A Book Collector, a Community Leader and a Doctor: Three of COVID’s Latest Victims

A hunter of Jewish manuscripts, a doting doctor and the first settler in an East Jerusalem neighborhood are three of the recent victims of the coronovirus, which has caused the death of more than 4,000 people in Israel

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ezra Gorodesky at his home in Jerusalem, in 2012. His extraordinary collection includes hundreds of passages from Jewish manuscripts, which he extracted from the binding of other books.
Ezra Gorodesky at his home in Jerusalem, in 2012. His extraordinary collection includes hundreds of passages from Jewish manuscripts, which he extracted from the binding of other books.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Ezra Gorodesky said three years ago that he suffered from “a rare disease.” He wasn’t talking about a physical ailment, but was referring to his obsession with collecting. “Apparently we’re talking about an incurable disease,” he said.

His collection is indeed unusual. It includes hundreds of sections of Jewish manuscripts that he unearthed from the bindings of other books. He donated the collection that resulted to Israel’s National Library.

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Gorodesky, who never married, died from the coronavirus earlier this month, aged 91. Acquaintances said he had suffered a fracture a few months earlier and entered a nursing home, where he contracted the virus.

For hundreds of years, Europeans would use the pages of Jewish books – among them medieval works that had been confiscated by the Church – to bind new books. Gorodesky specialized in finding these bindings and opening them to reveal what was hiding in them.

When he was around eight years old, the Philadelphia native saw his grandfather open a book binding to find a piece of newspaper, which inspired him to do this himself. All told he opened nearly 2,000 bindings and had 200 major finds. He immigrated to Israel in the 1960s and managed his collection – which included numerous other types of artifacts – from a small apartment in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood. He would acquire bindings from used book stores and used book dealers. “I’d say I’m only looking for the bindings and they’d think I’ve gone crazy,” he told Nir Hasson, in a 2012 interview for Haaretz.

His findings, which included copies of Passover Haggadot, marriage contracts, prayers, sections of the Bible, and texts that gave insight into daily life, were very valuable and he could have sold some of them for a high price, but he preferred to donate them to the library. “The chevra kadisha [burial society] doesn’t let you take anything with you,” he said to Hasson with a smile.

Ezra Gorodesky at his home in Jerusalem, in 2012.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

A doting doctor

Dr. Maher Gantos, an orthopedist who lived in Sakhnin, died last week of COVID-19 at the age of 56. He left a wife, also a doctor, and three children, one of them a doctor as well. His family said he had no underlying conditions and that he scrupulously observed the coronavirus guidelines.

“He was always remarking to people who were not wearing a mask or were violating any of the rules,” his cousin, Alaa, said. “In the end his mother came down with the coronavirus, and he took care of her until he was himself infected. His condition deteriorated until we lost him, a few months before he was to move into a new house.”

Mohammed al-Jabar, a resident of the town in the lower Galilee where Gantos lived, distributed food to the poor on Monday in his memory. “You always asked people how they were doing and if they needed anything,” Jabar said, eulogizing Gantos. “You donated to needy families without hesitation, and today I am distributing food baskets in your memory, my beloved doctor. I hope you end up in heaven, because you were a human being first, and only then a doctor.”

Neighborhood leader

Shlomo Zalman Kolman was among the first to settle in the Shimon Hatzadik area of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. No Jews had lived there since 1948, having abandoned it during the War of Independence and the subsequent division of the city. During the 1990s, Jews started to move back to the overwhelmingly Arab neighborhood. According to Jerusalem city councilman Yonatan Yosef, Kolman was “the first settler in the reviving neighborhood,” and volunteered to move immediately after the first structure there was purchased, “without water or electricity.”

His acquaintances said he was a leading figure in the Shimon Hatzadik community, named for the burial cave of the sage located in the vicinity. He also helped rehabilitate the Sambusky Jewish cemetery on the eastern and southern slopes of Mount Zion.

Kolman died Sunday, aged 43, in a coronavirus hotel, where he was staying after returning from Ukraine, where he had attended a memorial event for Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Habad Hasidism.

Kolman was born in London and came to Israel when he was three with his family, who settled in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem. He left a wife and daughter.

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