The kitchen archeologist

It takes a special collector to donate more than 900 objects – including rare books, manuscript fragments, family photos going back to 19th century and tea memorabilia – to the National Library.

Alexandra press 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alexandra press 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ezra Gorodesky and I first met on Rehov Hovevei Zion 32 years ago. There was much symbolic value in forging our friendship on that particular thoroughfare.
He, a great lover of Zion, hovev Zion, made aliya 50 years ago in 1960, resided in historic Jerusalem neighborhoods and donated the treasures of his collection to a great institution in Jerusalem, the Jewish National and University Library on Givat Ram.
Currently, the largest item he donated, an original printing press made in England in the 1860s, has been placed on display in the newly renovated first floor of the library.
“Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1930s, I developed an interest in collecting objects of various types,” Gorodesky, now 81, told me recently. “The easiest items to find and keep in the Depression years were small books, under eight centimeters in size. Whatever I brought home, my mother made sure it was kept in my room,” he said.
“At my Sephardic synagogue Mikveh Israel, the oldest in Philadelphia, established in the American Colonial period in the early 18th century, Rabbi Leon Elmaleh, our spiritual leader, encouraged me to collect Jewish objects and books. Quite helpful was the interest taken in me by the noted American Jewish leader and academic, a member of our synagogue, Dr. Cyrus Adler. In 1939, when he saw me looking at a framed letter of George Washington to the congregation hanging on the synagogue wall, he took me seriously, this gangling 10- year-old. Adler presented me with several Judaica items and wished me well. His inspiration has motivated me throughout these last 70 years.”
During World War II, Gorodesky’s father was an air raid warden in Philadelphia. He proudly showed me his father’s warden card, authorizing service in the Civil Guard.
After completing his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Gorodesky was employed at a local museum and at the Daroff Clothing factory during the 1950s.
In that decade, his interests in collecting Judaica began to flourish. He scoured the city weekly, identifying objects of worth in flea markets, at house sales and via trades, and acquired them.
In 1957 he prepared an exhibit for the Philadelphia Free Library in which he focused on Hebrew books of note from his collection. On display were Haggadot, miniature Hebrew books and various rare Hebrew works.
“That was the first exhibit of items from my personal collection,” he recalls with pride. Since then, he has been honored by three other exhibits at National Liberty in Jerusalem.
By then Gorodesky had acquired a sizable number of books, some ritual objects and various ephemera and paper memorabilia. He had also collected dedication pamphlets of synagogues from the US and other parts of the world. Moreover, prior to leaving America, he had developed a fascinating technique for discovering “manuscript fragments” for which he was given the title “kitchen archeologist.
As all bookbinding historians know, the standard material for filling a binding was not always available.
Used instead were scraps from books, proof copy pages, handwritten items and anything else that could be found. Reading whatever literature was available on this topic, Gorodesky became skilled in identifying bindings that might have manuscript fragments. With training, he learned how to open these bindings in a precise fashion so that the book itself would not be harmed.
“In the 1950s I had opened bindings of books I had purchased and was fortunate enough to find material dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In my future I knew that there were bindings awaiting me.”
WHEN HE arrived in Israel in 1960, he was supposed to stay for a month. It was bashert (destined) that Jerusalem was to be his home, as the 30 days have stretched into half a century.
After living in a number of dwellings, he entered a sector of the history of Jerusalem when he rented an apartment in Mishkenot Sha’ananim in 1965. He was the only Ashkenazi and the only American Jew there. Yet he felt at home because he knew that the noted Jewish philanthropist Judah Touro of New Orleans had left $60,000 so that Mishkenot Sha’ananim could be built under the supervision of Moses Montefiore. The building was completed in 1860 as the initial structure built for Jewish residence outside of the walls of the Old City.
In addition, he took care of an infirm American woman, Rebecca Affachiner, who had made aliya in 1934. She had helped found the Crippled Children’s Society now known as Alyn. A major legacy is a Jewish flag she fashioned from a bedsheet and colored with blue crayon. On May 14, 1948, she proudly flew her personal creation from her porch on Rehov Jabotinsky.
Gorodesky has preserved this flag, a national treasure, and helped her earn the title of Betsy Ross of Israel.
