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The Jewish people also figure prominently in the Library of Congress’s collection of Hebraica, one of the world’s leading repositories of books, manuscripts, films and recordings. Initially conceived of as a “congressional library” for the exclusive use of the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Library of Congress soon evolved into the country’s “National Library,” the cynosure of America’s citizenry. When, in 1912, the opportunity arose to purchase a significant collection of Hebrew books — upward of 9,936 volumes and pamphlets spanning nearly three and a half millennia that had been carefully assembled by Ephraim Deinard (a fascinating character in his own right) — the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, turned to Jacob H. Schiff, one of the nation’s leading Jewish philanthropists and a man known to be a “munificent patron of Jewish learning,” for support.
Putnam’s pitch is well worth quoting from, especially in its deployment of the term “Hebrew,” then the preferred, more elegant term for those of the Jewish persuasion.
“For some time past,” Putnam wrote, “I have wished to establish here in the National Library a department of Hebraica…. Now there happens to be just now available a collection… that would really signify not merely in its direct service to scholars, but as a recognition of the part which Hebrew history, literature and tradition, as well as the Hebrew race, play and will play in the affairs of this country.”
Intrigued by Putnam’s overture and its twin appeals to racial and civic pride, Schiff sought out the advice of those familiar with both Washington and the world of books, among them Cyrus Adler, a former high-ranking official of the Smithsonian Institution. Adler encouraged him to consummate the deal, arguing persuasively that a “strong department in the National Library would do much credit to our people.”
When put that way, American Jewry’s very own Maecenas found it hard to disagree. In 1912 and again in 1914, Schiff provided the funds that helped the Library of Congress establish what would, a century later, become one of the most pre-eminent of public institutions for the study of Jewish history, culture and literature — and, as it happens, the source for much of the material on which this and so many other of my columns draw.