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Collectors and their collections

“Jewish Treasures from Oxford Libraries” tells their stories

The title and introduction pages to Samuel ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew translation of “Guide for the Perplexed,” 
c. 1350, from the Laud Collection.
The title and introduction pages to Samuel ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew translation of “Guide for the Perplexed,” c. 1350, from the Laud Collection.

“Infinite riches in a little room.”

That’s a famous line that Barabas, the titular “Jew of Malta,” says as he gloats over his jeweled hoard; the imagery is so evocative that the line is anchored deep inside many of our minds, proving its own truth.

Christopher Marlowe wrote the play in 1589. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 and it was more than half a century until they were allowed to trickle back. There were a few converts, court Jews prized for their financial acumen, in the country then, but it’s not at all clear that he met any of them. But who needs actual Jews to form an opinion?

Then, unlike now, most non-Jewish Englishmen did not know any Jews. Despite that, however, then, as now, Jews’ hold on the English imagination was strong.

The book “Jewish Treasures from Oxford Libraries” is sumptuous and scrumptious; 300 thick pages of images — richly colored artwork and intricately lettered manuscripts, printed on the kind of paper that feels almost indecently good in your hands — illustrate the stories of 10 collections and their collectors, all from Bodleian Library and the libraries of some of Oxford University’s colleges. The essays, each by a different author, each in a different tone, all humanize the collectors by telling their fascinating and idiosyncratic stories; they’re somewhat scholarly but mainly they’re accessible.

The book also illuminates a paradox. These Jewish books were collected overwhelmingly by non-Jews. The wisdom inside them was vitally important to the university that grew up around them, but the creators and collectors of that wisdom were not, at least until much later.

These collections of Jewish works are at the heart of the Bodleian, itself at the heart of Oxford, itself at the heart of at least many Americans’ romantic vision of England. In fact, the first collector was its creator, Sir Thomas Bodley, the Elizabethan Protestant diplomat and Hebraicist whose name became the library’s. Bodley was born in 1545 and died in 1613, in a Jew-free country, but his fascination with Jewish texts and thought — based, as was common for the next few centuries, on theology rather than an instinct toward cultural anthropology, or an interest in Jews as people — led to his becoming fluent in Hebrew and his ability not only to read but also to write in it, to treasure it, to collect it, and to preserve it.

“Jewish Treasures from Oxford Libraries” traces the instinct to collect, so it’s fitting that the book itself grew from that instinct. It’s the brainchild of Martin Gross, a financial professional who grew up in Maplewood and still lives in Essex County. 

Mr. Gross already established himself as a collector well before he created this project; he’s been interested in books as objects ever since he was an undergraduate at Brandeis and ventured from Waltham to nearby Cambridge to lose himself in that town’s bookstores. After Brandeis, Mr. Gross went to Oxford, where he earned a master’s degree in philosophy and political theory, and then he went on to law school at the University of Chicago. He already was a book collector — “I gave a Voltaire collection to the New York Public Library in 1997,” he said.

“In 2012, I went to the Jewish Museum in New York, because I happened on an announcement that basically talked about how they were putting an exhibit together on rare Judaica manuscripts,” Mr. Gross said. The exhibit, called “Crossing Borders,” displayed works from Oxford. “I saw incredible things there, like an original handwritten manuscript by Maimonides, including his own corrections.

“So I said to myself, this is amazing. I am a rare book collector, and I know something about Jewish history, and I studied at Oxford — and I had no idea that those books were there. At Oxford!

“So I started to wonder how those books came to be there. How did they get there? It’s a simple question, how something from one time and space got to another time and space.

“I made some inquiries, and I found that there were about 10 major collectors of these types of books, who either gave or sold their collections to Oxford.

“I said, ‘That’s amazing! Has anyone ever told the stories of how these collections came to be?’ The answer was no. So I got hold of Rebecca Abrams, through a connection at Oxford, and I told her that there should be a book written about this. And she said, ‘Wow. Yeah. Let’s write it!” 

So Ms. Abrams organized the book project, or, as Mr. Gross put it, she “herded the cats.”

