Octogenarian Hunts for Rare Hebrew Manuscripts Hidden in Book Bindings

Some say this European treasure house rivals the Cairo Geniza - the most important trove of Jewish documents ever found.

For more than 70 years, Ezra Gorodesky has been ripping apart books. Recently, the National Library even held a gala event to honor his vandalism.

Gorodesky, of course, does not destroy for the sake of destruction, but in order to reveal the treasures hidden in their bindings. To date, he has discovered hundreds of rare manuscripts, most of which he has donated to the National Library.

For hundreds of years, from the 16th to the 18th century, the norm in Europe was to use paper and parchment from existing books to make bindings for new ones. In many cases, the original books were medieval Hebrew manuscripts confiscated by the Church. In recent decades, researchers have devoted increasing efforts to trying to find these hidden treasures.

Gorodesky, 83, a religious Jew born in Philadelphia who now lives in Jerusalem, specializes in finding old books and taking them apart to see what lies inside. He says he has taken apart some 2,000 books to date. Of these, fewer than 200 have produced important findings.

Altogether, thousands of pages of Hebrew books, manuscripts, letters and other documents have been found in the bindings of newer books. Some say this European treasure house rivals the Cairo Geniza - the most important trove of Jewish documents ever found - and have even nicknamed it the "Italian Geniza."

"After the discovery of the Cairo Geniza in the late 19th century, the discovery of a similar geniza," or depository of Jewish documents, "in Europe was the dream of the continent's scholars," wrote Prof. Mauro Perani of the University of Bologna in a booklet explaining an exhibition on the "Italian Geniza" at the National Library. "But the damp climate and the widespread Jewish custom of burying their worn-out books in cemeteries caused thousands of manuscripts to rot away and be lost."

Ironically, however, the Jews' bitterest enemies wound up preserving these manuscripts when the Jews themselves did not. The Inquisition confiscated Jewish books in order to destroy them. But it ultimately gave some to printers who used them to make bindings for new books, thereby preserving them.

The documents found to date have included beautifully decorated ketubahs (marriage contracts ), pages from unknown versions of holy books, notaries' records, and very rare pages from the first volumes of the Torah to be printed in Italy.

Finding old books and opening up their bindings is just a small part of Gorodesky's enormous collecting enterprise, all conducted from his tiny, 1.5-room apartment. He has a rare collection of tea tins from the 19th century onward, along with books about tea. He also has a button collection, whose latest addition - an engraved wooden button in the shape of a man - was sent from New York just a few days ago.

Most of his collections have been donated to 14 institutions in Israel and abroad, including the Israel Museum and the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design (which got the button collection ). Even so, his tiny house looks ready to burst at the seams. Half the bed and a single chair are clear; all the rest is covered in books, papers and other objects.

"I was seven or eight the first time I saw my grandfather open a book binding," he recalls. "About a year later, I took an old book and opened it, and found a piece of newspaper, and that got me started."

He gets his old books from used book stores and used book dealers. "In the stores, I say I'm only looking for the bindings, and they think I've gone crazy."

The bindings are carefully opened in his crowded kitchen. He first immerses the entire binding in water, which dissolves most of the old glue. Then, if necessary, he uses alcohol or other chemicals to dissolve the rest. "The longer it takes, the better your chances of success," he says.

Sometimes, people come to him and ask him to open bindings for them.

His most exciting discoveries include two letters written to Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famed 16th-century kabbalist, about commercial affairs. Another letter he found mentions Abraham de Castro, who headed the Jewish community in Egypt in the 16th century. He has also found pages from the Haggadah, ketubahs, prayers and more.

Perhaps his most astonishing story relates to a scrap of paper bearing part of a verse from the Book of Genesis, apparently from 19th-century Yemen. In 1958, he found this paper in a Judaica store in New Jersey. Twelve years later, he opened a binding in Jerusalem and found a matching scrap with the rest of the verse.

But Dr. Aviad Stollman, curator of the National Library's Judaica collection, said that Gorodesky's most important findings have actually been in the realm of day-to-day life - "deeds, documents and letters" that together "form the basis for writing a history of the Jewish people."

It's clear that Gorodesky could have been a rich man had he opted to sell his finds rather than donating them: Experts at the National Library say his latest gift alone, an anonymous 18th-century "Kabbalat Shabbat" prayer, could have sold for hundreds of thousands of shekels.

"Someone once offered me $50,000" for a manuscript, Gorodesky recalls. "But I checked and found that the library didn't have it. So how could I give it away? It's not mine, it's theirs."

Olivier Fitoussi
Olivier Fitoussi