Almost Everything Is Illuminated

Yeshiva University Museum exhibit features a dazzling array
of mostly hand-written Hebrew books.

03/18/2010
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About six years ago, the curator Sharon L. Mintz was looking for rare printed Talmuds for an exhibit she was organizing at the Yeshiva University Museum. She came across the name of a little-known collector in Switzerland who said he could help. Mintz was flown out to the private home of the collector, but discovered that he had much more than Talmuds.
 
“It was probably — no, not probably — it is the most important collection of decorated Hebrew manuscripts in private hands,” Mintz recalled recently. “I’ve never seen a collection like that in my life.”
 
Now about one quarter of the roughly 600 books in that collection, held by the Swiss financier Rene Braginsky, will be on view to the public. The exhibit, titled “A Journey Through Jewish Worlds,” which opens on Sunday (March 21) at the Yeshiva University Museum, features a dazzling array of mostly hand-written Hebrew books — Haggadahs, Bibles, Megillot, ketubahs and more — some more than 700 years old. And from a collection few even knew existed.
 
“I thought, you know, maybe one day we should show this to the public,” Braginsky said of his decision to showcase his collection, in a telephone interview from Switzerland. He came to that conclusion after he lent four Talmuds to the exhibit Mintz mounted in 2005. Five years later, with the help of leading scholars and the production of a cutting-edge Web site that features digitized copies of every page of the exhibit’s 130 books, the show is nearly complete.
 
On a recent visit to the museum, located at the Center for Jewish History, ornately carved wooden cases of Megillot (Scrolls of Esther) stood on a cheap folding table, covered in plastic, awaiting their final display. Walls near the entrance were lined with 24 ketubahs, or wedding contracts, some illustrated with tiny lute players that looked like something by Watteau. And just inside the main glass doors stood an encased display of a hand-written Hebrew Bible from 15th-century Spain.
 
“It was begun in Spain, in 1491,” said Gabriel Goldstein, the museum’s associate director of exhibitions who also helped organize the show. “But it was completed six years later, in Portugal.”  He said that while the Bible may not be the most visually appealing in the show, it captures the exhibit’s theme — the journey of the Jewish people through strange and foreign lands, as told by their books.
 
The Spanish Bible was begun a year before Jews were expelled from Spain, in 1492, and completed just before they were expelled again from Portugal, in 1497. “It [shows] this tiny little window before the end of Iberian Jewry,” Goldstein said as he peered through a Plexiglas case.
 
Braginsky has been acquiring rare Jewish texts for three decades, but has kept a low profile. He rarely appears in person at auctions, and instead hires someone to do his bidding for him. Many of his acquisitions are based on his own aesthetic tastes, however, which tend heavily toward the richly-colored and gold-leafed, but over the years he has enlisted the help of a noted Israeli scholar and distant relative, Menahem Schmelzer, to guide his search.
 
To winnow Braginsky’s collection down to exhibit size, Schmelzer asked several other scholars with an expertise in the collection’s strongest holdings. Over the past two years, the team has been flown out to Geneva to help catalogue the extensive holdings that even Braginsky says he did not know was so valuable. “I bought books that I liked; that’s why there’s so many illuminated manuscripts,” Braginsky said, adding, “I wasn’t aware that my collection was of this importance.”
 
Though Braginsky’s collection is far from the largest — for comparison, the Valmadonna collection, which drew a record number of visitors last winter when it was auctioned by Sotheby’s, had over 13,000 items — it has the highest concentration of noted hand-written or decorated texts in private ownership. When Mintz first met the other scholars in Geneva, they soon realized that limiting an exhibit to only 130 items would itself be an arduous task. “We all turned to each other and said, ‘We really can’t do this,’” Mintz recalled. “There is no B-plus here.”
 
Emile Schrivjer, curator of the Rothentaliana collection of rare Jewish books at the Amsterdam University Library, one of the world’s largest collections of rare Jewish books, helped stage its initial display in Amsterdam before it came to New York. And after it closes here on July 11, it heads to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
 
But it is especially a boon for New Yorkers, who are currently surrounded by several notable exhibitions devoted to illuminated books. (“Illuminated” refers to texts decorated in gold- or silver-leaf.) Jacob Wisse, director of the Yeshiva University Museum, noted the success of exhibits devoted to the Book of Hours, one now at Morgan Library and Museum and another at The Met.
 
“I think people have become much more sensitive to the beauty of hand-written objects,” he said. But he admitted that 500-year-old books still may not immediately grab one’s attention: “Perhaps the beauty of Jewish manuscripts people may not be aware of, but we’re hoping this exhibit will change that.”
 
Mintz’s main job is curator of Jewish art at the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, but she also does consulting for Sotheby’s Judaica collections. In that role she helped curate and appraise the Valmadonna collection, which was valued at around $40 million. Only a few of Braginsky’s items were bought for more than $1 million — among them a 13th-century book of Jewish law, written in Switzerland, and a 19th-century Passover Haggadah, likely made for the Rothschilds in Paris.
 
But it is not hard to see her enthusiasm for this collection and the opportunity its owner has made possible — not to cash it in for money, but to solicit scholars for its display in public. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “It doesn’t happen often and it’s not likely to happen again anytime soon.”
 
Walking through the unfinished exhibit halls, Mintz dodged cans of paint and bubble-wrap strewn on the floor to get to some of her favorite pieces. She pointed to a small Italian “miscellany,” or hodgepodge of prayers, poems and ritual law, probably written around the end of the 15th century. The book shows a husband putting a ring on his wife’s finger, both of them dressed in typical Renaissance garb — the groom in red stockings and a puff-sleeved tunic; the bride in a flowing fuschia dress. “It’s an integration really of contemporary culture and Jewish culture,” Mintz said. “It shows how Jews were such a part of the time.”
 
Other pieces stuck out too: a simple, if elegant, gold-leafed ketubah from 19th-century India; another from a similar date found in Crimea, and produced by the renegade community known as the Karaites, which split off from the dominant forms of Judaism in the ninth century. There was a Baghdadi Megillah near the front section whose brightly colored border texts, in orange and green, meticulously counted ancient Jewish lineages. And near the back, a tiny Venetian miscellany from the 18th century was yet another Mintz favorite. Smaller than a deck of cards, it had drawn in its pages what seemed like a circus display of specimens — crudely drawn Africans, strange plants, exotic beasts.
 
Those images betrayed the book’s origins. In 18th-century Europe, the art of hand-decorating books underwent a revival as wealthy collectors went looking for ways to venerate religious texts. The printing press made books much cheaper and more common, so wealthy patrons were willing to pay artists top dollar for old-fashioned hand-illustrated texts. Not surprisingly, they wanted illustrations that reflected their interests, and black Africans and striped tigers — rare sights in Austria, except for those wealthy enough to travel — epitomized those tastes.
 
“What’s interesting is the way in which the Jews adopted and adapted the images of the lands in which they were in,” Mintz noted. But before she went on, she stopped herself. “Each one of these has a story I can go on and on about,” she said. It was getting late, she had to run and there was still work to be done. “The last three books are coming in tonight,” Goldstein said as he hurried Mintz and a reporter out the door. Then the show could finally open. n
 
“A Journey Through Jewish Worlds: Highlights from the Braginsky Collection of Hebrew Manuscripts and Printed Books” will be on display at the Yeshiva University Museum beginning on Sunday, March 21. Closes July 11. The museum is located inside the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St., (212) 294-8301.

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