Saving the Holy of Holies of Jewish Texts

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The rare books and manuscripts section, the holy of holies of the Jewish National and University Library on the campus of the Hebrew University at Givat Ram in Jerusalem, houses one of the most important collections of texts in the world. It includes original texts and archives of Albert Einstein, Maimonides, Isaac Newton, Stephan Zweig, Martin Buber and many others. But the two experts who visited there recently point out a series of shortcomings that are liable to endanger this valuable material.

The reports of the two experts came to light in the context of a legal proceeding in which Eitan Tal, the son of Israel Prize laureate composer Josef Tal, asked to receive possession of his father's papers, which were donated to the National Library before his death. In 1996, when Tal senior was 86 years old, he agreed to the request of Dr. Gila Flam, director of the Music Library in the National Library, to donate the collection of his writings and works, and he even signed an agreement to the effect that the library would receive his writings "as a gift, without compensation."

His son, Eitan Tal, says that the agreement was signed "at a meeting between two sides, in which only one of the parties was able to see. My father was almost totally blind at that point, so as far as I'm concerned there's reason to be surprised at the signature of a man in his condition, without the presence of a family member."

Ten years after that meeting, in the wake of an article in Haaretz about the state of preservation in the National Library, Prof. Tal, at his son's advice, decided to approach the library and to ask it to return the collection. The university's legal advisers explained to attorney Ilan Hacker, who represented Tal, that "there is no legal reason to return the donation, not according to law and not according to the contents of the agreement."

A year later, in June 2007, Hasia Rimon, the founder and director of the paper conservation and preservation laboratory in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, visited as an expert on behalf of the Tals. Ramon did not identify herself and asked to see the collection as a reader. The visit gave rise to a strongly-worded report about the level of preservation in the music library. She wrote, among other things, that "the window of the reading room was open and had no screen. This situation enables drastic changes in temperature and humidity. This situation also enables the entry of particles of pollution, gases, birds, insects, rodents and reptiles." She also claimed that "there is no system for monitoring air-conditioning or humidity," and that "the pages were stored vertically, in an unsuitable cardboard box, which is liable to increase the level of acidity in the air."

Separated collection

Last year Josef Tal passed away and his son Eitan continued with the legal process. The court appointed an expert on its behalf to examine the storage conditions of the collection - the director of the Paper Conservation Laboratory in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Michael Magen. Magen visited the music library and the rare books and manuscripts collection in March, along with Eitan Tal and National Library employees.

At the start of the visit the visitors found that the Tal collection had been unexpectedly transferred from the music library, which is being renovated, to the section for rare manuscripts.

"I see that my father's writings are situated between Buber and Einstein; of all the collections of the music library, only my father is here," said Tal. "I also see that all the other collections are stored upright on the shelves, and only my father's documents are stored lying down, with lots of space, with new cartons and stickers. Only when we opened the cartons did we see the old and acidic bindings. They simply put on a show for us, a deceptive maneuver."

The National Library rejects the claim, saying that the Tal collection and other collections from the Music Library were transferred because of the renovation and for reasons of conservation and accessibility.

However, Magen also raised an eyebrow at the location of the Tal collection on the day he visited; it was "situated on several shelves with a lot of space, unlike the other rare books and documents, which are tightly crammed between the shelves," he wrote in the report submitted to the court.

Magen warned of the absence of emergency procedures for rescuing the important collections in case of fire.

"Can the plaintiff promise the court that the National Library is immune to flooding or earthquakes, or to a fire, heaven forfend?" wrote Magen. He also complained that the National Library never carried out a standard report for every archive of value in the world, which explains the level of preservation on the site. In summary, Magen wrote of the rare books and manuscripts section: "I believe the standard of preservation and handling carried out by the plaintiffs with regard to the Tal collection is of mediocre to low standard."

Nor did he spare criticism of the Music Library (which really was undergoing renovations during the visit): "The collection is preserved in poor conditions, beneath any accepted professional standard. The situation in the archive bordered on lack of professionalism, and a failure to maintain these basic procedures could even be considered neglect."

The National Library claims in its defense, "The library did its best to preserve the collection in general and the Tal collection in particular, under the best possible conditions." The directors of the library claim that in Josef Tal's house "the materials lay crowded, wrinkled and out of order. When it arrived at the library the collection was disinfected, repacked, photographed and cataloged at an overall price of more than NIS 50,000."

The library would like to put the Tal collection in perspective. About a year ago a project to digitalize the music library collections began, including, among other things, from metal recordings from the 1930s, wax cylinders and even records that were engraved on used x-rays. In that sense, they say in the library, the Tal collection is relatively easy to preserve. As far as an emergency plan is concerned, they say, it is in the stages of preparation.

In the public interest

The judge, Orit Efaal-Gabay, did not order the university to return the father's collection to Tal. The Gift Law does not allow for the return of a gift to the donor, and the father signed an agreement. Tal says that the judge also took into account the public interest, because returning the collection is liable to harm the prestige of the library and cause other heirs to demand their collections. "The true public interest is that Einstein's and Buber's collections not be damaged," says Tal. "The prestige of the library is not more important than the welfare of the collections it preserves."

In a preliminary hearing held by Efaal-Gabay a month ago, an agreement was reached according to which Magen will be appointed as supervisor on behalf of the court to improve the storage conditions of the collection. In a year there will be a decision about continuing the discussion of the case, in light of the library's adherence to Magen's instructions.

Tal will also decide how to continue, depending on what is done in the coming year. He is still not waiving legal proceedings, but believes that his private struggle is likely "to lead to the beginning of a process of recovery at the National Library; I will consider that an important contribution to the preservation of culture."

The Hebrew University, which is in charge of the National Library, reports that in the coming years a new building will be constructed for the National Library, funded by the Yad Hanadiv Foundation, which will replace the outdated building and ensure the library's future. The university agreed that the storage conditions in the library are in need of improvement, but that they "are better than any other alternative existing in Israel. The library will continue to do everything it can in order to keep the cultural treasures of Israel within the borders of the country, and to improve the conditions of storage and preservation for the coming generations."



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