There are many ways to approach a manuscript — by author, by locale, by topic or by the scribbled notes in its margins. The new exhibit, “The People in the Books: Judaica Manuscripts at Columbia University Libraries,” elects instead to concentrate on the people behind the pages. It looks at the personal history of the manuscripts in its extensive collection, bringing to life the authors and owners of these texts through their notes and their inscriptions, through the wine spilled on a Passover Haggadah or the corners of a page gnawed away by actual bookworms.
With manuscripts dating from the 10th to the 20th century and from such far-flung areas of the globe as Cochin and Suriname, the breadth of content is staggering. The manuscripts are organized by category, with Scholars, Doctors, Time-keepers, Travelers, Rabbis, Congregants and even Karaites, all telling their own stories.
Along with essential works by towering figures of Jewish scholarship Rashi and Rambam are more prosaic texts that mark a particular time and place and offer a glimpse into Jewish life through the centuries: In one display, loan records from 14th-century Provence, one of the few means of livelihood open to Jews of that time; in another, a seating chart for High Holy Day synagogue services in 17th-century Mantua, prominent members carefully marked. These anonymous historians speak out directly from the pages: A Jewish physician working during the plague in 17th-century Padua describes how to treat the disease and its devastating effects; a German Jew offers his perspective on the French Revolution and the story of his own brush with Napoleon, while a Dutch Jew offers prayers for an unidentified Dutch princess.
Between the lines, of course, the story of the surrounding world emerges: The Christian censor’s mark on Jewish religious works, the effect of the Spanish expulsion on the new communities formed in its wake, or a Jewish calendar with Christian holy days included, forewarning of possible persecution. The manuscripts provide a glimpse of Jewish history in the time capsules of their text.
In a rueful note, the self-titled “small” Leib, son of Yehuda Shimon confesses on the title page of his copy of “Derekh ets hayim” by Hayyim Ben Joseph Vital, “I have no idea what this holy book is.” In this worthwhile exhibit, all is explained.
“The People in the Book” is curated by Michelle Chesner, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies, Columbia University. A catalog is available online at https://exhibitions.cul.columbia.edu/exhibits/show/hebrew_mss.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.