Sunday, June 28, 2009

Visiting the Valmadonna

What I really wish is that I was writing this letter to you a week ago, when there would still have been time for at least some of you to have the experience Joan and I had this last Wednesday when we went to Sotheby’s to see the Valmadonna Trust Library. It’s for sale. (That’s why it’s on display at Sotheby’s, all 13,000 volumes of it.) But, because the initial asking price is $40,000,000, it will probably not be bought by someone planning to hide the collection away in a private home and so the chance to see it will probably present itself again…either in Washington at the Library of Congress or in some similar library or museum with that kind of acquisitions budget. Believe me, if you missed it this time, you absolutely won’t want to miss it the next time ‘round….wherever that may be. For the moment, though, you’ll have to trust me that visiting the Valmadonna Trust wasn’t just an interesting experience to have, but an almost transformational one. (By the way, $40,000,000 is where the auction is going to start, not where it is going to finish. The real price, we’ll only find out when the dust settles and a the market itself sets the actual value of the collection. So if you only have $40M to spend on books this year, you’re probably out of luck. It’s that kind of world. Maybe next time!)

But let me tell you about the experience itself. You enter the ultra modern lobby of Sotheby’s, located on York Avenue just south of 72nd Street. You can’t believe how many other people are there to see the same exhibit you’ve come to see. You wait for an elevator to be free, then you go up to the tenth floor…and then you step out into a space so unlike any you’ve ever visited that it’s almost impossible adequately or really accurately to describe at all.

For the last fifty or sixty years, Jack Lunzer, a London-based diamond merchant, has set himself to assembling the greatest private library of Jewish books that has ever existed or, I’m sure, ever will exist, a collection so vast and so comprehensive that the shelves are marked not by topic, but by locale: Baghdad, Shanghai, Cochin, Florence, Ferrara, Riva di Trento, Paris, Safed, Jerusalem, Aleppo, Venice, Mantua…one or many shelves corresponding to more or less every single place in which Jewish books were printed in medieval and modern times. And the library doesn’t contain some of the books printed in many of these places either, but every Hebrew book published in many of the earliest places in which Jewish books were printed, including in Italy alone Cremona, Venice, Ferrara, Pisa, Mantua, Verona, Livorno, and Trieste. The Trust also contains a full set of the Talmud printed by the Christian printer Daniel Bomberg in Venice in the years from 1519-1523, perhaps the rarest set of Hebrew books in the world. (The story of how Jack Lunzer managed to purchase the books from, of all places, Westminster Abbey, where they were originally bought by King Henry VIII—who reportedly wanted some of his Hebrew experts to consult them for ways to streamline his then-pending divorce from Anne Boleyn, a problem he eventually solved another way—then stored in the basement in the sixteenth century and forgotten about until somebody noticed them and tipped Lunzer off is told at length in a video presentation that accompanied the exhibition.) But, really, the Bomberg Talmud is only part of it…and, at that, a tiny part. Also present is a handwritten Hebrew Bible written in 1189 in England, the sole Hebrew book that has survived from the period before King Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290.

The term “incunable” is given to books that derive from the true infancy of printing, those printed before the year 1500. (Gutenberg, who invented the concept of moveable type and the modern printing press, produced the first printed books in Mainz in the 1450s. There were about 29,000 books printed subsequent to Gutenberg’s first efforts before 1500, of which 140 were in Hebrew. The word incunabulum means “cradle” in Latin and the term is used because these books truly derive from the infancy of the art of printing. By 1500, there were about thirty Jewish print shops in the world, mostly in Spain—although those were all closed by 1492, obviously, when the Jews were expelled—and in Italy.) The Trust, for example, has a copy of the 1490 Chumash printed on high-quality vellum parchment, the last Hebrew book printed in Spain before the expulsion. And it only goes on from there.

