Hidden beneath the surface

One man's painstaking work has brought to light hundreds of literary treasures.

hagadd 88 298 (photo credit: )
hagadd 88 298
(photo credit: )
It's archaeological work, really, what Ezra Gorodesky does to books. And it was during an archaeological dig of sorts in a geniza that he first saw it being done, while he was an apprentice to an expert. "He carefully opened up the binding," Gorodesky recalls now, "and we finally pieced together the remnants of what turned out to be an unimportant letter." That initial disappointment, however, managed to capture Gorodesky's curiosity and led him, ultimately, to discover numerous surprising treasures hidden within books that others would overlook. And he has made some remarkable finds. One of Gorodesky's first discoveries, which he made at the house of a friend, was a letter, or haskama, dated from the 18th century from a rabbi in Tiberias requesting money to help a man going through the process of halitza. Other noteworthy finds of his include a letter written to the famed Jewish mystic the Ari of Safed in the 16th century, requesting wheat. The Ari's "day job," it turns out, was as manager of his uncle's fields in Egypt. Also included are speeches given at the turn of the 20th century by Solomon Schechter at various ceremonies at the Jewish Theological Seminary; ketubot from hundreds of years ago; Italian riddle poems from the 18th century; various Haggadot spanning centuries; and a previously unknown book dated in the 18th century, entitled Kerach Katan ("A Small Volume") by Isaac Abazmeal, a famous Torah scholar from Safed. Some of Gorodesky's most treasured finds are ones he discovered through painstaking means. Dissecting book bindings is not an easy task. Gorodesky must gingerly peel away the aged layers of bindings with care and precision, working painstakingly to reveal and preserve some obscure scrap of Jewish literary history. "I put in time and pain - my technique is patience. It's a matter of training," Gorodesky says. His method is based on what archaeologists rely on: the notion that history lies beneath the surface. As Gorodesky explains, "In the 16th century, only wealthy people had the money for binding books, because if the book was worth binding, it was bound in leather, a luxurious expense for most people at that time." Eventually, though, the binder, in an appeal to the masses, began binding books with old pieces of paper. As time passed and leather binding became more affordable, these old pieces of paper became buried beneath the book's new binding. Sometimes Gorodesky's discoveries aren't actualized for many years. Such was the case when he found half of a piece in New Jersey in 1958, only to find the other half 12 years later in Israel. Gorodesky, who calls his collecting a "disease," says he cured himself when he donated more than 800 items to the Jewish National Library at Hebrew University on the occasion of his 60th birthday, in 1988. "It is a great gift Ezra has given the library, specifically," said Rivka Plesser, who oversees the collection at the library, "but also the country. So many treasures from our history, we are able to view thanks to his work. We have such a deep affection for him." Gorodesky, who has no family, said he feels he has fulfilled part of his Zionist dream by being able to give back to the country he loves so deeply. HIS SEARCH for books and the treasures hidden beneath their bindings has brought Gorodesky across Europe, Israel, Canada and America in a relentless routine of scouring old bookstores. He is absolutely unwavering in his attempts to unearth relics of a time past. Gorodesky, born in 1928 in Philadelphia, was the product of a non-Zionist upbringing. Nonetheless, he felt a pull towards Israel, which was reinforced in 1941 when he heard on the news that boats filled with Jews headed from Europe to Palestine were sunk. His father could not understand his compulsion towards the newly forming state, and was further incensed when Gorodesky was suspended from his public school for refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. "My father was furious and told me that the United States was doing a good job for the Jews, but I couldn't wait to move to our own Jewish state," Gorodesky relates. In 1960, at the age of 32, he finally realized his dream and made aliya. His love of collecting seemed to be as inherent and early developed as his love for the land. At the age of three, he began "collecting" handbags, which interested him because of their many pockets, mirrors and fascinating handles. Soon enough, though, his aunts or mother's friends would realize where their purses had disappeared to, and so his initial foray into the collection business was stopped. By the age of eight or nine, he had graduated to collecting family photographs, which over the years have amassed into a collection of nearly 2,000. In fact, some of these photos, due to their historical significance, are a part of the permanent collection at the Jewish National University Library. At the age of 10, Gorodesky began his fascination with collecting little books, which at that point were mostly of the A-B-C educational variety, but which later expanded into one of the more prominent features of his vast collection. Today, the avid and prolific collector has found thousands of valuable and interesting pieces, hundreds of which have been donated to the Jewish National University Library at Hebrew University, the Tel Aviv Museum and the Israel Museum. With acuity and patience, Gorodesky has overcome that first disappointing episode in a geniza and shown what treasures often lie, forgotten, beneath the surface.