12 February 2009

New York: Major Jewish library exhibit, sale

We Jews are called the People of the Book for good reason, and throughout history, many of our books have been lost for well-known reasons.

If you have a spare $40 million in your pocket and love rare Jewish books, this 13,000-item (Sotheby's says "more than 11,000") collection is for you.

If you don't have the ready cash (who does these days?), at least run over to Sotheby's (1334 York Avenue at 72nd St., Manhattan) to see the Valmadonna Trust Library exhibit, through February 19 (except for February 14). It is considered one of the greatest privately held Judaica libraries in the world - displayed in its entirety for the first time. You may not have another chance to see it.

“Make books your companions. Let your bookshelves be your gardens,” wrote 12th-century Spanish Jewish scholar Judah Ibn Tibbon.

“Blessed be He... Who has magnified His grace with a great invention, one that is useful for all inhabitants of the world, there is none beside it, and nothing can equal it among all wisdoms and inventions since God created man on the earth: The Printing Press,” is an unusual blessing written by David Gans, a 16th-century Prague Jewish scholar.

Throughout history, Jews have kept copying and printing copies of the Torah and Talmud, as well as other works, religious and secular. Often the works were confiscated (1240 Paris, 1509 Germany) or burned (1553 Italy by Papal decree, 1,000 copies in Venice alone). While Hebrew books were destroyed in many places and in many years, others might survive if the "blasphemous" text was removed.

For those not familiar with the terms, the Hebrew Bible - Torah - is known as the written law, while the Talmud or oral law, comprises centuries of rabbinical discussion and debate on the laws of the Torah.

These rare works were created or printed in Amsterdam, Paris, Leiden, Izmir, Bombay, Cochin, Cremona, Jerusalem, Ferrara, Calcutta, Mantua, Shanghai, Alexandria, Baghdad and elsewhere.

According to this New York Times article and the Sotheby's press release, the Valmadonna Trust Library will be shown for the first time.

The collection is the work of Jack V. Lunzer, a London resident born in Antwerp in 1924, who made a fortune in industrial diamonds. The Valmadonna name according to the Jewish Chronicle, notes the Michtavim Blog, comes from the fact that Lunzer is also known as Count of Valmadonna after his native village near Alessandria in Piedmont, Italy. The New York Times notes that the family has been connected with the village since World War II.

The collection includes rare religious and philosophical books and manuscripts of all types, as well as Hebrew grammar and legal texts, medical works, and even rare wall calendars. Here are some of the treasures:

- A handwritten Hebrew Bible - known as the Codex Valmadonna I - from England, 1189, one year before the York Jewish community was massacred and its property looted. The Jews were expelled from England in 1290.

- A 10th-11th century Franco-German Pentateuch, written in Ashkenazic script is one of the earliest copies written anywhere in Europe.

- An early 15th century illuminated Yemenite Pentateuch

- A 1737 Vienna book for the birkat hamazon, or “Grace After Meals and other Benedictions.”

- A Venice edition of the Babylonian Talmud (1519-23) by Christian printer Daniel Bomberg, which set the pattern for how the Talmud is printed even today. Lunzer learned of its existence in the Westminster Abbey collection in 1956 and spent 25 years to acquire it, eventually trading a 900-year-old copy of the Abbey's charter for it.

- A 12th-century Samaritan Torah scroll written in ancient Hebrew script.

- From Fez in 1516, the first Hebrew book printed in Africa.

- A 1547 multilingual Torah from Constantinople, with Spanish and Greek translations written in Hebrew script.

- A 19th-century Judeo-Arabic copy of “A Thousand and One Nights” from Calcutta.

- A 1496 copy of a scientific work by Jewish mathematician and astrologer Abraham Zacuto - the first scientific work printed in Portugal.

- An early 20th-century Pakistani guide for ritual slaughters in Hebrew and Marathi.

- 1490 Hijar Torah by David Solomon Sassoon with Hebrew and Aramaic text - the last dated Hebrew book before the 1492 Expulsion.

- 1492 Mishnah, by Joshua Solomon Soncino and Joseph ibn Peso in Naples, with 47 woodcuts.

- 1490 Speier Hebrew travel and exploration text by Bernhard von Breydenbach.

- 1526 Prague Haggadah - by Kohen - is the earliest extant dated and illustrated edition. It has Yiddish song lyrics.

Sotheby's vice chairman David Redden said,

"We have worked to honor the collection by mounting an unprecedented exhibition – all 11,000 works on view together for the first time. For scholars and collectors who have only ever seen its highlights, this provides an extraordinary opportunity to view the Valmadonna Library as a whole. And for the public, it is the chance to see one of the greatest collections in the world and witness firsthand the history of the Jewish people.

“The collection is filled with treasures - individual works valued at millions of dollars each. Whoever acquires this remarkable Library, whether a private collector or institution, will take their place among the world’s foremost collections, including such great institutions as the British Library, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, La Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and the National Library of Israel.”

Lunzer's collection includes almost complete holdings of 16th century Italian printed Jewish texts, from such places as Mantua, Venice, Naples, Livorno, Pisa and Trieste. The volumes also track the migration of Sephardim following 1492, with texts printed in Amsterdam by refugee Conversos, with more than 350 other treasures from Constantinople and some 440 from Salonika. There are also books from Africa, Iraq and China; a rich collection from India; more than 500 printed in Baghdad in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic and Aramaic.

The press release offers illustrations of seven of the treasures detailed in the text.

About his books, Lunzer told the The New York Times:

“They’re my friends,” he says. Will he miss them? “I’ll be happy if they are well kept and respected.”

But each one, he says, could be printed only because of permission that was granted by others. “Every one of these books,” he says with bibliophilic compassion, “is crying its own tears.”
Go see this important exhibit - you may not have another opportunity. Read the complete article and press release at the links above.

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