Treasure house of Jewish culture

As Jerusalem’s National Library prepares to move to new premises, it deals with shifting definitions of Jewishness.

Jerusalem's National Library (photo credit: ASAF PINCHUK/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Jerusalem's National Library
WHEN THE Jewish National Library was first built in Jerusalem in 1892, its founder proclaimed that it should “be a great house, high and lofty, in which shall be treasured the fruits of the Jewish People’s endeavor.”
For the next hundred years, those words spoken by Dr. Joseph Chazanovitch, whose personal book collection became the foundation of the library’s collection, were taken literally. The National Library went to work obsessively collecting everything ever published by or about Jews and Judaism from any time period, any language and any country in the world.
It was a gargantuan, almost impossible, task, but the library largely succeeded.
Today, the wide, squat building in west Jerusalem houses the largest collection of Judaica on the planet. It has close to 85,000 Hebrew manuscripts either in original form or on microfilm squirreled away inside its stone walls. The library claims these are more than 90 percent of all the Hebrew manuscripts in existence.
But today, with the rise of the Internet, there’s an unprecedented amount of information being published about Judaism.
There’s said to be three times as much information about the Jewish people online than there is in every Judaism-related book that’s ever been published. As a result, it’s impossible for the National Library (which changed its name from “The Jewish National Library” to “The National Library of Israel” in 2008) to continue to comprehensively collect everything published by or about the Jewish people as it once did, especially with limited space and limited resources. The library’s Judaica collection has an annual budget of NIS 1.3 million ($335,000) and only six employees (not all of whom work full-time).
To solve this problem, the library has limited its scope by redefining what’s considered Jewish. “We are narrowing the genetic factor of the Jewishness that’s required for us to be interested in collecting things,” says Aviad Stollman, the National Library’s Head of Collections, on a recent morning in his office on the Hebrew University’s campus at Givat Ram, where the library is located. “Now that the Jewish population has grown and there’s been so much assimilation, we have to be more selective,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
What that means is that the library has begun to ignore works by Jewish authors, artists and academics if the work – or its creator – aren’t Jewish enough. For example, novelists like Jonathan Safran Foer or Lev Grossman don’t necessarily make the cut just because they have a lineage going, says Stollman, 41, a Jerusalem-born academic who first stumbled on the National Library in his twenties while writing his dissertation. “There needs to be something distinctly Jewish about the person or about their work.”
The new rule for what type of Judaica to collect is now enshrined in the library’s “Collection Policy,” which provides guidelines on where resources should be devoted. “Since the boundaries of Jewish identity have become blurred,” reads the 100-page tome, “it is sometimes difficult to determine who is a Jew [especially in the last century].”
To solve this problem, the policy advises the library’s “selectors,” those in charge of obtaining Judaica from around the world, to assume a more restrictive approach to collection, “especially when the content of the materials in question does not pertain to topics of a clearly Jewish nature,” it states.
Stollman acknowledges this may not be the most politically correct stance to take.
“People are very touchy about this sort of thing,” he says. “But the fact is that the Jewish world is changing demographically.
There has been a lot assimilation. I’m not saying this in a negative way, it’s just a fact. And it wouldn’t be wise for us to continue to try to collect everything from someone just because he or she has a Jewish grandmother.”
THIS DOESN’T m ean t he l ibrary i gnores work by secular Jewish writers and philosophers. It’s still interested in archiving a novel like Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” for example, even though Judaism isn’t mentioned once in the whole book.
That’s because the plot “is about a guy where, everyone wants something from him, but he doesn’t know what it is. How Jewish is that?” Stollman exclaims. (The German-speaking, Prague-born Kafka also studied Hebrew and the Talmud, which helped give him a boost.) The National Library has shifted to this more restrained approach gradually over the course of decades, but officially put the rule into writing for the first time two or three years ago, says Stollman, who was the library’s lead Judaica curator until he was promoted to Head of Collections last year.
Though he speaks with an American accent, Stollman is Israeli through and through. His mother’s family has been in the country for 200 years. (His father immigrated to Israel from Detroit at age 30.) Stollman was born and raised in Jerusalem and served in the Israel Air Force.
“Up until last year, I was still getting called up for reserve duty every year,” he says. “It’s hard to be away from your wife and kids for weeks or months at a time.”
