Monday, February 16, 2009

Diary of a Bibliophile: My Trip to New York to see the Valmadonna Trust Library

The Valmadonna Trust Library is--without any doubt--the greatest private collection of early printed Hebrew books ever assembled. In size and scope, it also rivals the largest and most famous public collections of Hebrew books such as those of the National Library of Israel (formerly the Jewish National and University Library) in Jerusalem, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the British Library in London , and the Jewish Theological Seminary Library in New York.

The collection is largely the product of a lifetime of collecting by one man, Jack Lunzer, a now-retired diamond 1merchant born in Antwerp. Mr. Lunzer’s wife’s family had assembled a moderately large collection of Hebrew books printed in Italy and he began to add to the collection starting in the 1950s, expanding the scope of the collection to include Hebrew books (and books in other languages with Hebrew type in them) from every place in Europe, Asia, and Africa that had a Hebrew printing industry.

The collection--now in the range of 13,000 books--has been housed for decades in the Lunzer home in London, available to scholars, but very much a private collection. I have known about the collection for several years from the footnotes of my colleagues and from conversations about books. I met Mr. Lunzer two years ago at a conference and a few weeks later received in the mail a photocopy of the opening pages from the first edition of Judah Halevi’s Book of the Kuzari, a twelfth-century philosophical text whose reception I had been researching.

Until last week, that is about what I knew of the collection. I should say, however, that I didn’t know the size of the collection. If you had asked me, I think I would have guessed that the collection consisted of a few thousand volumes, 3000 or 4000 at the most.

Tuesday February 10

I have an e-mail from David Wachtel, a librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a consultant on Hebrew books to Sothebys, whom I’ve known for years. He wants me to publicize an exhibition of the Valmadonna Trust collection at Sothebys’ New York office on a blog I maintain for Jewish book studies. I open the attachments and am stunned to learn of the size of the collection, that it is being sold as one lot (I breathe a sigh of relief at the wisdom of the family not to break up this collection), and that the entire collection will be on view at Sothebys. How does one display 13,000 books?
I also learn that the asking price is $40 million and that Mr. Lunzer hopes that a major American library (like the Library of Congress) will buy it.
David tells me that it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to come see it. But who has time or money to go to New York.

Wednesday February 11

I post the information on the blog ( and continue my daily web-surfing. I come to the New York Times site and find Edward Rothstein’s review of the exhibition. The accompanying photos give me a sense of how the collection is displayed.

Thursday February 12
I’ve had an e-mail exchange with a colleague in Philadelphia over something else and I casually mention that the Valmadonna exhibit looks interesting and ask him whether he plans to go up to New York to see it. He replies that I ought to go--don’t spare any expense--for an absolutely “breathtaking” experience. He likens seeing this collection to seeing the whole of the Jewish people gathered in one place at one time. Hyperbole but I know this scholar well enough to take him seriously.

I broach the subject with my wife who is indulgent: check the frequent flier miles and the flights--maybe you can make a day trip, she says. She is right--we have oodles of USAir miles sitting around. As they cut back in Pittsburgh, what’s the use of hanging on to the miles? Lo and behold, I can go up for day trip on Sunday with direct flights. Last-minute ticketing costs an extra $50 but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, right? Plus my wife’s parents are coming to town for the holiday weekend so I’m not leaving her all alone to deal with kids. I’m in.

Friday February 13
Second thoughts: who goes to New York for an afternoon to look at books?
I e-mail my sister and make lunch plans. She agrees I am nuts but she is my little sister and has known this for years. I e-mail a college friend and make plans to see him after the exhibit closes on my way back to the airport. He saw the article in the Times and thought of me, so he’s not entirely surprised. I notice that the Times article was one of the most e-mailed and worry that Sunday afternoon at Sothebys will be crowded. Then I remember that we are talking about a rare book exhibit--how crowded can it be?

