Treasures from Corfu
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Treasures from Corfu

Exhibition at Jewish Theological Seminary shows hidden pocket of Jewish life

ON THE COVER:  A man holds a lulav and etrog in a page from a 1709 machzor from Corfu. (Jewish Theological Seminary)
ON THE COVER: A man holds a lulav and etrog in a page from a 1709 machzor from Corfu. (Jewish Theological Seminary)

Jewish Theological Seminary teams with Columbia for exhibition on the Jews of Corfu

“Infinite riches in a little room.”

That’s a quote from Christopher Marlowe’s “Jew of Malta,” a work of poetic antisemitism — leavened perhaps by Marlowe’s never having met a Jew, and his clear distrust of anyone representing any religion — that still has some resonance with the exhibition about the Jews of Corfu now at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia.

The exhibit is of infinite riches in a little room — some brightly colored, some intricately designed, some printed, some handwritten, most revelatory.

The 1944 ketubah marking the marriage of Abraham, son of Solomon Vivante, and Esther, daughter of Nissim — the dowry was given in drachmas — was dated two weeks before the community was deported. (All photos courtesy the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary)

The riches document the history of the Jews of Corfu; the community was founded in 1386 and survived until 1944, close to the end of World War II, when the Nazis rounded everyone up and shipped them off to be murdered. (Coincidentally, “Jew of Malta” was written in 1590, about a Mediterranean island off the coast of Italy, just as Corfu is a Mediterranean island off the coast of Greece.)

Although Corfu is closer to Greece, until the end of the 18th century it belonged to Venice, the glorious, dazzling, rich mercantile power to its north. Corfu’s a straight shot down the Adriatic, and a good place to have under your control if you want to stop enemy forces — Ottomans, perhaps — from sailing up the sea.

The first Jews to settle on Corfu were Romaniote — they came from Greece and spoke Greek. In the 16th century, another group of Jews, Italian speakers from Apulia, in Italy, joined them. As is so often the case in Jewish history, the two groups, which seemingly had so much in common, did not get along. There also was a smaller group from the Iberian Peninsula, who added Ladino to the mix. Much of the history of the Jews of Corfu details the conflicts between the groups.

Right, the miniature manuscript, from 1692, was a personal prayerbook written and illustrated by its owner, Jacob Fero. The image is of Joshua commanding the sun to stand still.

Because Columbia and JTS between them have one of the largest collections of material from the Jews of Corfu, and they are right next to each other on Broadway in Morningside Heights. So it made sense when “my colleague at Columbia, Michelle Margolis, came to me six years ago, and she said that we should get together for this exhibition,” Sharon Liberman Mintz, the seminary’s curator of Jewish art, said.  So they did. They waited, necessarily, through construction and covid, and finally they were ready.

Ms. Margolis is a tireless, energetic, and generous partner, Ms. Liberman Mintz said, and working together was a joy.

The exhibition is in two parts, and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s part of the exhibition is just the second in its newly redone, newly reopened library.

The library’s collection is massive; that is not new. It’s one of the biggest, most comprehensive collections of Judaica in the world; according to its publicity, it has “400,000 circulating volumes,” as well as “an exceptional collection of rare materials, including the world’s largest collection of Hebrew manuscripts, 43,000 fragments from the Cairo Genizah, extensive archives, and much more.”

In 1725,Moses, son of Shabbetai Mazza, married Stamou, daughter of Elijah Vivante. They were part of the Romaniote community, and their elaborate ketubah included much specific to that community.

The Corfu holdings are in that “much more” category.

“The library’s mandate is to reveal treasures to the public,” Ms. Liberman Mintz said. “We are thrilled to have a centrally located modern exhibition space, and we want to give people access to our treasures.”

Her passion for her work in general, and this exhibition and the new space it occupies in particular, is unmistakable. And that’s despite this not being a novel accomplishment for her. “I’ve been at JTS for 36 years,” Ms. Liberman Mintz said. “I have done more than 50 exhibits.” That number becomes even more impressive when you consider that the library has been closed to the public for the last five years, first for renovation, then for covid. And this isn’t even Ms. Liberman Mintz’s only professional obligation; she’s also a senior consultant at Sotheby’s.

