Hebrew Treasures of Different Kinds: The People in the Books and Crossing Borders
The People in the Books: Hebraica and Judaica Manuscripts from Columbia University Libraries, and
Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting Place of Cultures
The audience for exhibits of Jewish manuscripts is certainly a niche one; a single exhibit per season of these historical works would generally suffice. But this fall, two such exhibits opened up in New York City, one at Columbia University’s libraries and the other at the Jewish Museum. The Columbia exhibition, The People in the Books: Hebraica and Judaica Manuscripts from Columbia University Libraries, is now on view in the Rare Books and Manuscripts floor in Butler Library through January 25, 2013. As the largest non-religious institutional home of Judaica manuscripts in the country, Columbia has a wealth of texts ranging in origin from the 10th to the 20th century, from India to North America. In this exhibit, Columbia’s collection is being unveiled to the public for the very first time. The exhibit focuses not on the intricacies of the manuscripts themselves, but on the diverse anecdotes to be found in the their histories: who owned and made use of the texts, and what can be learned from this about Jewish literacy and history.
Michele Chesner, the exhibit’s curator and Columbia’s librarian for Jewish and Israeli Studies, explained that her objective was to create an exhibit that would be universally understandable, to those students immersed in Jewish history and those witnessing it here for the first time. To do this, she decided to focus on the people themselves and their stories. “From a historical and even storied perspective, there’s so much there,” she said. ”There really is something for everyone.” You can find marriage contracts (ketubah’s), religious polemical works, medical texts, calendars, and prayer books. This exhibit is vast and thorough, and while it fails to provide viewers with a history of the Jewish past as a whole, it succeeds in bringing to life many different types of Jewish traditions and lifestyles.
Columbia’s collection spans several large glass casings, with over one hundred manuscripts attached to the wall with small white placards explaining the stories they tell. The works are divided up into thematic sections, touching on such themes as “Time-Keepers,” “Doctors,” and “Writers.” Under “Time-Keepers,” the exhibit displays Maimonides’ Code of Jewish Law opened to his astronomical calculations, described with a few short sentences that reference the work’s significance. To its right, viewers find an illustration of Yitshak Lopis’s astronomical work from Aleppo, drawn five centuries later. This juxtaposition of the two manuscripts draws a striking connection between the intellectual pursuits of a famed Jewish thinker and an obscure one; it is is a feat of curating that is representative of the pleasures of this exhibit.
Also of note at the Columbia exhibit is a focus on the specific role of texts within their communities, often without consideration for their cross-cultural significance. In the “Congregants” section of Columbia’s exhibit, for example, viewers find a visually boring page bearing the imprinted name Kalonymus Cantoni and small punched holes. This 19th century Italian manuscript reveals how one Jewish community designed a way to record monetary pledges made in synagogue on the Sabbath. Because writing isn’t allowed on the Sabbath according to Jewish law, the rabbi would insert a thread into the hole signifying the amount of money the member pledged so that it could be recorded until the Sabbath concluded. This document is simple, but still tells so much about the way in which this one community creatively grappled with religious laws.
On the Upper East Side, the Jewish Museum is running the perhaps better-known Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting-place of Cultures, open through February 3, 2013. Featuring texts from Oxford’s Bodleian Library, this is the first time this collection will be exhibited in America. The exhibit documents the cultural and intellectual exchanges between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Middle Ages, focusing on the ways in which Jewish texts contributed to the larger cultural exchange. Although it lacks the educational value of the anecdotal fragments on display at Columbia, it successfully highlights the artistry of certain fundamental texts, contextualizing them in a greater cultural exchange.
In stark contrast to the bright storyboard feature of Columbia’s exhibit, the Jewish Museum exhibit is housed in dimly lit rooms, with about half the number of works. Each piece is ordered chronologically and illuminated under thick glass casing. Here the Jewish Museum has an autograph draft of the very same Maimonidean legal code in the Columbia collection, this time in a cursive Sephardic script from 12th century Egypt, full of cross outs and corrections. There is no larger story here than the text itself, and it quickly becomes apparent that the cross-outs on the page, not the content of the work, is what is on display. It is rare to witness the works of great thinkers written in their own hands, and this exhibit allows for such appreciation. Close to Maimonides’ work one finds the Kennicott Bible, considered to be the most lavishly illustrated Hebrew Bible to survive from Medieval Spain. It contains Islamic artistic arches perched over the words, as well as vibrant red and gold animal vignettes surrounding each page. The most interesting element here, as the exhibit pushes viewers to recognize, is not the use of this bible, but the art of the pages themselves.
The Jewish Museum’s exhibit also makes a point of traveling abroad. Three copies of the same work, for example, lie next to each other in one glass table. First, a 14th century Arabic translation of the Indian fable Kalila and Dimna, accentuated with colorful jackals and leopards at the top of the page. Next to it, a 15thcentury Hebrew text of the same story, this time decorated with only a sketched jackal on the side of the words; the explanation tells us that this text, in fact, introduced rhymed literature into Hebrew prose. And finally, another version written in Latin, by a Jewish apostate no less. These three manuscripts together illustrate this text’s sustained popularity in Europe, and linearly depict for the visitor how this one work, translated so many times, shaped the development of fiction.
It would be too simple to characterize Columbia’s exhibit as academic and the Jewish Museum’s as artistic. You can find at Columbia the surprising illustrations of a book outlining the circumcision prayers from the Czech Republic., and by the same token at the Jewish Museum you can see the artistically uninspired, but highly influential, Hebrew translation of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. Yet these two exhibits clearly have different purposes, despite their inevitable overlap. Columbia’s exhibit displays for the first time the vast riches of the Columbia collection, necessarily highlighting those pieces that the average viewer can understand: “It isn’t dumbing it down, but its sort of a different angle that I tried to take than most Judaica exhibitions,” Chesner told me. The Jewish Museum’s exhibit, by contrast, is more rewarding for the educated visitor who has read Maimonides, studied Indian fables, and can now see the authentic and transcultural versions of these works on display.
Columbia’s exhibit displays oddities; the Jewish Museum’s exhibit displays classics. Columbia’s exhibit lacks a cohesive narrative tying together its works; the Jewish Museum’s exhibit sacrifices teaching for artistic display. Since neither presents a complete picture on its own, New Yorkers are actually quite fortunate that both are on display at the same time.