An inside look at the Library of Congress’s Hebrew treasures

Why collecting books in Hebrew and other languages is essential for the U.S. to be ‘a country of great scholars’

Prior to March 2020, anyone could walk into the Library of Congress and take a tour of its magnificent Jefferson Building, the institution’s ornate main building located across from the U.S. Capitol and next to the Supreme Court. It houses just a fraction of the Library’s collection of millions of volumes, but the books stored in the Jefferson Building are some of the oldest and most precious. 

Visitors enter into the soaring foyer and get to look at some of the Library’s temporary and permanent exhibits, including Thomas Jefferson’s personal library — the gift that officially launched the Library of Congress after British troops burned down the small congressional library in 1812. But many of the treasures at the Library live behind closed doors, under lock and key and the watchful eyes of librarians with advanced degrees and decades of experience. 

As the national library of the United States, members of the public are able to request to see these books. No advance notice is necessary. When a man and his teenage son were on a tour some years before the pandemic, the son asked what the oldest book at the Library was. The docent told him about cuneiform tablets that are several thousand years old, and sent him to the African and Middle Eastern reading room, where he could ask to see the tablets.

“I brought two boxes down and showed it to them and gave them the abbreviated spiel about cuneiform tablets. The son was very interested in it,” recalled Sharon Horowitz, a senior reference librarian at the Library. “The father said to me, ‘What a great country, I can just come in here. I’m basically a nobody. And I’m here for a trip with my son, and I can ask to see this stuff.’”

The tablets are just a small piece of the Library of Congress’s sprawling collection of books from around the world. At a time when millennia-old pieces of cultural history are being destroyed by everything from war to weather, the artifacts in the Library of Congress serve as a reminder of the crucial role the institution plays as a protector of books and civilizations.

Although tours have recently resumed at the Library of Congress, visitors can no longer show up at a reference desk unannounced, asking to see archival treasures. But in an interview last week in a sun-filled, empty reading room, Horowitz and Hebraic specialist Ann Brener showed Jewish Insider some of the Hebraic section’s most important books, including some of the oldest printed Hebrew books to be found anywhere in the world. Many books in the collection ​​bear the scars of Jews’ painful journeys in Europe touched off by the Inquisition and the Holocaust. 

A selection of illustrated Hebrew children’s books published soon after the Russian Revolution.

“If you’re going to be a country of great scholars, you can’t really be parochial in your outlook, and the Library of Congress is now the largest library in the world, with all languages and all subjects,” Brener said. The section is known for its Hebrew and Yiddish books, although it also has books in related languages such as Ladino and Aramaic. “You’re asking why Hebrew, but the point is, why not?”

Being the largest library in the world, with an unparalleled collection of books, was not the Library’s original purpose. It was created to serve members of Congress, who remain the only people who can check out its books. “There is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer,” Jefferson said when he sold his personal library. 

From the marketplaces of Iraq to the halls of Washington

The Hebraic section was established in 1912, when financier and philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff, a German Jewish immigrant, donated nearly 10,000 books and pamphlets to the Library. 

Unless you were extremely wealthy, “there were many things you absolutely could not buy today,” Brener explained, noting that the items had been collected by a prominent bookseller named Ephraim Deinard. “He went wandering into the marketplaces of Iraq. He went to people’s basements. That’s how you collected manuscripts and books in those old days. It’s all different now.”

That early-20th-century donation was not just a lucky get for the Library. It came at a time of international expansion for the institution. 

“This was a period when great international collections entered the Library. The emperor of Japan donated thousands and thousands of books. Just after the revolution in Russia, we got a tremendous amount of Russian books from the czar’s library,” said Brener. “Back then, they were just building up the cultural life in America and they wanted scholars to have access to things in other languages that they wouldn’t have otherwise.” 

Now, the Library’s collection of Hebraic books is maintained by professional “book dealers,” who purchase relevant books. 

For staff of the Hebraic section, acquisitions have an additional complication: ensuring the books don’t have “Nazi provenance” —  that they were not stolen by Nazis during World War II. “The minute you get anything from Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, all the red flags go up,” Brener noted.

Brener picked up a book of Yiddish poetry, “the most exquisite artist book, by a woman in Poland.” (An artist book is the work of a visual artist who uses the form of a book as inspiration but interprets the term creatively.) The Library acquired the book just a few weeks ago, but because it was purchased by a bookseller in Hungary, the Library had “several committees to go through to make sure the provenance was OK,” she noted. 

A global Jewish language

The Library’s collection spans geographies and time periods, with massive 15th-century tomes of Biblical commentary, religious texts from places like Bologna and Safed and illustrated Hebrew children’s books from the early days of the Russian Revolution. What unites the books in the collection is their use of Hebrew. Visitors to the Hebraic section won’t find anything written in German or Polish, English or Arabic. 

“Let’s say that a merchant from Cairo had to talk with a merchant from Naples. What language do they speak? Hebrew. That was the common language,” said Brener.

One 15th-century book at the Library is a medical textbook, printed in Hebrew and translated from Arabic, which had first been translated from Greek. The heavy volume is bound in leather that folds shut in the front, a style known as “envelope binding” that was common with Arabic books. “This is the only one we have in Hebrew,” Brener remarked. 

It is one of the earliest Hebrew printed books, one of just 175 or so known to be printed before 1500. Jews had read books and other documents before the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, but they were previously written by hand, an onerous process that made procuring books more difficult and expensive. 

The medical book was printed in Naples in 1491, at a brief moment of respite for Jews in Europe. “It was an independent kingdom ruled by a king who’s the cousin of the evil King Ferdinand, but he was the good cousin,” said Brener, referring to the king who presided over the Spanish Inquisition. “He’s the one who welcomed the Jews in when they were kicked out of his cousin’s kingdom. Some went to Constantinople, some went to Naples. They established a golden age there. At one time there were three Hebrew printing presses in the city. Can you imagine?”

