Selling a Jewish ‘Mona Lisa’

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Sefy Hendler
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The Luzzatto High Holiday mahzor
The Luzzatto High Holiday mahzorCredit: Sotheby's
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Sefy Hendler

The Luzzatto High Holiday mahzor, which will be on sale at a public auction in Sotheby’s New York on Tuesday, is far more than an ancient manuscript: it may be the most important mahzor – compendium of holiday prayers – to be sold in the past 100 years. It could be called the Aleppo Codex of French Jewry; a rare treasure that wandered to Paris and hoped to find a safe home there.

This beautiful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer book was written and illustrated by a scribe named Abraham 700 years ago in Bavaria. From there it made its way to Alsace, Lake Constance, northern Italy and France. When it became part of the collection of the 19th-century Italian Jewish scholar and Bible commentator Shmuel David Luzzatto, it received his name. Upon Luzzatto’s death the mahzor was purchased by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Paris-based international Jewish philanthropical organization founded in 1860 to promote the rights of Jews around the world, which safeguarded it for some 150 years.

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France has a complicated and sometimes tragic history with Jewish sacred texts: a terrible event in which copies of the Talmud were burned took place in the heart of Paris in the 13th century. On the other hand, the Luzzatto mahzor, which was protected by a Jewish educational and cultural organization, was a source of pride, a symbol of the cultural renaissance of French Jewry.

The hundreds of pages of this masterpiece – with their delicate illustrations of fantastical animals and human beings, Gothic architecture, shofars and prayer shawls – told the story of the community of Ashkenaz in the late 13th century. Even more than that it is a universal treasure which, at each of its way stations, accumulated touching signs of use that are still in evidence.

Thanks to Alliance, the manuscript was restored, became available to researchers and was displayed at exhibitions. So why is such a treasure now on the block? The heads of the Jewish philanthropic organization are blaming it on the “economic crisis.” In an interview with the weekly Actualite Juive, Marc Eisenberg and Roger Cukierman, the heads of Alliance, explained that the organization’s debts are some 1.5 million euros a year. “The sale is the only solution that will guarantee the survival of the organization’s library until 2030,” they claimed.

The sale of such a treasure in exchange for a few more years of activity? It may be legal, but it also arouses tough questions about the public responsibility of those who have received assets to be preserved for generations, and are now deciding that cash flow is more important. When the matter involves several of France’s most prominent Jews, that’s very disappointing.

French law makes it possible to declare that the work is a “national treasure,” and thereby offer a tax break to donors for a contribution that would enable the transfer of the mahzor to the national collection – but the French government hasn’t lifted a finger. With the exception of an outcry by some experts and fanatic devotees – French author Michael Sebban assembled hundreds of them to sign a manifesto in the daily Le Monde – the whole affair has encountered only faint protest.

In light of this situation, the State of Israel should acquire the mahzor for the collection of the renewed National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Although $5 million (the estimated price) is quite a large sum, it’s still a bargain for a legacy of generations that has been abandoned by its French guardians.

That would be a far better and worthwhile transaction than the huge sums being spent on “the war against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement,” for example. Israel’s president, prime minister and culture minister must pick up the gauntlet in the very short time remaining and bring the “Mona Lisa” of French Jewry to Israel. After all, Jewish tradition treats a sacred text like a living creature.

The Luzzatto High Holiday Mahzor must continue its life in Jerusalem rather than in a locked safe abroad.

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