Italy has been home to Jewish communities for over two millennia, and it has been an important location for writers and scholars — as well as a major center for manuscript production and printing. That has meant a huge number of Hebrew books with tremendous historical value. For scholars, though, some of those books have long been difficult if not impossible to find.
Thousands of uncatalogued rare Hebrew books dating back hundreds of years are housed all over Italy, in the collections of local Jewish communities, as well as libraries owned by the state, the Italian Church Institutions (CEI) and the Vatican.
But there was no centralized catalog of all Hebrew books in Italy until now.
In an initiative funded by the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe, some 35,000 books will be catalogued over the next three years by The Union of Jewish Communities in Italy (UCEI), the Rome National Central Library (BNCR), and the National Library of Israel (NLI) in Jerusalem.
The books came from 14 Jewish communities and 25 state institutions, and the project will take about three years to complete. The institutions are from the Italian State, not yet Vatican or Italian Churches (CEI). As the digitization moves forward, there is hope that the church will participate.
In a separate initiative, The Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project— a joint effort by the Bodleian Libraries and Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, or the libraries at Oxford and the Vatican — made 1.5 million digitized pages, including Hebrew manuscripts, Greek manuscripts and other early books, freely available to the public. The collection of Hebrew manuscripts in the Vatican Library, one of the most important in the world, can be viewed here:
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau) and the forthcoming Wolf Lamb Bomb (Orison Books). Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner