American documents

Lithuanian-born Rabbi Eliezer Silver immigrated to the US in 1907 and rose to prominence in the Orthodox community. His legacy goes on auction next week at Kedem.

American documents (photo credit: Courtesy)
American documents
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For many of the Jews coming to America from a hostile, anti-Semitic Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty’s base – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – were relevant, and a welcome relief from the hazards they had faced in their home countries. That new reality is evident in a collection of documents on American Jewish history that are going on auction next week at Jerusalem’s Kedem auction house.
Among the items up for sale at Kedem is a rare archive of letters and manuscripts that belonged to Rabbi Eliezer Silver, a major American Orthodox leader in the first half of the 20th century.
Other items include Jewish art pieces, photographs, ketubot, Passover Haggadot and Ladino books, as well as books printed in Jerusalem and in the Eastern European Jewish communities of Slavita and Zhitomir.
But according to Avishai Galer, one of the two partners who own Kedem, “there is no question that the Silver collection attracts a lot of attention.”
In fact, the collection was presented to the public about a year or so ago, but was sealed and removed from the auction by order of the court.
“It was a classic case of a legal fight over an inheritance, not connected to us at all, but it was a rather dramatic moment when two lawyers accompanied by a policeman stepped inside the auction hall and stopped [the auction] until they removed all the Silver collection.”
The fight over the rabbi’s legacy – which had to be divided between the heirs of his deceased first wife and the family of his second wife, who survived him – caused a few misunderstandings, which led the whole family to court.
“After a while, the matter was settled and the collection was presented again for auction, which is what we are offering next week to our customers and anybody interested in these tremendously interesting documents on the early period of the Jewish communities’ establishment in North America.”
So who was Silver, and why are so many people interested in his documents? “Rabbi Eliezer Silver was the most prominent Orthodox Jewish figure of his time until his death in 1968,” explains Galer. Born in Lithuania, Silver was a top disciple of Rabbi Chaim of Brisk and immigrated to America in 1907. He served as rabbi of various US communities – including Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Springfield, Massachusetts – but he actually stood at the hub of almost all rabbinical activity in the country.
“He was so appreciated that his fellow Jews called him ‘the chief rabbi,’ and the US government leaders considered him the principal representative of American Orthodox Jewry,” adds Galer.
Silver was the prime address for Torah leaders concerning all public issues in America. During the Holocaust, he founded the Va’ad Hatzala organization to rescue Jews from the European inferno. As soon as the war was over, in spite of his advanced age, he traveled to Europe to search for survivors scattered in the camps and to help them rebuild their lives. He had good and open relationships with all streams of Judaism – including the non-observant – and they all held him in great respect.
Galer says that among the more sensational items of this archive are a series of letters written by leading Lithuanian and hassidic rabbis such as Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, Rabbi Shimon Shkop, Rabbi Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik, Rabbi Aharon of Belz and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, which deal with some of the most urgent issues facing the Jewish communities in those days.
Also for sale are two photograph collections – one of Silver at various events, and another of hassidic and Lithuanian rabbis in the US.
FOR THOSE who are more interested in old and rare books, the auction will also feature volumes originating in 19th-century America, including the first Hebrew Book of Psalms with English inscriptions printed in the US in 1852.
But according to Galer, one of the most important parts of the auction is the rare law books from various US states, dating from the early 19th century, which include laws about Jewish practices. For example, the Rhode Island law book permitted Jews to work on Sundays and validated Jewish marriages – “something so different from what the Jews experienced back in many places in Eastern Europe,” remarks the auction house owner.
“These people came, wretched and carrying bad memories and experiences from their world, which had become so hostile, back in Poland, Russia and the surrounding region,” he continues. “They arrive in America, and there, suddenly, it is completely different – they have rights, they are not persecuted. That is, in fact, the very beginning of what enabled, more than a century later, the richness and development of American Jewry as we know it today.”
As an example, he points out that they were allowed “to swear on a Jewish Bible [in court], and not on the New Testament. That is a completely different – and such a welcoming – attitude, and it lies here, in these books and documents.”
Asked who shows more interest in these kinds of documents – private collectors, or public institutions like museums or academics – Galer says that both parties are interested, but that he would like to see more researchers and scholars, as well as more museums and public libraries, reaching these documents.
“The public sphere is more adapted to do the academic research that these documents require, and that would be for the sake of historical study of course, but private collectors can also find a great interest, as I know from my experience here,” he says.
Kedem Judaica auction No. 33 – “Books, Manuscripts, Rabbinical Letters” – will take place on August 28 at the Hechal Shlomo Building on 58 King George Avenue from 5 p.m. For viewing before and more details: 077-514-0223.