Ms. Abrams and Cesar Merchan-Hamann are “Jewish Treasure’s” co-editors; Mr. Merchan-Hamann, the  curator of Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian, wrote an essay in the book, and Ms. Abrams assigned, closely edited, and generally oversaw the entire project. 

“It’s a coffee-table book, filled with gorgeous images, telling the stories of these collectors,” Mr. Gross said. “It tells who the collector was, how he went about it, what his motivations were. You learn that most of them were Christian Hebraists. You learn that Hebrew was studied throughout Oxford. They created chairs in Hebrew. You see why they collected what they collected.”

The page from Arba’ah Turim, from Avignonin in 1437-38, shows a Jewish wedding as it discusses laws of marriage and divorce.

Only three of the collections — the Oppenheim, the Michael, and the Genizah, three enormously different sets of objects — were assembled by Jews. 

“This is a story of how these gentiles in the U.K. saved Jewish books; remember that the Nazis destroyed a hundred million Jewish books in the Holocaust,” Mr. Gross said. “That’s what is so fundamental about these collections.” They’re about history, continuity, and identity. As he put it in the preface to the book, “The Jewish treasures in the libraries of Oxford University celebrated in this book thus stand as a remarkable testament to the civilizational narrative of the Jewish people.”

Rebecca Abrams is just finishing her tenure as the marvelously named Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Brasenose College (Brasenose is one of Oxford University’s many colleges, and among its oldest); she’s also a nonfiction writer, novelist, journalist, and teacher. Much although not all of her nonfiction work is on Jewish subjects, including “The Jewish Journey: 4000 Years in 22 Objects from the Ashmolean Museum,” a book that’s a logical precursor to the Bodleian one.

“I am an unapologetic generalist,” Ms. Abrams said. “I believe in communicating to the general public. It is always difficult to know who you should be addressing. It was important to me to talk about objects that are in a general museum, and explain what is specifically Jewish about them — but not only to a Jewish audience.

“I think that as Jews, we are very interested in our history and culture and religion and evolution; about both the diversity and the specificity of Jewish history. When it came to this extraordinary collection, one of the best collections of Judaica in the world, I was struck by two things.

From “Commentary on the Pentateuch by Rashi”; Italian, 1396, from the Canonici Collection.

“First, most of the people who know about the collection are scholars. They may or may not be Jewish, but scholars tend to talk to other scholars. Both Martin Gross and I wanted to take the conversation out of the scholar community and bring it to a general audience.

“These works really are too wonderful to be kept under the hats of scholars.”

And remember, she added, “it also was Martin Gross’s vision — and I should say that this wouldn’t have happened without the generous sponsorship of the Martin Gross Foundation that made it all possible — to make it accessible.

“We thought about how to approach this. It was always going to be really important to balance the immense kind of knowledge and scholarship that the individual writers” —each of whom has an impressive list of credentials and publications — “bring, but also for them to find a way to tell stories about the collections and collectors that would make them accessible to non-specialists.”

Many of the essayists accomplished that task dramatically. Writing about Archbishop William Laud, Giles Mandelbrote opens with “In October 1640, a fearful and disappointed man tried in vain to find solace in his collection of manuscripts.” Then he quotes Laud, who wrote that when he entered his study where his portrait hung, “I found it fallen down upon the Face, and lying on the Floor, the String being broken…” He took that scene to be a harbinger of his doom; in fact, Mr. Mandelbrote, the former librarian and archivist of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s library (and pardon the digression, dear reader, as I confess that among the pleasures and pitfalls of writing about this book are the details that it would be too painful to omit), wrote: “The downfall of Archbishop William Laud, his unattractive personality and his controversial role in politics and religion, which culminated in his own imprisonment, and execution, have tended to obscure his achievements…”

Among his achievements was the collection of Hebrew manuscripts he donated to Oxford.

This page of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, from some time between 1181 and 1204, includes the Rambam’s signed approval; it’s from the Huntington Collection.

Although the objects are very beautiful, the aspect of the project that interested Ms. Abrams the most was “who were the people behind it.”

