Celebrating 10 Years of Collecting, Conserving, and Studying Judaica

Scholars speak about early print resources, Greek music, and amulet scrolls at the annual Norman E. Alexander Lecture in Jewish Studies at Columbia Libraries.

Michelle Chesner
December 10, 2020

On December 2, 2020, Columbia Libraries, in partnership with the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, hosted an online event celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Norman E. Alexander Library for Jewish Studies. Titled “Mystics, Music, and Microscopes,” the webinar highlighted the work of scholars who have conducted extensive research in Columbia’s Judaica collections. Although Columbia has been collecting Judaica since its founding as Kings’ College, the first librarian for Jewish Studies wasn’t hired until 2010, thanks to a generous endowment from the Norman E. Alexander Foundation.

Alexis Hagadorn, Columbia Libraries’ Head of Conservation, discussed her work on the distinctive tacketed bindings on the copies of Columbia’s 16th-century Talmuds, printed in Venice by Daniel Bomberg. The so-called “Bomberg Talmuds” are quite rare; a complete set sold at Sotheby’s in 2015 for almost 10 million dollars. The Columbia copy is nearly complete, and bindings were retained on most of the volumes throughout the centuries. These books, which arrived at the University in 1892, were sewn on alum-tawed thongs and bound in limp vellum in Italy soon after printing. One reason for the scarcity of Bombergs is that the Talmud was burned by the Church in Rome in the mid-16th century, and was illegal in Italy following the conflagration. These clearly Italian copies somehow escaped both flames and confiscations, and can now be used for study and instruction, both for Jewish history and for book conservation classes.

A detail of the sewn binding of an ancient book.

Dr. Francesco Spagnolo, curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, then spoke about the unique musical liturgy of the Jews of Corfu from the 17th through the 20th centuries. Citing two manuscripts acquired with hundreds of others for Columbia by Salo Baron in 1933, Spagnolo described interactions between the older Greek synagogue and the Italian synagogue in Corfu, including a major conflict over the singing of the Shema prayer. He shared audio of the unusual Apulian dialect used by Jews in Corfu, as well as a song praising the virtues of coffee from a Corfiot Passover Seder. A joint exhibition between Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary on the Jews of Corfu is tentatively planned for the 2021 fall semester.

Last to present was Dr. J. H. (Yossi) Chajes, a professor at the University of Haifa and director of the Ilanot Project, who spoke about a more recent Libraries acquisition, from 2014: an ilan (tree), so-called for its arboreal, or tree-like, diagrams. Ilanot are vertical parchment rolls of writing that were created for kabbalistic meditation from the 16th century onward. Columbia’s ilan, produced in North Africa or Palestine in the 19thcentury, rolls out to an astonishing 13 feet long. The manuscript is particularly special because it was made as an amulet—not meant to be opened at all, but simply carried in a silver case for the protection of its bearer.

A recording of the event is available on the Norman E. Alexander Lectures page.

Michelle Chesner is the Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia.