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A NY Jewish library’s treasure surfaces at online auction. How did it get there?

4 8 18
05.08.2021

JTA — When an online auction house recently unveiled a new catalog of rare Jewish books and manuscripts, Rabbi Elli Fischer was among the many who rushed to examine the goods.

An Israeli-American university researcher, Fischer was particularly intrigued by an old handwritten journal — opening bid: $100,000. (The ledger was sold on July 28 for $200,000.)

The journal, known as a ledger, or “pinkas,” belonged to a rabbi from the holy city of Tiberias who had toured Jewish Europe some 200 years ago to raise money for his community. Fischer was fascinated to read the names of towns and rabbis visited on the tour. He even spotted the signature of one of his own ancestors, a German rabbi.

As Fischer looked through the digitized images of the ledger, he noticed a number stamped at the bottom of one page. The stamp, showing a faded “13723,” told Fischer that this manuscript, now being sold by an anonymous owner on the private market, had once been part of a collection, probably at a public institution.

“There’s something really curious, perhaps even suspicious, about one of the most remarkable items on auction,” Fischer would later write in a series of tweets.

Fischer turned on his detective’s brain, and what he would discover would soon scandalize the world of Judaica experts, help expose a controversial practice by a flagship institution of Jewish learning and raise questions about the commitment of the Jewish community to preserving its own history.

All he had now, however, was a serial number. Fischer decided to type the number into the search bar of the catalog for the National Library of Israel — he got a hit. A description matching that of the auction noted that the manuscript was available in microfilm and digital formats on the library website.

But the item did not belong to the National Library, nor had it ever. Instead, the manuscript was described as part of the world-renowned collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

“You read this right: A unique and valuable manuscript that was part of the [JTS library’s] magnificent collection is now on the auction block,” Fischer would later tweet. “How did it get there?”

Fischer also noted that a search for the item in the library’s own catalog yielded no results, only another question: Had someone removed the entry from the catalog?

One possibility was that the manuscript had been stolen from the seminary at some point and was now resurfacing. The other possibility — even more worrying to some — was that the seminary was quietly selling the manuscript and perhaps other precious items from its celebrated collection.

The library had sold off items in the past, doing so openly. The items were either duplicates and therefore less valuable, or works printed in Latin, a language that many other institutions better specialize in.

This manuscript was a distinctly Jewish and Hebrew text, and since it was handwritten, by definition it was unique.

As word of Fischer’s findings spread, librarians at JTS and elsewhere grew alarmed, according to interviews with about a dozen people, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.

With the library shut down since 2016 for a campus redevelopment project and the books sitting in a warehouse, rumors had been circulating. Many suspected the library used the cover of renovations to make the controversial move of selling collectibles.

Fischer had delivered a “smoking gun,” as several Jewish book experts described his discovery that an item had been removed from the library. One person called it a “catastrophe.” Another expert said the sale of the manuscript was as if Hadassah had removed the Chagall windows from its hospital in Jerusalem. The subsequent removal from the catalog was as if Hadassah had been asked about the windows and responded, “Windows? What windows?”

Located in Upper Manhattan near Columbia University, the Jewish Theological Seminary is the academic and spiritual heart of Conservative Judaism. Its library is arguably the most important repository of Jewish knowledge in the world, featuring some of the very first books printed in Hebrew, a letter written by Maimonides about 800 years ago, and thousands of other rare and unique texts.

A tension between the institution’s mission of ordaining rabbis for Conservative congregations and its expensive archival responsibilities has existed for more than 100 years, going back to the moment when rich New York Jews envisioned a “Hebrew book museum” at the seminary to rival the collections of imperial Britain.

“We should hold in view the purpose to make our collection as nearly complete as the resources of the world may render possible, and in so doing, we should spare neither thought nor labor nor money,” said Mayer Sulzberger at the dedication of a new building for the seminary in 1903.

Sulzberger and the rest of the era’s mostly German Jewish donor class made good on that promise. Alexander Marx was tapped to head the........

© The Times of Israel


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