Nowhere to Sleep

27 09 2011

As per the title of this post, I have had to start putting books on my bed. This is becoming a problem. And yet, when I walked into shul yesterday afternoon (a kid whose bar-mitzvah is coming up wanted to “interview” me about his parasha, vaYeitze), I couldn’t help but ransack three boxes of old books that were on their way to the Chevra Kadisha for burial. The things that people just throw away.

Because I know how much you like to read about my acquisitions (you do, don’t you?), I have decided to share.

The above box, which is about 32cm in length, sports a depiction of two lions atop two pillars, holding between them a crown. Alongside the crown are the letters כ and ת, for כתר תורה (“Crown of the Torah”). Between the two pillars is a quote from Deuteronomy 4:44 – וזאת התורה אשר שם משה לפני בני ישראל. At the bottom, a declaration that this is the product of an Israeli publishing house called Sinai. What might be inside?

It’s a scroll! As you can see from the picture, the actual scroll itself is only about 25cm in height. It is, of course, machine-printed and on paper, though the paper is quite thick and soft. The garment in which it is clothed is fraying, but the scroll itself appears to have suffered no damage at all. The depiction is of the tablets of the law, numbered from א to י, with a crown above them and, again, the letters כ and ת. The inscription beneath the tablets reads מזכרת ירושלים, meaning “a remembrance of Jerusalem”, in which Jerusalem has been spelt in accordance with rabbinic orthography (ירושלים, not ירושלם). Below is an image of the scroll itself.

As you can see, it is in excellent condition, and entirely legible. I reproduce a somewhat more magnified portion below:

Because I don’t want to fiddle too much with unrolling and rerolling it, I didn’t look through too much of the text. I did check to see whether Leviticus 1:1 featured a small aleph at the end of the first word (it did), and I did confirm that Exodus 15 was typeset as “brickwork”. I would have liked to look at Deuteronomy 32 as well (although I have every reason to suppose that it will be presented in columns), and would especially like to confirm that the ketivim are all written as ketivim, the inverted-nunim are to be found in their appropriate places, and there are dots above the correct letters, etc. Perhaps another time.

In the meantime, this is a most sensational find, and while I am sure that such things can be acquired at (reasonably) minimal expense, I am gobsmacked that it would have been so casually thrown away. Who could simply bury such a thing?

Secondary to the scroll, I also acquired another two siddurim. One beautiful little pocket siddur, titled שפת אמת, was printed in Warsaw in 1927. Another, beautifully ornate and hardcover siddur, printed in London in 1864, features the Hebrew text (נוסח פולין) and a translation into English by Rabbi Abraham Pereira Mendes. Titled “Daily Prayers”, this volume is also replete with halakhic and ritual notations from Rabbi Ya’akov Lorberbaum‘s דרך החיים.

On the subject of law, I nabbed an English translation of the קיצור שלחן ערוך (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh). I have two copies of the Kitzur in my room: one with glosses from the Shulchan Arukh haRav, and one with glosses from the Mishne Berurah. This translation dates from 1927, and was composed by Hyman Goldin, in New York.

Likewise, on the subject of historical curios (if these volumes count as historical curios), I grabbed three works by celebrated historians and social critics:

• Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews: Vol. I. This volume spans from the patriarchs until the death of Simon the Maccabee (c.135 BCE), and was printed in 1891, the year of Graetz’s death. It was translated by Bella Löwy;

• Hilaire Belloc, The Jews. There are many fly spots on this volume (which is a first edition, published 1922), but the pages are of cloth, as all pages should be. Belloc was infamous at times for having possibly been an antisemite (that word, it seems, was no less frequently bandied about before the Shoah), though there appears to be little within this particular text that could possibly substantitate that. His seventh chapter, “The Anti-Semite”, when one considers the year of publication, is frighteningly prescient;

• Max Margolis and Alexander Marx, A History of the Jewish People. Spanning from the patriarchs until the opening of the Hebrew University in 1925, and despite occasional moments of silliness as when the authors remark upon the development of the “Cabala” with no real understanding of the kabbalistic literature (I blame them not; the world was different before Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends), their breadth of knowledge is inspiring. Nonetheless, despite concluding with a mention of the publication of the infamous Protocols, and the fact that people in Germany and Austria are beginning to unite “with the swastika as their badge”, the sanguine tone with which they conclude their volume is frighteningly unprescient.

