Broadsides were never meant to survive. Defined as a single printed sheet posted in public, broadsides convey immediate information about a vast number of subjects: changes in the law, upcoming weddings or bnai mitzvot, the details of a death or a funeral, the arrival of the circus, just to name a few.
All those notices on college campuses, or in Orthodox neighborhoods, are broadsides, the handiest way to spread news before, or in the absence of, telephones or the Internet. They are posted and taken down when the event is over, or are left to be tattered by the rain and bleached to whiteness by the sun.
There’s nothing intrinsically Jewish about broadsides, of course. But the Valmadonna Trust Library, one of the greatest collections of Jewish books and manuscripts in the world, includes an extensive collection of Jewish broadsides as well, and the most beautiful and sociologically and historically instructive of them are on view at Temple Emanu-El. ((The Library, with more than 11,000 works, is the finest private library of Hebrew books and manuscripts. It was placed by sale in 2009 by Sotheby’s, and has not yet been sold.)
On view are Italian wedding poems in rebus, syllabic picture writing, which retain all their charm though they are now unreadable even to Italian experts; the blessings for Chanukah printed in Calcutta on festive red paper; a list of the mounts in a horserace offered by the Jews of Livorno to honor the visiting Grand Duke of Tuscany; a wall chart from Frankfurt teaching the Hebrew alphabet to small children, enlivened by woodcuts of lions and stags; and, perhaps most stunning in its survival, a pristine broadside announcing the imminent arrival in Amsterdam of Sabbatai Zevi, the false messiah who in the mid-1660s sent thousands of Jews of Europe and the Middle East into “a messianic frenzy.
Broadsides are written for an audience who did not need to be given much context for, say, the horserace in Livorno. The source of their charm and evocative power is also the source of what’s now mysterious about them. Elka Deitsch and David Wachtel, the curators of the exhibition, have met this problem admirably, first by including full and highly readable labels; but even better, on the exhibition website they’ve included additional information.
Even the briefest walk through the exhibition will induce the affection and reverence for our ancestors that one feels walking through a graveyard; but these writings on the wall will set you thinking about their lives, once as immediate and urgent as ours are now.
“The Writing on the Wall: Early Modern Broadsides from the Valmadonna Trust Library” is on view at the Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica, at Temple Emanu-El, One East 65 Street, New York, until September 30th..
Elizabeth Denlinger curates a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and is at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.