The Six Day War is a memorable period in Gorodesky’s life. “About two weeks before the war started,” he recalls, “I signed up, since I had been a volunteer for Magen David Adom for many years, to go on active duty and to be one of those taking blood from the hundreds of donors. No one knew what was going to happen, but it was clear that blood would be needed,” he said.
“Since we worked around the clock, I was asked to remain at the main MDA station in Jerusalem during this period and not return to Mishkenot Sha’ananim. I was assigned a cot for brief rest periods. That was my home during the fighting itself. We heard about the thrilling moments of victory over the radio, Kol Yisrael, but we never ceased doing our job.”
After the war was over, Gorodesky was released from Magen David Adom service. “Quickly, I made my way back to Mishkenot Sha’ananim to see what had transpired.
What I recall as the scariest moment was examining my small bed and finding a bullet in it.
Thankfully, in serving my people, I had survived this struggle right here on Jerusalem soil.”
In 1969 Gorodesky and other residents were asked to leave Mishkenot Sha’ananim, as mayor Teddy Kollek had bigger plans for the structure.
By the mid-1970s, Gorodesky had amassed an extensive collection including rare books, manuscript fragments, Jewish paper ephemera, dedicatory booklets of synagogues from many countries, especially the US, 1,300 family photos going back to the 19th century, along with other family memorabilia, original Hebrew wedding poetry, megillot, Haggadot, ketubot, tea memorabilia, documents in Hebrew about Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. He had acquired all this as a dedicated collector, who was characterized by Prof. Malachi Beit-Arie, director of the National Library, in this manner: “Ezra P. Gorodesky is different from most collectors who donate their collections to libraries and museums. He was never a wealthy man, but he possessed those special qualities that are essential to a collector of modest means: the right instinct, enthusiasm and a lot of patience... Moreover, he is one of those special collectors who enjoy sharing his treasures with scholars.”
Ezra stressed in regard to that 1989 exhibition, “I had always wanted my collection to be my gift to the Jewish people. For me, the National Library was one of the key facets of the Jewish people. So I made my decision after discussions with various members of the Special Collections department at the library and started to turn over selected items from those I had acquired. The gift was welcomed, and to this very day I continue to present new items that I believe the National Library would like.”
In 1989 he called to tell me about the exhibition of his collection, which would be held in the large entrance area of the library. Rafael Weiser and Rivka Pleser of the Manuscripts and Archives department initiated that Gorodesky should be honored by an appropriate showing of his gifts to the library.
“This wonderful individual had given the National Library close to 900 items, and we knew that a collection like his should be displayed publicly for a large audience.”
That exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue whose cover is a full-color picture of Gorodesky opening a binding. There he is seen in all his glory, “The Kitchen Archeologist.”
In the exhibition in the late 1980s were numerous fragments from Haggadot, one as early as 1560. Every fragment on display, from various countries and various centuries, was found in bindings. He has also collected miniature Hebrew books over the years, a number of which were exhibited. There were 250 pieces on display in the 1989 exhibition. Mostly people marveled at what this Philadelphia Jew had accomplished because he loved the Jewish people so much.
EVERY COLLECTOR has that one object that he wants to possess and will go to extremes to acquire. Gorodesky told me about “this real desire” on various occasions.
Now his dream is being fulfilled.
“I always wanted to have my own printing press so that I could personally experience the process by which my books were created. In the late 1960s I learned that [the late] Rabbi Shmuel Gorr had, in making aliya, brought with him from Australia a printing press made in England in the 1860s. I offered him as much money as I had, but he refused to sell because he continued to print his own poetry on that press.”
The identity of this monotype hand press is specified via this listing written on it: “Alexandra Press, W.
Notting; Maker, Farringdon Road, London.” On the press there is the coat of arms of England, the number 1730, probably the patent number of the model. The machine dates from mid-1800s.
There is a small plate, which Gorr put on the press, bearing a jug and sword symbol of the tribe of Levi to which he belonged.
“When Gorr died,” said Gorodesky, “I bought the press from Gorr’s sister here in Jerusalem. About 18 years ago, I gave it to the National Library. The press was kept in the restoration department, available where only a few might visit. The real display of the press finally began [a few] months ago. As the library went through first-floor renovations, it was decided to put the printing press out on the entrance floor for all to see. From the mid-1800s in England where it was born, from Australia with Gorr’s special care and now with my gift to the National Library in Jerusalem, the press has arrived at its very appropriate home. May it ever be so.”