And speaking of the Shoah, as I very nearly was, somebody else (whose name is in the front of it, but whom I won’t embarrass by mentioning) threw away a beautiful and heartbreaking book, entitled “The Children We Remember”. The author is Chana Byers Abells, and the photographs therein are all from the archives at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. A children’s book, if you can believe it, this volume features photographs of European Jewish children in the years immediately prior to the Shoah, as well as in the ghettos and in Christian homes, in hiding. In one instance there is even a (somewhat famous) photo of a woman clutching her baby in the moments before an officer with a rifle took off their heads. Do people really show these things to their children? I thought that my education was explicit.

To happier things! I also took three other volumes of pictures – two of photographs, and one by illustration:

• Franz Hubmann, The Jewish Family Album: Yesterday’s World in Old Photographs. After an introduction, pages 17-79 are of the ghettos and the shtetls in the years before the Shoah; pages 79-225 are of “the emancipated” (with photos from Vienna, Prague, Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin, as well as of the Rothschilds and “the world of film”); pages 225-271 are of “the New World”; and pages 271-317 are of Palestine before and under the British Mandate;

• Published by the Old Yishuv Court Museum in Jerusalem, חצר הישוב הישן: Old Yishuv Court is a lovely collection of photographs of Palestinian Jews of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachi descent (the musta’arabim), as well as some interesting pictures of Palestinian synagogues from before the state;

• Gustave Doré, תנ”ך בתמונות: The Bible in Pictures. With 140 illustrations taken from books of the Tanakh (as well as, most interestingly, I Maccabees, II Maccabees, Judith and Susanna!), this is another wonderful volume in excellent condition that should really never be thrown away. For a sample of Doré’s beautiful work, the Wikipedia article has some lovely selections. The copy that I have is hardcover, embossed with an image of Moses descending the mountain with the tablets of law in his hand, and was published in 1954 by Sinai.

It is a curious fact of Jewish life that nobody really knows, nor ever has really known, which books can be discarded and which must be buried. I can understand somebody deciding that they no longer want a particular text, but to assume (for no other reason than the fact that its content touches somehow upon Judaism or Jewish history) that it should go to the Chevra for burial is absurd. Not that I am complaining, of course. Were people more in the know, the vast bulk of the Cairo Geniza would have disappeared centuries ago, and my room would have more walking space in it today. For “academic” purposes (although, of what precise benefit these texts will be, I don’t know), I also took the following items, only one of which possibly falls into the category of “sacred literature”:

• William Foxwell Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (London, 1960);

• Yigael Yadin, The Message of the Scrolls (London, 1959);

• Fritz Reuter, Warmaisa: 1000 Jahre Juden in Worms (Worms, 1984). It was my growing interest in mediaeval Ashkenaz which inspired me to take this one, and it will hopefully be my growing interest in mediaeval Ashkenaz that sees me able to read it before too long;

• חגי ישראל: חלק א. The first volume of a two-part series by an Israeli organisation that neither wanted to disclose their name, the place in which they published it, nor the year in which they saw fit to do so. This volume deals with the laws of Shabbat, Rosh haShana, Yom haKippurim, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Chanukka and Tu biShevat.

It remains for me now only to mention what appears to be a tremendously entertaining read, written by (Rabbi) John S. Levi and George F.J. Bergman, entitled Australian Genesis: Jewish Convicts and Settlers, 1788-1850. I had the very good pleasure of listening to Rabbi Levi last year, when he presented a lecture in Sydney on the history of non-Orthodox Judaism in Australia. The first “home-grown” Australian rabbi, he impressed me with his breadth of knowledge no less than his wit. The history of Australian Judaism is not something for which I usually care, although I found myself intrigued with his presentation and look forward to reading his book. Chapter headings include “The Honest Jew of Parramatta”, “The Man They Couldn’t Hang”, “The Redemption of Sydney Sam” and “The Jewboy Bushranger and Family”. I love a good yarn.

And if I had to choose between these sixteen acquisitions and a place to rest my head? I can always sleep on the couch.

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2 responses

2 10 2011
2 10 2011
Simon Holloway

No, it’s actually this one: either 1997 or 1998, depending on where on this particular website you look. Quite a good book! It seems to be written for high school students, although it contains some excellent information. I only wish they would include all of their references. Only once has it taken me more than twenty minutes to figure out the source of one of their passages (it turned out to be an obscure midrash from the third volume of the Zohar, no less), but it’s the principle of the thing.

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