The riches of the collection are truly incomparable. The first edition of the Mishnah, printed in Naples in 1492. The earliest dated illustrated Haggadah printed in Prague in 1526. The first scientific book published in Portugal, a Hebrew-language mathematical treatise by Abraham Zacuto published in 1496. The first book ever printed in Turkey, a 1490 edition of the great code of Jewish law called the Arbaah Turim. The first book printed in Africa, a siddur printed in Fez in 1516. And the Trust owns a huge collection of broadsides—posters printed as a kind of public newspapers—from all over the world, one more interesting than the next, including one announcing the arrival of Shabbetai Tzvi, the false messiah who overtook the Jewish world in 1666. There’s no way I can describe the riches of the collection to you, but you can look at a little slide show at . And the brochure Sotheby’s printed is also available on-line at . Take the time to take a good look. You won’t be disappointed.

But what I can and want to describe to you was the crowd. The exhibition was packed. We were able to walk into the lobby and make it up to the exhibit fairly quickly, but I heard there were lines around the block yesterday just to get into the front door. What was interesting to me personally was the crowd itself. Regular looking people. Chassidic types from Williamsburg. Lots of kippot, but also lots of bare heads. Mostly adults, but a fair sprinkling of teenagers. A sense I have only rarely had of Jewish people from every corner of the Jewish world united not in their common inability truly to approve of anyone not belonging to their personal subcategory of Jewishness (our usual specialty!), but by their ineradicable love of Jewish books and, by extension, the reverence they felt for Jewish learning. I was struck by the sense of deep, almost palpable, camaraderie in the room, by a sense that these 13,000 books are testimony to what is truly great, and truly noble, in the Jewish soul: the love of learning that has manifested itself over these many generations in a level of veneration of the printed word that no other civilization can even approach. Is there a people in the world that loves its books as do we? I think not…and I felt that sentiment confirmed at Sotheby’s on Wednesday afternoon.

And I also had this strange feeling as I was wandering around from showcase to showcase and from room to room, the feeling that we at Shelter Rock are part of this story. Not mere consumers of other people’s books, we have begun to produce our own. Our own two-volume Siddur. Our own prayer book for the house of mourning. The guide to mitzvot for young people we published in memory of our late trustee and friend Jeff Segal called Riding the River of Peace. These all had press runs bigger than almost every one of the incunabula in the Valmadonna Trust Library! So, in some tiny way, we are part of this picture too. And we will continue to be part of it. You all know how involved I am, both emotionally and professionally, in the production of Jewish books. I have been an integral part of the Aviv Press family from the very beginning. (My Psalms was the first book Aviv published. My second Aviv book, The Boy on the Door on the Ox, just came out. I have their agreement to work on a third book too.) This notion that our future rests in our ability never to dilute the passion we bring to the making of books, to the dissemination not merely of information but of information in its sublimest, most enduring, and most aesthetically pleasing guise—by which I mean, the printed book, well bound and beautifully designed—this is one of the cornerstones of how I explain the eternal nature of the Jewish people to myself the most cogently. I feel myself to be part of the story. And I’m indescribably proud of the fact that we as a congregation are part of that story as well.

As I said before, I’m sorry that I can’t encourage all of you to go to see the Valmadonna. (The name comes from a town in Italy in which the owner, Jack Lunzer, owned some land right after the war. He sold the land, but kept the name for his library.) The exhibition is closed. But someone’s going to buy those books, which are being sold only as a full set of 13,000, not as individual volume. And that someone is undoubtedly going to be the kind of institution that will make it possible for members of the public to visit. I’ll make sure I know where you can go to see these treasures. And I’ll let you all know how to go about doing it. If I can, I’ll take you there myself!

In the end, King Kohelet was right: there really is no end to the making of books. That much, I surely knew already. But I was reminded on Wednesday that there is also no end to collecting them…or to the extent to which Jewish people can go to express their love of Jewish learning through the veneration of the Jewish book. (February 20, 2009)

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