Walking down the leafy side streets of Philadelphia’s Center City, one could easily pass the Rosenbach Museum & Library amid a row of elegant townhouses. But it is a cultural jewel box, with more than 30,000 books and 300,000 pages of manuscripts amassed by legendary dealer Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach, as well as 18th- and 19th-century antiques and fine art acquired by his brother and business partner, Philip. From the 1920s to the ’40s, A.S.W. Rosenbach, as he was commonly called, shaped some of the leading American libraries and also compiled the first American Jewish bibliography, which included many examples from his personal collection. But he donated the bulk of this to the American Jewish Historical Society in 1932, and today the institution that bears his name isn’t particularly known for its Judaic books.
Nevertheless, the Rosenbach seems the perfect host for Chosen: Philadelphia’s Great Hebraica, on view through August 26, and not just because the brothers were important members of the historic Mikveh Israel synagogue and linked to the Gratz family, perhaps the city’s most prominent early American Jews. Like the Rosenbach itself, the show celebrates that which is rare and significant but often overlooked, bringing together 58 examples from eight local synagogues and libraries that remarkably encapsulate both Jewish history and bibliography.
The seeds of the exhibition were planted 10 years ago, when David Stern, a University of Pennsylvania professor of classical Hebrew, developed an interest in early printed books. Discovering extraordinary examples in the area that weren’t central to their collections, he recalled thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great to gather all these Jewish books living in separate Diasporas and see what stories they tell?” In an interview, Stern hastened to add that the works on view are well taken care of by their owners but represent “an enormous untapped treasure.”
Here, the books — originating mostly from Europe and the Near East circa 1000 to 1900 and primarily in Hebrew script, but including languages ranging from Aramaic and Yiddish to Ladino and Latin — illuminate the cycles of prosperity and dispersion that define the Jewish experience. The show features the first book published in the United States, in Cambridge, Mass., in 1640: the so-called Bay Psalm, in English with Hebrew letters marking each verse. Also featured is the first Hebrew prayer book, which was begun by the Sons of Israel Nathan Soncino, the prolific Italian printers, in Soncino (the town from which they took their name) in 1485, but completed the following year in Casale Maggiore, where they were forced to move their presses. There are also a handful of delightful miniature books that German and Viennese court Jews commissioned from scribes as luxury items after books became accessible to the middle class, among them a 1732 prayer book with vivid color drawings by Joseph ben David of Leipnick that includes Grace After Meals and blessings for special occasions, from a bar mitzvah to an encounter with royalty.
No less intriguing are textual works bearing traces of a people in flux, with several testaments to the expulsions from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. There is, for example, a late 15th-century Bible in which the colophon at the back of the book, bearing the names of the scribe and patron and the origin and date of completion, is scratched out; clues suggest that it moved from Spain to Portugal and on to Istanbul, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire.
Also part of the empire was Syria, where a blood libel broke out in 1840. A Hebrew inscription attached to the inside cover notes that Louis Loewe, a bibliophile and collector who was the secretary of Anglo-Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, acquired the book “at full price” as part of his and Montefiore’s efforts to save the Jews of Damascus.
Throughout, the history of Jewish books is distinctive, with adherence to tradition despite — or perhaps because of — the fate of the people who created and owned them. Holding fast to scrolls, Jews were later to accept the codex, or bound book form of manuscripts, which was already common around the year 400, a full 1,000 years before the dawn of printing. They continued to embrace handwritten texts, most formidably communal Torah scrolls and illustrated versions of Megilat Esther, even after becoming early influential printers. But generally, Jewish books mirrored broader culture, emulating local styles — so that Hebrew script in Spanish books resembles Arabic, while German counterparts look Latin — and adopting technological innovations.
Notwithstanding the show’s Judaic significance, it is compelling for booklovers of any stripe. In fact, many of the loans come from such secular institutions as the Free Library, and Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges, which received them as gifts primarily from non-Jewish collectors. Explaining the wealth of Hebraica in Philadelphia, Judith Guston, the Rosenbach’s curator and director of collections, points to this broad legacy of philanthropy and an “intellectual interest in books that went beyond cultural heritage.” But, she adds, Jewish patronage also played a significant role. A case in point is a circa 1735 micrographic Megilat Esther with eight illustrations by Austrian scribe Aaron Wolf Schreiber Herlingen, measuring a mere 6 inches by 4 inches, that was donated to Bryn Mawr in the 1950s by a local Jewish judge. Stern speculates that similar legacies might be uncovered in Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Boston and other cities where Jews thrived.
Acknowledging Philadelphia’s rich history as a center of Jewish life, and the Rosenbach family’s deeply religious convictions, the institution has simultaneously laid out some of the family’s personal effects and is hosting a specialized house tour, titled From Menschen to Mezuzahs, on June 24, July 22 and August 26. In contrast to the surprisingly expansive exhibition in an intimate parlor-floor gallery, these present a humbler narrative, of an upper-middle-class American Jewish family in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the dining room, the table has been set for a Passover Seder, adorned with silver, glass and ceramics from the collection, along with copies of pages from the family’s Haggadot. A rich array of highly personal books is highlighted in the third-floor library. This sampling includes a worn Bible that Philip probably used to practice for his bar mitzvah; a copy of popular 19th-century author Grace Aguilar’s “The Spirit of Judaism,” which was presented to the Rosenbach matriarch, Isabella Polock, when she was 15 years old, in reward for her distinguished performance during the Purim exams at Philadelphia’s Hebrew Sunday School, where she would ultimately teach and send her seven children; a wine-stained Haggadah, and a prayer book annotated with a list of yahrzeit dates to mark the deaths of Rosenbach family members.
These fascinating threads, echoing throughout the house, in addition to the concentrated display of Hebraic treasures, amount to an abundance of Jewish cultural history. Still, the multifaceted exhibition, museum and library remain gems for anyone who will take the time to notice.
Jeannie Rosenfeld, a writer based in New York, has written extensively about Judaica and Hebraica.