overlaid centuries later with a Greek translation of the Books of the Prophets, the authors see the extraordinary palimpsest as a fitting metaphor for the books of Jerusalem: a conversation across language and time.

Joshua Teplitsky’s “Prince of the Press” traces the history of the library of Rabbi David Oppenheim, and it splendidly explains the importance of such private collections in times when mass production of books had not taken hold.

Cover of "Prince of the Press" by Joshua TeplitskyOppenheim was born in 1664 to a family that served as privileged court Jews in the German city of Worms. Over the course of his life, he amassed thousands of Jewish texts — both through his own purchases and through books presented to him in hopes of currying favor with his politically connected relatives. Oppenheim became chief rabbi of Prague, but at a time when books were subject to approval by the Catholic Church. Cautious, he decided to protect his collection by housing it in Hanover, Germany, which remained under Protestant rule.

Oppenheim was able to benefit from his books in spite of their distance from Prague. Many of his legal decisions were strengthened by his ability to draw from rare manuscripts that others did not have access to. Moreover, his standing in society was fortified by the library’s reputation, and by his opening it generously to scholars, both Jewish and Christian.

The collection was kept intact after Oppenheim’s death in 1736 and sold in 1829 to Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Escaping the fate that other European Jewish libraries would suffer under the Nazis, it remains one of the world’s great Judaic collections.

The Lost Library” by Dan Rabinowitz examines the history of the Strashun Library in Vilna (now Vilnius), created when Mattityahu Strashun bequeathed his extensive personal library to the city’s Jewish community upon his death in 1885. A building was constructed opposite the Great Synagogue to house the collection and provide a reading room.

Cover of “The Lost Library” by Dan RabinowitzThe Strashun would become the first true Jewish public library in history, open to everyone, regardless of economic background, religious leaning or gender. At a time when nearly half of Vilna’s population was Jewish, it became a major communal institution. Its collection grew nearly tenfold over the course of four decades, with many collectors and scholars contributing their volumes.

Much of Rabinowitz’s book is devoted to events during and after World War II. After occupying Vilna in 1941, the Nazis selected a group of Jewish slave laborers to determine which of the library’s books would be sent to Germany for further use and which would be sent to paper mills to be converted into pulp. Some of these workers, dubbed the Paper Brigade, smuggled the books in order to save them, hiding them in the Vilna Ghetto at great risk.

Ironically, Rabinowitz notes, most of the smuggled books were lost or destroyed during the course of the war, while those that were shipped to Germany (about half the library’s original collection) generally survived.

The remains of the Strashun collection were discovered in crates in Germany after the war. The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (originally based in Vilna) successfully petitioned to house the collection in its New York facility, where it relocated in 1940. However, YIVO’s claim was subsequently contested by Tzvi Harkavy, a great-nephew of Mattityahu Strashun, who argued that the collection should go to the library of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, where he was librarian (a portion of the collection ended up going there).

Rabinowitz demonstrates that both parties’ claims were problematic — YIVO’s because its assertions about the relationship of the YIVO and Strashun libraries were dishonest, and Harkavy’s because it was based on his familial relationship to Mattityahu Strashun, when Strashun had explicitly bequeathed his collection to Vilna’s Jewish community and not to his family.

Despite this battling for the materials, Israel’s Central Rabbinical Library ended up selling off all of its books from the Strashun collection, and YIVO sold a portion of its Strashun holdings. Meanwhile, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Lithuanian government asserted that the collection was part of its nation’s heritage.

Reflecting on this contested history, Rabinowitz draws hope from the fact that much of the collection is being digitized and will soon be available to all, thus providing the public access that was the Strashun Library’s hallmark.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.