From Kafka to Newton, the Stories Behind the Books

How does the National Library in Jerusalem decide which treasures to acquire? Why is a priceless collection that was meant to arrive in 1917 still stuck in Russia? And how did the institution come to own Japanese Buddhist art?

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Scraps from Israeli Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon's masterpiece 'Shira' at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem.
Scraps from Israeli Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon's masterpiece 'Shira' at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem. Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The stories behind the rare items in a library are often just as interesting as the items themselves, says Dr. Aviad Stollman, the recently appointed head of collections at the National Library of Israel, in Jerusalem. Manuscripts from the likes of Isaac Newton, Franz Kafka, Moses Maimonides and – of local vintage – the poets Lea Goldberg and Naomi Shemer, important as they are, did not arrive at the library by special delivery.

Behind each manuscript lies a tale, and above them all hovers Stollman, a 40-year-old academic and rabbi, who has to make tough decisions every day.

“Our mission, under the law, is to document the Jewish people,” he says. “But we can’t document everything. We have to ask what’s most important.”

That’s a difficult task, even after the library’s adoption, last year, of a new “collection development policy,” which set the core spheres that will get the most attention: Judaism and the Jewish world, and Israel.

Franz Kafka, notebook with Hebrew-German world list. Photo: Ido Bruno

Stollman gets occasional visits from collectors bearing manuscripts for sale. Before making a decision, he studies the items and consults with experts. “Scholars will usually tell you, ‘Buy, buy, buy – it’s an extremely important item.’ But the budget is limited, and I have to check whether the item is one that Haaretz will write about – in other words, whether its interest and importance transcend the scholarly realm,” Stollman explains.

Recently, for example, two well-known, veteran manuscript dealers – “foxes,” Stollman dubs them – came to see him. They wanted $8,500 for a manuscript, part of which documents a 19th-century pogrom in which 24 Jews were murdered.

“It’s the only written documentation of the event, so the value increases,” Stollman notes. On the other hand, he adds, “for the same amount of money I can buy hundreds of other items.”

No such qualms arise when a manuscript is of “national importance,” such as a Passover Hagaddah from 1482 from Spain, a ninth-century Syriac translation of the Bible written on parchment, or a 12th-century commentary on the Mishna by Maimonides, the medieval rabbi and physician.

Maimonides’ 12th-century commentary on the Mishna. Photo: Ido Bruno

But sacred writings are not the only items on Stollman’s shopping list. Kafka’s Hebrew notebook also became a national asset of the State of Israel. “Its research importance is not all that great,” Stollman admits, but it is priceless in museum and national terms.

Kafka, a secular Jew from Prague and one of the seminal authors of the 20th century, wrote in German. He never visited Palestine, but in his last years he took Hebrew lessons from a young teacher from Jerusalem, and became interested in Judaism and the Zionist movement. A look into his Hebrew notebook is an extraordinarily thrilling experience. Here are words such as hishtomem (“was astonished”), ragua (“calm”) and ratuv (“wet”) – all in the handwriting of the tormented author.

Though presently situated on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University, the National Library, founded in 1892, is slated to move in 2017 to a new building nearby, across the road from the Knesset. That will be the final stage in the revolution the institution has undergone in recent years: from a small research facility catering to relatively few researchers and scholars, it will become “a meeting place for scholars, intellectuals, and artists, and a site of vibrant cultural creativity based on the treasures housed in its collections,” according to the library’s vision.

Toward that end, the library recently established a “Global Forum of the National Library,” whose members are “prominent leaders and creative thinkers from among the Jewish people and the world at large,” in the library’s words. The forum met this week in Jerusalem to discuss the institution’s core concerns.

In some cases, the decision about whether to acquire a manuscript goes all the way to the board of directors. “We spend millions of shekels a year on acquisitions,” Stollman says. “There is a constant tension between the desire to own a large number of ‘products’ – like a supermarket – and the desire to be a kind of boutique, which is very selective. After all, we are not a regular library, we are a national museum of the book.”

A case in point is the library’s decision last year to purchase a 13th-century manuscript of the Seder Selihot, a penitential liturgy for the High Holy Days, from Germany for hundreds of thousands of shekels.