Saturday February 14
Just before going to bed, I fill in the little box on Facebook with “Adam is going to New York tomorrow to look at 13,000 books. Really.” By Sunday morning, there is a comment from a friend in Israel asking me if I’m putting in a bid. This is not the first joke I will hear along these lines.

Sunday February 15
The big day. On the plane, I think of some other witty things to say about going to the exhibit and not having $40 million. The best one I come up with is: “I looked through all the couch cushions last night and still couldn’t come up with enough.” Not very good.

I’m on the left-side of the plane and we take a flight path into La Guardia across New Jersey with a sharp turn at Staten Island. It’s a clear day and I can see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, then Lower Manhattan. After a few minutes, we are flying right over the globe from the 1939 World’s Fair, past the new baseball stadium for the Mets and then into La Guardia. Platitudes about the Jewish books from London coming to the city and country that welcomed the Jewish people fill my head.

We land on-time at La Guardia. I make good time with a bus and then a subway and then a nice walk in the rare February sunshine and I’m on the Upper East Side by late morning. A nice lunch with sister, brother-in-law, and their toddler son. As we leave the restaurant, they decline to bring Max to the exhibit fearing that he will put a rare book in his mouth. I make a joke about then having to buy the whole lot. I make my other joke about the couch cushions.

They hug me, give me looks of pity, and send me on my way down York Avenue to Sothebys. It’s a few minutes after 1 pm and the exhibition hours are 1-5 pm on Sunday.

As I approach Sothebys, I fall in step behind a modern Orthodox family (judging from dress and the type of kippah on the father’s head), a mother, a father, a teenage daughter. A block away I see several other men in kippot heading into the building. I start to wonder about the size of the crowd again.

My coat is checked and I’m upstairs to the 10th floor of Sotheby’s by 1:15. A number of people are milling around. I see David Wachtel at the entrance. We promise to catch up later but for now he is going to give a tour along with the other curator, Sharon Mintz, to begin at 1:30. I decided to make an overview loop before the tour begins. At 1:30 I head David’s booming voice (which became less booming over the course of the afternoon) gathering the tour group and splitting them in half. I am in the first room when the group comes in. In 15 minutes, the crowd has swelled. I estimate 200 people follow David into the room. There is no place to stand. I move quickly to the next room.

The crowd builds over the rest of the afternoon. David and Sharon run tours nearly continously. Later, David will introduce me to the head of the book department at Sothebys, David Redden, who is marvelling at the size of the crowd. Bigger than the crowd for an exhibit of Impressionist paintings he tells me.

The exhibit is brilliantly laid out. The first room is quite large with floor to ceiling bookshelves displaying nearly the entire collection. Every so often, a book is open but the rest sit on the shelves as in a library. Each shelf is labeled with the name of a city and books printed in that city are gathered near the name plate. But the collection’s scope is so large that not all the cities can be mentioned. Venice takes up a quarter of the room; Amsterdam, perhaps an eighth. Next to Amsterdam are cities in the Low Countries, France, and Germany. Across a doorway from Venice is another quarter of the room taken up with the other cities in Italy. The final quadrant are cities in the Middle East and India. There are not many name tags for cities in Eastern Europe leading to rumblings around the room that the collection is weak in those areas. Prague and Cracow are represented however with named shelves and I overhear David telling his tour group that all the cities of Eastern Europe have imprints in the collections. He points to shelves near the ceiling running the length of the room. An oversight of the designer not to have labels with Zhitomir and Vilna, perhaps. One of the few oversights.