In 1790, as this ketubah shows, Solomon Ashkenazi, the son of Samuel Ashkenazi, married Ferna, the daughter of the late Moses Tzaddik.

She’s particularly pleased with the new exhibition space, which was designed and executed with care.

Many of the works on display now are bright colors on paper. “Paper is sensitive and colors are fugitive,” she said. “So we are mindful of the light, and the cases were carefully crafted for humidity.

“I have a great exhibition designer,” she added.

The story that the exhibition tells is both foreign and familiar.

The Passover Haggadah, in a hand-drawn Hebrew font and Greek translation, was the last Jewish book printed on Corfu.

It begins with maps, showing those of us who aren’t more than vaguely aware of where Corfu is exactly where it is. The maps, blown-up versions of very old ones, make clear that the island was a fortress, and possible allies and enemies were close by on the mainland to both its east and its west.

The Jews of Corfu were neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi. Their ketubot are generally familiar, but some of the images on them are unique to the island. Some of the art is gorgeous, and some is made by would-be artists who had more heart than craft. The community’s siddurim and machzorim contain familiar prayers, but the art that rings them is less familiar. Some of the community’s rivalries, jealousies, and hostilities are chronicled in the manuscripts. Some are straightforward; some, as in a dispute over how to sing the Shema that really was about whose melody to use, are less overt.

And as often is the case, such items as ketubot and manuscripts were made for rich people, whose lives and longings therefore are clearer to the observer than those of their poorer contemporaries.

This page is from a 18th century book of selichot (penitential prayers), bakashot (songs in praise of God) and rabbinic aphorisms. It shows the text of a rabbinic teaching recited after finishing a tractate of the Talmud.

As the community started declining, its growing weakness was displayed and exacerbated by a blood libel that ended in terror and death. It happened in 1891, which is late for that particular terrorist nightmare. It also was unusual in that the victim was a Jewish girl; generally blood libels and the riots that followed were over the deaths of Christian boys. They couldn’t change the murder victim’s gender, but some of them went so far as to say that she had been a Christian girl, abducted by the Jews who pretended that she was theirs.

Some of the community’s wealth came from its position in the etrog trade. Although etrogim are in demand just once a year — at Sukkot — as that time of year approaches, the demand swells. Jewish merchants on the island were able to buy the lovely, fragrant, generally inedible citrus fruits from the Greek farmers just to their east, and broker them to the far-flung Jewish world to the north and west.

Because Corfu was a Jewish community in Europe that survived until the middle of the 19th century, its ending was catastrophic. As time went by — as the centuries passed — it seemed to grow smaller, as more people could leave more easily. One of the newest printed books from Corfu in the exhibition, a haggadah printed in 1941, has Hebrew on one side and Greek on the other. But the Hebrew, which looks like any other printed Hebrew at first glance, was very carefully handwritten, because there no longer were any Hebrew fonts in usable condition. It was the last Jewish book printed on Corfu; the Nazis saw to that. (It’s on page 37.)

From a 1709 manuscript that holds prayers for the three pilgrimage festivals, from the Italian Jewish commuunity on Corfu, this page shows Elijah trumpeting the Messiah’s arrival in Jerusalem.

But it’s the last object in the show that’s the most heartbreaking. It’s a ketubah, lovingly if not particularly artfully done, dated just days before the Nazis invaded. Although we don’t know what happened to the bride and groom, we do know that almost none of the Jews on Corfu that day survived.

Still, the overwhelming sense of the exhibition is not of death or trauma. It’s too colorful, too idiosyncratic, too familiar-but-foreign for that. But of course the best way for anyone to see its effect is to go there. The exhibition, at Broadway and 122nd Street, is open until November 23 during library hours — Mondays and Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., except, of course, on holidays, either Jewish or civil. Everyone is welcome, as long as you can prove that you’re vaccinated.

To see the part of the exhibition that’s at Columbia, just south of JTS at 114th Street, email Michelle Margolis  at mc3395@columbia.edu. The exhibit is open during library hours, from 10 to 4. It’s free at both places.

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