Stollman: “A German community used this prayer book for hundreds of years, until Kristallnacht [the pogrom of November 1938 across Germany]. Even though we had a photocopy of the manuscript, we decided to purchase it, because it is essential for an item like this to be preserved in Israel. In the end, our role goes beyond supplying information.”

There are, however, cases in which the library decides to forgo the acquisition of a physical item and make do with scanning and digitizing. “For 500,000 shekels [$135,000], I can buy one book or scan a whole collection, of hundreds of manuscripts, situated in a different country,” he explains.

“Old-fashioned people say that ‘it’s not worth it’ if you don’t have the original, but we have undergone a paradigm shift,” Stollman says, adding, “Sometimes it’s more correct to have a digital copy.”

Still, there are items whose originals he would be delighted to have in the library. One example is the Ginzburg collection, which belonged to an aristocratic Jewish-Russian family that began collecting items in the mid-19th century. The trove holds about 2,000 ancient manuscripts, many in Hebrew, including copies of letters sent by Maimonides, biblical exegeses, grammar books, medieval poetry and works of kabbalah.

At the National Library. Photo: Ido Bruno

In May 1917, the Jewish National Library (the forerunner of the present institution) signed a contract with parties in Russia to buy the collection for half a million rubles. The acquisition was funded by donations from Russian Zionists, and when the money was delivered, the books and manuscripts were packed into crates. But the shipment was delayed during World War I, and when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out, the Soviet authorities seized the books and sent them to the Lenin Library in Moscow.

Developments in World War I, however, caused a delay in the shipment to Palestine. During the Bolshevik Revolution, the books were seized, nationalized and deposited in the Lenin State Library in Moscow. Over the course of the past century, public figures ranging from Albert Einstein and Chaim Weizmann to Benjamin Netanyahu, have attempted over the last half century to persuade the Russians to turn over the collection, but in vain.

Jews are not the National Library’s only topic of interest. Japanese Buddhist creations are also on its list of holdings. This is a relic of an era that ended in 2007, when it was decided not to develop the Far Eastern collection, which was considered no longer relevant to Israel’s national library.

Here, too, there is a fascinating background story. In 2012, a researcher of Japanese art from the Hebrew University asked to borrow Japanese Buddhist paintings from the library’s collection. Initially the librarians didn’t know what she was talking about. But the researcher insisted that she had read about the paintings in the catalog of a 1938 exhibition of Far Eastern art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. After a search, the library’s personnel tracked down the items.

It then turned out that the collection of some 140 paintings had been donated to the library by a British woman named Elizabeth Anna Gordon (1851-1925), who studied Buddhism in Japan. The National Library’s website notes that Gordon was also “a deeply believing Christian as well as a stout supporter of the Zionist movement. She had adopted a belief, quite common at the time in England, that the British were descendants of the tribe of Judah, and was also taken up with a theory prevalent among some in Japan, that the Japanese are the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel.”

In 1903, it was Gordon who funded the Zionist mission that went to Africa to explore the feasibility of what became known as the “Uganda Plan.” “The bequest of part of her collection to the National Library was no doubt inspired by these deep beliefs,” the website notes. The library recently set out, in cooperation with the University of Zurich and Hosei University in Tokyo, to scan the whole collection.

Lost documents

Another collection of a non-Jew that found its way to the National Library consists of the writings of the great scientist Isaac Newton. The English physicist and mathematician (1643-1727), was also interested in alchemy, ancient history and calculations of the end of the world. Newton devoted great efforts to trying to decipher sacred texts of ancient cultures, which he believed contained encrypted knowledge. These nonscientific writings by Newton were sold at auction in London in 1936. One of the purchasers was Abraham Shalom Yahuda, a scholar who, before his death, in 1951, willed the writings he owned, including those of Newton, to the State of Israel.

Isaac Newton, 'Notes on the Jewish Temple.' Photo: Ido Brunof

In contrast to the Judaism collection, which the library continues to enrich by means of purchases, additions to the Israel collection come mainly from donations. “We are not willing to pay for such collections. We believe that it is an honor to be represented in the National Library, and we also spend a great deal of money in handling the material we receive,” says Dr. Hezi Amiur, the curator of the Israel collection.