The Kennicott Collection includes the Kennicott Bible. “Thanks to Benjamin Kennicott, the Bodleian has one of the most gorgeous Bibles in the world,” Ms. Abrams said; the book is lavishly and at times playfully and always stunningly illustrated. “He was collecting Hebrew Bibles” — this one was made in Spain, completed in 1476 — “so that he could invalidate the Jewish method of transmitting biblical texts. In the process he made the collection, which preserved knowledge and substantiates it.”

Kennicott devoted himself to comparing all the handwritten and printed Bibles he could find, to figure out which was closest to the original text and therefore to the truth. “The variants he found … led him to imagine, design and execute one of the grandest plans in the history of early modern scholarship: the identification and collation (systematic, letter-for-letter comparison) of all known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible in British and Irish Libraries and as many as possible in continental Europe and beyond,” Theodor Kunkelgrun wrote in the Oxford book. In other words, Kennicott undertook a serious, idiosyncratic, arguably insanely vast project, using a method that he created to found a field that’s existed ever since, which had nothing to do with the physical beauty of the objects he collected — but nonetheless he created a collection of jaw-dropping beauty and donated it to the Bodleian.

The Genizah Collection is the most recent Bodleian trove the book discusses. It’s the haul from the genizah — the repository for irreparably damaged books that could not be thrown away or otherwise destroyed because they contained the name of God — found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo in the late 19th century. It’s a wild story of intrigue and competition, begun by Scottish twins, the well-educated “lady travellers” Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, who were born in 1843 and who both made it into the 1920s. The twins heard about the genizah and told their friend, the Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter, about it.

Schechter — who was instrumental in creating the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and whose name is on Conservative day schools across the United States — “was “a colourful and engaging personality and a brilliant scholar,” chapter author Nadia Vidro tells us. “Sloppy, unkempt and thundering in his manner,” he was a good friend and dinner party guest, as well as a competitive academic. His battle — complete with betrayals and reversals — with his onetime good friend and fellow academic Adolf Neubauer of Oxford (who, we are told, “always looked scrupulously clean and well-groomed”) make up much of the chapter.

From an early 14th century machzor, this page illustrates the beginning of Kol Nidrei. It is part of the Michael Collection.

Then there are the scholar-adventurers like Robert Huntington, “who had a field day in Aleppo, going to parties” and feasting on exotic delicacies when not on cloak-and-dagger manuscript hunts, Ms. Abrams said. And Matteo Luigi Canonici, the Jesuit priest who always was driven by his need to collect, which always was at war with his desire to do so as inexpensively as possible. The objects he collected “had to be beautiful but also real bargains,” Ms. Abrams said.

Each collector was motivated by a different set of psychological needs and intellectual reasons, she said, but “there was a shift when it came to the Jewish collectors. Their reasons were specifically and explicitly about Jewishness. They were very aware of their Jewish identity. That was a key part of the motivation for their collections.”

Still, at some point, no matter who the collectors were, no matter what their motivations, it doesn’t matter, Ms. Abrams said. Eventually, “what the collector collected parts company from the person who collected it. So whether a text was collected by a Jewish collector or a Christian collector several centuries earlier, it doesn’t matter.

“The things that were collected break free from the collector. They owe their genesis to the collector, but what is so exciting is that they have fluid meanings. There is the meaning that their collectors assigned to them, but those meaning change with time, and according to who is looking at them.”

It’s a complicated dance. All those meanings are true at once; they all advance and recede and strut and bow, depending on the music. Some things about them are subjective — Are they beautiful? Are they offensive? Are they tainted somehow by their creators? — but some things about them are objectively as well as subjectively true.

“Objects have a provenance, but they also have an independence,” Ms. Abrams said. “They tell multiple stories. That’s the beauty of working with objects.

“In this age of disinformation, of fake information, there is something important in the role of libraries in preserving knowledge,” she added. “In just collecting these works and letting them be, which is so important.

“These great libraries are the antithesis of fake information, and they are all the more precious for that.”

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