December 5, 2023
December 5, 2023

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A Look Inside the National Library of Israel

Reviewing: “101 Treasures from the National Library of Israel” by Raquel Ukeles, Hezi Amiur and Yoel Finkelman. Scala Arts Publishers Inc. 2023. English. Hardcover. 340 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1785514135.

The National Library of Israel (NLI) is dedicated to collecting the cultural treasures of Israel and of Jewish heritage. Located at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, its holdings are quite impressive. That includes over four million books and 2.5 million photographs, 120,000 hours of recordings, 610,000 manuscripts and much more.

Now take all that, and try to write a “best of” book, and it is a most challenging endeavor. But in “101 Treasures from the National Library of Israel,” editors from the NLI Raquel Ukeles, PhD, Head of Collections; Hezi Amiur, PhD, Israel Collection curator; Yoel Finkelman, PhD, Haim and Hanna Solomon Judaica Collection curator; Stefan Litt, PhD, Humanities Collection curator; and Samuel Thrope, PhD, Islam and Middle East Collection curator, have done just that.

Published to celebrate the autumn 2023 opening of the new NLI building in Jerusalem, designed by world-renowned architects Herzog & de Meuron, the book is full of fascinating insights and manuscripts. It is akin to a greatest-hits collection from the Jewish world over the past 1,500 years.

With the exception of three pages of the Elizabethan play “Sir Thomas More,” which William Shakespeare may have helped write, no manuscripts of Shakespeare’s survive. The only evidence is a handful of his signatures. It’s somewhat ironic that there is little direct written evidence for the greatest English-language writer in history.

Contrast that with Maimonides, who lived about half a millennium earlier than Shakespeare, and there is a preponderance of handwritten manuscripts from him. Many handwritten documents from Maimonides were discovered in the Cairo Genizah, among roughly 400,000 other documents.

In the book, Daniel Lipson, reference librarian at NLI, shares images of Maimonides’ “Commentary on the Mishnah,” written in 1160. Not only that, one can see where Maimonides made corrections and emendations. For those that can’t travel to the NLI to see Maimonides’ manuscripts, Yeshiva University in New York City currently has an exhibit with many of his manuscripts and rare printed books from collections around the world, exploring specific items within their varied historical, cultural and Maimonidean contexts.

Also detailed in the book is the Afghan Genizah, where manuscript fragments were found in the caves of Afghanistan. These documents were vital in proving that Jews had actually lived in Afghanistan. In 2013, the NLI purchased a large swath of documents from the Afghan Genizah, which made their way into its collections.

Not everything in the book goes back to the medieval period, and the book provides a lot of insights into modern Israeli culture. From children’s newspapers during the British Mandate (there were a lot of them) to samples from Kariel Gardosh, an Israeli cartoonist and illustrator better known by his pseudonym Dosh, and more, this is a visually stimulating journey through the greatest items in the NLI.

In the Talmudic story of Honi HaMe’agel, he hibernates for 70 years and awakes to a world he does not understand. In this volume, there are many examples of items, commonplace during the time, that would be foreign now.

As Talmudic Babylonia was a place swarming with demons, no home would be complete without incantation bowls. While these are not mentioned in the Talmud, Yoel Finkelman shows how these bowls were popular and used to trap demons. The bowls, many shown in the book from the fifth century, contained intricate details and images.

Roman Vishniac’s classic work “A Vanished World” is a pictorial history of Jewish life in Germany in the 1930s. In “101 Treasures,” the editors bring to the written page many different worlds that the average reader does not know about.

While not meant to be an inspirational book, the depth and breadth of the collective Jewish contribution to the worlds of religion, art, music and poetry are highlighted here. After reading this fine book, I really wish the title would have been “1,001 Treasures from the National Library of Israel.”

“101 Treasures from the National Library of Israel” can be purchased online from Amazon and ACC Art Books.

Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology, philosophy and science. Follow him on Twitter at @benrothke. His new book was just published: “The Definitive Guide to PCI DSS Version 4: Documentation, Compliance, and Management.”

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