About 3.5 metres beneath where you’re currently standing, four centuries of books dating from the late 15th century inhabit a space which, in any other century, might have been a synagogue library, a rabbinical seminary, a rabbi’s study, a locked book cabinet inside a merchant’s house, or buried beneath the floor boards of a house in the hopes that the invaders of the town yielded either to misdirection or greed for quick equity.
In the years following 1945, the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) administered the territory previously ruled by the national socialists in Germany. Alongside the agency known as the Jewish Reconstruction Reconstruction Inc. (JCR), attempts to reunite hundreds of thousands of books, Torah scrolls, and other ritual objects with their original owners were quite successful. However, the sheer scope of human loss meant that many of these items were left orphaned. By the end of 1952, the JCR redistributed many of these orphans to libraries around the world. From Hebrew University to Oxford, to the New York Public Library, these books were entrusted to libraries whose mandate it was to preserve the printed book and in particular, the textual life force of Judaism.
Many of these books found their way to the Jewish Public Library. Not all of these volumes however came from outside the community. Some were donated from local antiquarian collectors, others originate from the JPL’s early years when Yehuda Kaufmann, the co-founder of the library with Reuven Brainin, acquired old religious texts from his travels to the United States.
Provenance is a fundamental concept in archives and special collections because it refers to the chain of custody along which the collection travels. The textual life force of Judaism however, is difficult to map alongside a linear path. This exhibit traces many circles: you are standing inside their trajectories.
Volumes selected from the collection represent a range of time periods, geographical imprints, and subject disciplines. You are between the 15th and 18th centuries on the road between Venice, Frankfurt, Padua, Basle, Lisbon, London, Hamburg, Amsterdam, and Ethiopia. You are inside the sinews of Hebrew grammar, ascending the tree of kabbalistic speculation, between the margins of the Torah and its endless commentaries. Astronomy and geometry will meet you on one side of the road, behind one dark path are antisemitic tracts; in the distance, you will see a medical microcosm that equates the organs of the human body with a house. Some of these roads converge – like the one in which mythology and history are reconciled by Josephus, the incunabula of the collection.
The title of the exhibit derives from two sources: the first, the idea that the book is a room in which one sojourns. The second, that the act of taking up temporary residence has particular historical gravitas in the Jewish ethos. This offered up the mapping of a nuanced and surprising number predicated on the range of years chosen for these imprints: 312. This is explained in the accompanying exhibit catalogue available at the library.