Jewish Montreal’s rich past and connection to the Old World is preserved through the Library’s collection of antiquarian and Judaic books. The Library’s early collection of antiquarian books began with donations from primarily secular organizations, but religious texts have always been part of the Library’s resources. The oldest volumes in the current collections consist of those works in the Jewish canon written in the ancient languages of Asia, Europe, and North Africa.
After the Holocaust, the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. organization was mandated to return Jewish books to their original owners. When the owners could not be found, the books were to be distributed to various organizations around the world. Consequently, the Jewish Public Library became the caretaker of a sizeable collection of antiquarian volumes dating back to the 15th century. These books represent the historical and textual pedigree of Judaism: the earliest work in the collection is a 1481 incunabulum volume of Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. Early Hebrew grammars are abundant, as well as editions of the Bible, Talmud, Zohar, Responsa, and commentaries. One of the most curious volumes in the collection is a ca. 1780 prayer book handwritten on goatskin and bound in wooden flaps. Written in Ge’ez, a south Semitic language used in prayer, it was printed in the Gondar province of Ethiopia, and only several like it exist in the world.
In addition to these antiquarian and religious texts, the JPL also houses hundreds of Yizkor (Memorial) Books. Oftentimes immigrants from the same town of origin would band together in landsmanshaftn, mutual benefit socities that supported members in their new homes. After the Holocaust some of these groups produced Yizkor Books. In Judaism, memory is not merely recollection but the internalization of the past through study and action. Primarily in Yiddish and Hebrew, these memorial volumes have provided the children and grandchildren of these immigrants with a way of internalizing their past. The JPL is proud to own the largest single public library collection at close to six hundred volumes.