To the right is a small alcove with a complete edition of the Bomberg Talmud laid out in display cases. Daniel Bomberg is a name familiar to every lover of the Jewish book. A Christian printer from Antwerp--Lunzer’s hometown--who settled in Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Bomberg was responsible for many crucial Hebrew publishing projects. In 1517, he produced the first Biblia Rabbinica, an edition of the Hebrew Bible with key commentaries printed surrounding the biblical text. This was the launching of the standard format of the Jewish study Bible until today--the so-called “Mikraot Gedolot” [Great Bibles]: text in the middle; commentaries surrounding. His next great project was the printing of the Babylonian Talmud. Gershom Soncino and other pioneers of Hebrew printing had printed individual tractates but Bomberg was the first to produce an edition of the entire work, in several large folio volumes. If one has seen any edition of the Talmud, one can recognize Bomberg’s influence: the standard pagination (still used today), the text with the two main commentaries, Rashi and the “Tosafot” on either side. The Tosafot is really an anthology of comments by a school of rabbis in France and Germany in the 12th and 13th centuries. They were never edited and different versions of comments circulated in manuscripts in the Middle Ages. Bomberg’s editors, a group of Venetian rabbis, selected the “best” comments and created the Tosafot as we have it today. Generations of yeshiva students owe the foundaitons of their curriculum to a publishing project instituted by a Christian printer.

A really good Judaica collection may have a volume or two of this edition, but the earliest printed editions of the Talmud are quite rare, especially Italian editions, many of whose copies were burnt in 1553 under orders from the Pope. The Valmadonna Trust has a complete edition. And what a story behind this acquisition: The Bomberg Talmud in this collection was acquired from Westminster Abbey in 1980. In 1956, Jack Lunzer saw an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert museum that displayed one of the volumes. He quickly learned that Westminster Abbey had a complete Bomberg Talmud edition--shipped from Venice and bound at Oxford for the kings’ collection. The king was Henry VIII and legend has it that the copies were ordered in the midst of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon when (this part we are more sure about) his advisors consulted some rabbis on the Talmudic laws of divorce. By the time the books were bound, however, the marriage had been dissolved and the English Reformation had begun. The books were sent to Westminister Abbey and set, gathering dust, until the 1950s.

Beginning in 1956, Lunzer began a negotiation with Abbey officials to acquire the edition for his library. He knew that the Abbey would not part with such a prize easily and he presented the Abbey with many offers of swaps--the Valmadonna Trust would purchase books and manuscripts related to the Abbey’s collection and offer them in trade. Rebuffed for many years, Lunzer finally had success when the original 900-year-old charter of Westminster Abbey came on the market. The Valmadonna Trust purchased the charter and presented it to Westminster Abbey in exhange for the Talmud edition.

I love the story--and enjoyed hearing Jack Lunzer himself tell the tale on a video presentation playing on the other side of the exhibit when I got over there later in the afternoon.

From the main room, I passed into a smaller room with display cases, housing the incunabula of the collection. “Incunabula”--deriving from the Latin for “cradle”--is the technical term for books printed before 1500, i.e. books from the infancy of printing in the West. There are about 140 known Hebrew incunable editions. That is, extant today in the world’s libraries, are copies of about 140 Hebrew books printed before 1500. The Valmadonna Trust owns about 70. I knew this library had a great incunabula collection, but I did think “wow” when I walked into this room and realized I was seeing half of the known Hebrew incunabula displayed before me.

Some of these earliest Hebrew books were old friends, but I enjoyed seeing them again. One of the first books I see here is The Book of the Honeycomb’s Flow by Judah Messer Leon. This guide to Hebrew rhetoric, applying classical rhetoric to the Hebrew Bible, was printed in Mantua in 1477 and has the distinction of being the first Hebrew book printed in the lifetime of its author. I’ve seen a copy of this at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, a marvelously quirky library and museum (among other things, it owns the manuscript for Joyce’s Ulysses and the entire contents of the living room from Marianne Moore’s Greenwich Village apartment), but it’s been a while.

I had never seen what may be the first Hebrew printed book ever, a copy of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed printed in Rome in the late 1560s or early 1570s. Some of the Bible editions printed in Spain before 1492 and in Portugal before 1497 (when Jews there were forcibly converted to Christianity) with commentaries on the side anticipate Bomberg’s later achievements in Venice.