Stollman got his PhD in Babylonian Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and then embarked on a decade-long teaching career that included spells teaching Jewish studies at Bar-Ilan and teaching Talmud at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.
During the course of multiple interviews, Stollman seems slightly nervous that the emerging article will make the library sound overly parochial. “We’re a lot more inclusive than just collecting Judaica,” he stresses, noting that the institution has three other collections: the Middle East and Islam Collection, the Humanities Collection, and the Israel Collection, which focus on preserving the texts of other cultural, linguistic and religious groups both in Israel and the rest of the world.
Stollman repeatedly emphasizes that the National Library is expanding its definition of what’s Jewish – not restricting it. He says, these days, the library may be less preoccupied with preserving the intellectual output of the great Jewish thinkers of history, but it’s more focused on giving a “snapshot” of ordinary Judaism in 2015. To do that, the library has begun collecting truckloads of “ephemera” in recent years – things that were designed to be thrown away. This might include an ad for a kosher supermarket in a suburb of Paris, or a menu from a restaurant in a small Jewish community in Argentina.
These small scraps of Jewish life are just as important to the National Library as Pulitzer prize-winning novels, if not more so, because they’re more unique, Stollman says. These seemingly trivial tidbits from Jewish communities worldwide include things like bar mitzva invitations, self-help books, flyers, school notebooks, store catalogues, greeting cards, cookbooks, marriage contracts and divorce decrees.
Sometimes, what the library chooses to acquire and what it chooses to ignore can seem paradoxical. Recently, there was a situation where someone wanted to donate the personal archives of a prominent historical Jewish German chemist, and the library turned him down, according to Yoel Finkelman, the library’s lead Judaica curator. “There wasn’t anything particularly Jewish about the collection,” Finkelman tells The Report outside a restricted- access laboratory in the library’s basement where rare books get repaired.
“And it’s a lot of work for us to catalogue and store an archive of books.”
Finkelman, 43, a tall, serious man who was a part-time Talmud teacher before becoming the National Library’s Judaica Curator last year, points out that it’s not his job to determine what’s authentically Jewish and what isn’t. “If Jews are doing something and they think what they’re doing is Jewish, then, as far as I’m concerned, that’s Judaism,” he says.
Alongside these throwaway items known as “ephemera,” of course, the library also houses a treasure trove of monumentally important Jewish artifacts.
Among them are a 13th century prayer book from Germany that is thought to be the earliest known textual evidence of Yiddish and a handwritten commentary on the Mishna by Maimonides.
These “jewels,” as Finkelman calls them, are mere threads in the tapestry of Jewish life that the National Library is weaving. According to its official literature, the library’s job is to be a “national memory” for the Jewish people and, as with many things about being Jewish, there are unique challenges that come with the task. Jews have one of the longest historical memories of any human culture, the library’s website points out, and the many countries in which Jews have lived around the world make the job of documenting them extremely difficult.
“It can be daunting, absolutely,” admits Finkelman. “There’s a way in which the tension between centralization and Diaspora Judaism is particularly fraught.” But it’s also exciting to be engaged in such important work. “There’s something very unique about the way in which Jewish culture contains a multitude of languages and a multitude of different prints [handwriting],” Finkelman says while flipping through a 14th century Spanish mahzor, or High Holyday prayer book, appearing to savor the crackling sound made by the old parchment pages.
FEW THINGS excite Finkelman more than getting to touch sacred Jewish books, and his thumb bears a bandage from having flipped through so many of them.
“These texts are just so rich and unexpected and powerful and surprising and compelling and subversive,” he croons in one of the library’s climate-controlled rooms, which are designed especially for viewing rare books. “It’s a privilege to be able to come into contact with them.”
Ever since he was a college student at Yeshiva University in New York, Finkelman was in love with the written word and fascinated by ancient Jewish traditions.
He wanted to become a teacher so that he could awaken others to that same excitement.
After moving to Israel at age 21, Finkelman got his PhD at Hebrew University, got married and started teaching the Talmud and Jewish philosophy, first at a yeshiva in Jerusalem and later at Bar-Ilan.
In early 2014, a friend encouraged him to apply for the Judaica curator position with The National Library, and he leapt at the chance. “I really do have the coolest job in the world,” he says.