Brener then pointed to a 16th century book, another large volume and the first book printed in the Ottoman Empire in Hebrew. Printed in Safed, this was a commentary on the Book of Esther, which is read every year on Purim. 

“We have a theory about why they chose the subject of Esther, of all things for, for a first book,” Brener explained. “The people who were living in Safed, they had fled Spain. They had been forced to flee or forced to become Catholics, or to pretend that they were Catholics when they were really Jews. And I think they felt a deep connection to this Biblical story because it is really the story of Esther, and she was like them. She was forced to hide her Judaism. She had to pretend to be something else.”

The Library also has handwritten books, and Brener delicately picked up a tiny prayer book from the mid-18th century in Mainz, Germany. Each page was about an inch-by-1.5 inches, with text that in some cases could only be read under a magnifying glass. The artist Joseph ben Meir Schmalkalden wrote and illustrated the book, a collection of nighttime prayers. It was purchased as a man’s gift to his wife. “We think she wanted jewelry,” Horowitz joked. 

One of the Library’s most unique collections is a set of Hebrew children’s books published by a Russian printer following the Russian Revolution in 1917. By this point, use of Hebrew in Eastern Europe was a political proposition — Jews were immigrating to Mandatory Palestine, and the Zionist project required the revival of the Hebrew language. 

Shoshana Persitz, daughter of one of the wealthiest Jewish men in Moscow, created Omanut (Hebrew for “art”) Press at the age of 24. “They were a family that were very passionately involved with the renaissance of the Hebrew language,” said Brener.

She began printing children’s books in thebrief period when the Jews felt like there was real hope for them — the czar is gone, they’re going to be equal citizens in this new Russian utopia that everyone was talking about,” Brener explained. 

For about six months until the Bolsheviks nationalized the printing press in Russia, Omanut Press produced a beautiful collection of children’s books, the very first children’s books published in Hebrew. The books have bright colors and Jewish motifs. One tells the story of a dreidel, the Hanukkah toy; in another, a Tree of Life features prominently. 

When the Bolsheviks arrived, Persitz and her colleagues “picked up the press, and their manuscript, and they fled to Odessa in the Ukraine.” The move bought them two more years, a period that saw Persitz collaborate with people who would become some of the best-known Zionist writers, such as Ahad Ha’am and Hayim Nahman Bialik. 

“They’re Zionist in that they are preparing young children to feel at home in Hebrew, to make it into their mother language,” said Brener. “She was doing beautiful children’s literature where there had never been children’s literature at all. It’s considered a national priority, which is why they’re able to get people like Bialik.”

Protector of literature 

While the Library of Congress considers the collection of books like this to be in the national interest, the Library also serves another purpose: preserving texts that otherwise would have long been destroyed and forgotten. The cautionary tale is the fateful destruction of the ancient Library of Alexandria, which wiped out the world’s hub of scholarship. But smaller-scale versions of that tragedy continue to take place. 

“Those children’s books have survived in the United States because when people are running for their lives, they don’t usually take children’s books with them,” Brener noted. 

Nazis famously burned books and libraries. In the 1990s, Bosnian Serbs attacked the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was destroyed completely in the resulting fire. 

“Our colleague who is from Somalia, which was undergoing a terrible revolution — their libraries were entirely destroyed in past years. But here in the Library of Congress, those collections have survived,” said Brener. “Only here. And the same is true for other places.” Like, for instance, Ethiopia, which is undergoing a violent civil war. The Library maintains a large collection of Amharic books. 

“A Quiet Row of Women” uses Russian nesting dolls to show the American-Israeli artist Andi Arnovitz’s grandmothers and greatgrandmothers. An accompanying artist book features a poem by Dalia Kaveh.

In the Hebraic section, Brener, Horowitz and their colleagues do not stop only with historical volumes. They have thousands of modern Hebrew titles, as well as art books by Israeli artists. Brener pointed to a large book by Israeli artist Avner Moriah — a limited edition illuminated Bible, with modern interpretations on famous stories like the Tower of Babel and the Golden Calf. She had displayed the book next to one of the earliest printed versions of the Bible, “a difference of about 500 and some years.”

It has become rather trendy for members of Congress and other political appointees to request a book like this for their official swearing-in. “It’s gotten to be a big status symbol to request a non-standard thing to be sworn in on,” said Horowitz. “Some people request a very old edition of the Constitution. That’s apparently OK. Muslim members of Congress request very old editions of the Quran. So the Library of Congress, on swearing-in day, brings a whole cart of things.”

One of the most high-profile moments for the Hebraic Section came earlier this year, when White House science advisor Eric Lander requested a 1492 version of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers, for his swearing-in with Vice President Kamala Harris. 

“Our congressional liaison emails me and says, ‘We have a White House request for this book. I know it’s a rare book. You’re never going to loan it. But I have to ask for it anyway,’” she recalled. “But Dr. Lander had already emailed with Ann and permission was already given.”

At his swearing-in ceremony, Harris asked Lander to explain why he had selected the book. 

“For me and thinking about an oath of office, I thought about values, and what are my values, the administration’s values, what are we all here trying to do?” Lander said. “There’s a very special concept in Jewish tradition called tikkun olam, the repairing of the world.” He pointed to the page to which the book was open, noting that “there’s a specific line that comes in the Jewish tradition that contains that obligation. And it’s right here at this point on this page.”

For most Americans, as long as the pandemic persists, watching YouTube videos of government swearings-in or browsing the Library’s website will have to suffice. But when the reading rooms reopens, Brener and Horowitz will stand by, ready to offer any ordinary visitor a glimpse of the collection’s Hebraic treasures.

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