Prof. Shalom Sabar: Acclaimed Israeli historian, scholar and modest man

Shalom Sabar was the last Jewish baby born and circumcised in the community. A few weeks after his birth, his family left for Israel.

 SHALOM AT home.  (photo credit: Courtesy Shalom Sabar)
(photo credit: Courtesy Shalom Sabar)

Shalom Sabar wears many hats. He’s a world-renowned professor, teacher, scholar, researcher, historian, author, speaker, folklorist and collector. Above all, Prof. Sabar is a modest man, according to his friends, colleagues and students. 

It all began in 1951 in the Kurdish-Jewish community of Zakho, Iraq. He was the last Jewish baby born and circumcised in the community. A few weeks after his birth, his family left for Israel together with the remaining 315 families from the community. In 1987, he earned a PhD in art history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Subsequently, he returned to Jerusalem, where he and his wife raised three children and now enjoy their role as grandparents. 

The Magazine recently sat down with him at a Jerusalem café.

What’s your secret? You came to Jerusalem as an infant; your mother tongue was Aramaic. You grew up in a poor neighborhood. You were asked to leave high school after a year because of your low grades. And, still, you went on to graduate from The  Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1976 with majors in art history, philosophy and history. How did you do it?

From childhood, I loved reading for the sake of learning. My father also loved to read and knew Hebrew well, like all men in our community. Like the other women, my mother was illiterate. Her family was her life, and she made sure there was a hot meal waiting for me and my siblings every day when we got home from school. I never grew up feeling that we were poor.

 EXPLAINING THE Sarajevo Haggadah in the Sarajevo Museum. (credit: Richard Rinberg) EXPLAINING THE Sarajevo Haggadah in the Sarajevo Museum. (credit: Richard Rinberg)

Since we had no money for a home library, I would take full advantage of the Jerusalem public libraries. In those days, you could only check out one or two books at a time, so I went to three libraries within walking distance of my home to check out books. On the way back, I’d just about finished the books I borrowed. Reading was my passion. I still do what I love.

From being a voracious reader, you became a prolific writer. More than 200 of your publications were noted on a list published by Hebrew University Open Scholar in 2015, and some 50 more have been published since then. What’s your current interest? 

In general, ‘Israeliana’ and ephemera – items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. And, specifically, ephemera that tell the history of Jewish life in Israel and Israeli childhood. It’s what people often throw into the garbage, and some people sell at flea markets. As it’s said: ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’

Let’s talk about some of your collections. Tell me about Rosh Hashanah cards.

I started collecting them in the mid-1990s. I found some, bought some, and some were given to me. I now have about 20,000 cards in my personal collection. The earliest mention of the practice appears in the book of customs written by a disciple of Rabbi Ya’acov ben Moshe Halevi Moelin, better known by his Hebrew acronym Maharil (b. ca. 1355, Mainz – d. 1427), who was a leading German rabbinical authority in his time. 

To learn more, one can read my article ‘A Happy and Joyous New Year: Jewish New Year Greeting Cards as a Reflection of Jewish and Israeli Ideals in the Modern Era.’

What about Simhat Torah flags?

Traditionally, men would carry the Torah scrolls on this holiday, and children would march around the synagogue waving flags specially designed for the holiday. I own about 500 of these flags. 

In my article ‘Jewish Folk Art and Ideology: The Simhat Torah Flag through the Ages,’ I address the following: What is the source of this popular item? Is it an ancient custom? How and where did it develop? What are the earliest flags that we have? Why were accessories, like a candle and an apple, affixed to the flag? 

What about Hanukkah menorahs?

We have about 700 menorahs in our home. They are all lit with candles, and each one tells a story. Every Hanukkah, we ask a grandchild to pick the menorah for us to use. 

Over time, the Hanukkah lamp evolved into a primary artistic Judaic object of the Hanukkah festival in Diaspora communities. Little attention was given to representing the victories of the Maccabees – the true heroes of the events that led to the celebration of this festival. 

The traditional concepts and views of Hanukkah dramatically changed with the emergence of the Zionist movement. The concept of the “New Jew” fitted well with the heroism of the Maccabees and accordingly transformed considerably the image of the Hanukkah lamp. This led to the creation (in the early 20th century, in the Land of Israel) of daring and innovative designs that popularly reminded people of the Hasmonean revolt, culminating in the lamps created in the first decades of the young State of Israel, where the many lamps represent power, strength, independence, and the soldiers of the IDF. 

To learn about the transformations that the menorah symbol went through from the dawn of the modern era to the founding of Israel, one can listen to my two-part lecture series recorded at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem: ‘The Chronicles of the Hanukkah Lamp.’

Though you officially retired from Hebrew University in 2019 as a full professor, it seems that you’re not really retired. Am I right?

Absolutely right. I still work about 16 to 18 hours a day and travel quite a bit. I recently returned from a series of lectures and a research project in Philadelphia and New York. And, after 20 years of work, I finally completed The Art of the Ketubbah, a catalog showcasing a world-class collection of more than 600 Jewish marriage contracts, accompanied by detailed commentary, published by the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary and preserved there.

Are you continuing as a scholar-in-residence for Jewish Historical Seminars?

Definitely. Our last tour was in Piedmont, Italy, and we are now ready for our next trip: ‘The Jews of Medieval Catalonia: Mysticism, Scholarship and Culture.’ Our trips feature the history, culture, society and practices of Jewish communities that existed and still exist in many countries.

If some readers have questions about the value of an old Rosh Hashanah card or Simhat Torah flag, can they contact you?

Sure, at [email protected]

SHALOM SABAR, 71 From Zakho, Iraqi Kurdistan, to Jerusalem, 1951

A colorful, long career

Shalom Sabar is a professor emeritus of the Department of Art History and the Folklore and Folk Culture Program of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

His research addresses the following topics: Jewish art and folk art; material culture and ephemera; the role of material objects in the life cycle and the yearly cycle; ritual and custom among Jewish communities in Europe and in Muslim countries (especially the Jews of Italy and post-expulsion Sephardic communities in Europe); the image of the Jew and Hebrew writing in art.

In 1991, he received the National Jewish Book Award for his book Jewish Marriage Contracts of the Hebrew Union College Skirball Museum and Klau Library.

A sampling of his many publications are the following: Hebrew Inscriptions in Rembrandt’s Art; The Sarajevo Haggadah: History & Art; Hadar and Hiddur:The Etrog in Jewish Art; Torah and Magic: The Torah Scroll and Its Appurtenances as Magical Objects in Traditional Jewish Culture.