As an example of one collection of documents lost because of this policy, he cites the case of the celebrated Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, who died in 2000, and whose archive was sold by the family to Yale University for $200,000. “The National Library declined to pay for it,” he says, and as a result of the sale, “research on Amichai is quite limited today, because very few people [in this field] get to Yale.”

Faithful to a new policy set in the past few years, Amiur does not accept every collection that’s offered. “Contrary to many archives, which say yes to everything and then don’t find the time to deal with them, we take genuine care of every archive we receive. That’s why we accept few archives and turn down others,” he points out.

Some prominent intellectuals systematically turn over parts of their private archives to the National Library, Amiur notes, and these are available to the public and often in great demand. Others have signed an agreement bequeathing their intellectual estate to the library after their death. From time to time, for example, the writer Haim Be’er (born 1945) prepares crates of material – readers’ letters, correspondence with other writers and more – for collection from his home by staff of the National Library. The poet Haim Gouri (born 1923) is also on the archival list; S.Y. Agnon and S. Yizhar made similar bequests in their lifetime.

“Nowadays there are fewer manuscripts, because people use computers, so we archive the writers’ computers,” Amiur says. A well-known writer recently asked him to come to his home and “download the whole computer, including all the earlier versions of my writings and my correspondence.” That, Amiur observes, is “modern archival management.” An agreement was recently signed with the historian of the Holocaust Saul Friedländer, an Israel Prize laureate who lives in the United States, to transfer his material to the library.

Other Israeli writers, such as Devorah Omer and Naomi Shemer, have had their archives perpetuated in the National Library posthumously, as per the request of their families. The library invited the families to visit, and they were impressed by the handling of the items. “These people possess historical awareness and know the importance of preserving the materials,” Amiur says.

Not all the library’s officials are eager to comply when asked to rank items according to their importance. Who is to say whether a rare, 11th-century prayer book is more important or interesting than an unpublished poem or song from the estate of Lea Goldberg or Naomi Shemer? And why is it even necessary to decide whether a Koran from Iran is more rare than Kafka’s Hebrew notebook (which was a gift from the writer’s Palestinian-born teacher)?

Nevertheless, an internal document titled “National Library List of Highlights” sets forth 45 archival items that the institution’s officials want to showcase. There’s a letter Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to his wife, Constanze, in 1790, dealing with their financial problems. A collection of Napoleon-related documents from 1798, including letters and personal orders, describes the conquest of Egypt. Letters written by Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 talk about his trial and his time in prison. Also on the list is a humorous letter written by the poet Hayyim Nachman Bialik in 1897, the year of the First Zionist Congress, in which he spoofs Theodor Herzl and his plans to obtain a charter from the Ottomans for the Jews to settle in Palestine; and an unfriendly letter Herzl sent in 1903 to the writer Stefan Zweig, who was an early editor of Zweig’s at the Neue Freie Presse.

Of course, some of these manuscripts, too, come with a special story. For example, in 1909, shortly before his death, Naftali Herz Imber, who wrote the text of “Hatikvah,” which became Israel’s national anthem, penned the words of the earlier, shorter version – the original of which is in the National Library’s collection – on a medical form in the New York hospital to which he was confined, at the request of a woman who recognized him.

The library has a scorched manuscript of an early work by Nobel Prize laureate S.Y. Agnon, which was rescued from the fire that destroyed most of the rest of his manuscripts and rare book collection in Germany in 1924. Also in the archive is a draft of his novel “Shira,” which Agnon threw into the wastebasket and from there into the fireplace of his Jerusalem home in 1969. It was salvaged by his son before Agnon could burn it.

The list of highlights also includes a Hebrew Bible written on thin parchment in 1350 in Spain, from where it was taken by Jews expelled in 1492, to the Ottoman Empire and thence to Damascus. About 20 years ago, it was taken out of Syria by the Canadian human rights activist Judy Feld Carr, who brought it to the Israeli ambassador to Canada – and from Ottawa it was sent on to Jerusalem.

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