But it’s also a difficult job, partly because the library must collect Judaica in dozens of different languages. Not only is there great linguistic variety among the different Jewish communities that exist around the world, there’s also a lot of information about Judaism that’s written by non-Jews. For example, the library has an arrangement with a supplier in China to get everything published in Chinese that relates to Judaism. Why? “The way people in Beijing perceive Jews in 2015 might be important to scholars a century from now,” Finkelman says.
You just don’t know what might be important. When deciding what to collect, Finkelman and the Library’s other curators constantly consider what people may want to know about Jewish culture 100, 500 or 1,000 years from now. “If we preserve a Marathi-language book about Jewish history, and only one person reads it 100 years from now, I’ll be happy,” Finkelman says.
But do the National Library’s new guidelines of what’s Jewish – and what’s not – make sense? If it ignores works by Jewish writers who weren’t religious – like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, for example – doesn’t that mean it will miss out on a whole world of great literature? Hillel Kieval, the Gloria M. Goldstein Professor of Jewish History and Thought at Washington University in St. Louis, acknowledges it’s a problematic question, particularly because formal Jewish denominational affi liations have declined in the past 50 years or so – especially in the US – and also because there’s been a lot of intermarrying between Jews and non- Jews. “This makes it diffi cult for Jewish historians to decide who to study,” Kieval tells The Report in a phone call. “For example, Jews who convert to other religions, or Jews who abandon some kind of formal Jewish affi liation, are they still considered Jews?” Kieval believes it’s still important for Jewish historians and collectors to study assimilated Jews because they’re still “an integral part of the modern Jewish experience.”
But he says that since the National Library – like libraries everywhere – has limited resources, a compromise is necessary.
“And the National Library’s new approach is very intriguing, because it allows for the fl uidity of Jewish identities, without imposing any particular set of defi nitions of what Judaism is,” he says.
“But at the same time, it wants the focus to be on Jewish identity. And that sounds very reasonable to me.”
THE POINT of this obsessive collecting of Jewish culture is not just to preserve it for scholars and academics, but for everyone.
Every map, every photo, every magazine that’s collected is just one word in the Jewish national epic.
“If the Jewish people don’t preserve their own heritage, who can be expected to preserve it for them?” David J. Gilner, the director of libraries at Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute Of Religion in Cincinnati, tells The Report by phone.
Hebrew Union College claims to have the second-largest collection of Judaica in the world after Israel’s National Library.
Just as big a task as gathering Judaica is preserving it and making it accessible.
It’s not enough to just stick it on the shelf; everything must be digitized and uploaded to the Internet. The National Library is currently scanning tens of thousands of pages of books, hundreds of thousands of archival documents and millions of pages of newspapers; afterwards, the scanned images will be uploaded to several online databases and made word-searchable, which is itself a massive undertaking since faded ink and different styles of script aren’t always understood by today’s character-recognition technology.
If the library can pull it off, it will be a historian’s dream. Imagine needing to fi nd every mention of Ze’ev Jabotinsky in Polish Yiddish newspapers between 1918- 1939, and being able to do it with a couple of keystrokes.
And that’s the National Library’s fi nal goal – to get the general public to enjoy the vast resources it offers. Today, the library is not an inviting place with its fortress- like in appearance, its stone façade broken only by a thin strip of windows on one fl oor. It is an inward-facing institution, mostly catering to researchers, writers, and other intellectual types. It sits in a gated community; visitors must present ID and pass through a security station to enter the university campus where the library is located.
Even among Israelis, the institution – which so painstakingly records and preserves their history – is not necessarily well-known. “Basically, we’re sitting on a treasure trove here, and only a few thousand people have been exposed to it,” says Stollman. “And we want to have millions.”
To do that, in 2019, the National Library will move to a new, nearby state-of-theart building opposite the Knesset and the Israel Museum, which it says will be much more open and accessible. The new facility is being funded by the Rothschild family’s philanthropic foundation Yad Hanadiv, as well as The Gottesman Fund, a US-based investor foundation that says it’s focused on “improving Israelis’ quality of life.”
The fi ve-year project is expected to cost at least $200 million, money well spent if it can provide the great house to treasure the fruits of the Jewish People’s endeavor envisioned by the library’s founder.