Standing in this room, I hear my name called out. A colleague from Yale is here with his wife and small children. So far as I can tell, his children have not tried to eat any of the books. A few minutes later I see the former librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Later, I will run into scholars from Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Among the Jewish studies academics milling around, I seem to have come the farthest.

The casual talk is over who will buy the collection: names of prominent universities in the northeastern United States are mentioned (I won’t mention names here). Some think nobody will step up in this economic climate. Others think it’s a relative bargain--when the economy recovers, it may be valued at more than $40 million.

I stand next to two young women who are talking about the expurgation and the marginalia in a commentary on Psalms by David Kimhi. I lean in and take a closer look. I think the marginalia are actually textual emendations--an owner of the book has compared it to a manuscript (or his memory) and filled in missing words and made corrections. I’m a busy-body so I tell the women this. They seem impressed but move away quickly.

There are another few examples of expurgated books throughout the exhibit: expurgation was a form of censorship in late sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century Italy in which a Church official crossed out passages in Hebrew texts that had been deemed offensive to Christianity. Each time I stopped at one, I heard someone remarking on this phenomenon.

Expurgation and blue paper seemed to draw a lot of interest from the crowd. Changes in the process for dying paper and the greater availability of indigo made it easier to start printing on blue paper in the sixteenth century. But it was still relatively rare and something of a luxury item at first. The Valmadonna Trust has an unusually large collection of editions printed on blue paper as well.

When one of the tour groups enters the incunabula room I move to the next room where several manuscripts are on display. Mr. Lunzer and the Valmadonna Trust set as their main goal the collecting of printed books but along the way, they acquired quite a manuscript collection, small but significant. It includes one of the earliest Pentateuchs copied in Europe in the 10th or 11th century. It also includes the only dated Hebrew manuscript still extant from medieval England, another Pentateuch, written in 1189, just about a century before the Jews were expelled from England in 1290.

I move into the fourth room, another large room. The designers of the exhibit have dubbed this the “Reading Room” and it consists of 8 long rows of display cases, displaying hundreds of books. Most are open to title pages, some to internal pages of interest. The riches in this room are also unbelievable.

I find some other old friends--I mean books, of course, like the Riva di Trento edition of Alfasi’s commentary/abridgement of the Talmud with the coat of arms of Cardinal Cristoforo Madruzzo on the title page. Cardinal Madruzzo was the prince-bishop of Trent and therefore the host of the Council of Trent, the Catholic church’s major program of response to the Reformation in the middle of the sixteenth century.

I also find an old friend (a person) who was on the same fellowship in Israel several year ago. He is there with his wife, one of his children, and his father-in-law, a prominent Israeli scholar. We catch up and then we go back to looking at the books. A few minutes later, I see him again and he tells me that he saw Dr. Ruth walk by in the other room.

Some other highlights in this room:
--a copy of Sefer Abudraham published in Fez in 1516, only the very first book ever printed on the African continent and possibly one of two copies extant in the world.
--a series of calendars, diplomas, and broadsides hanging on the wall, including wall calendars from Mantua, 1553, and Venice, 1612, listing Saints Days and other Christian holidays along with Jewish holidays.
--one of the broadsides is “Eleh Divre ha-Brit” from the Hague, 1798, declaring the rights of man after the Napoleonic invasion of the Low Countries.

Every so often I look out at the crowd: heavily Jewish, and heavily Orthodox--mainly modern Orthodox, some haredim, but all ages are there, men and women. I think of that phrase “the people of the book.”

This room also contains a number of books, newsletters, journals, and reports printed by the Jewish communities of India in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s remarkable to see a book with text in Hebrew, English, and Marathi on the same page. I only know it’s Marathi because the label tells me so. I think of the movie that my wife and I saw just the night before, “Slumdog Millionaire,” and I have an irreverant vision of the crowd breaking into a Bollywood dance sequence.

I turn and see Jack Lunzer standing and talking, surrounded by dozens of people asking him questions, complimenting him on the collection. I think of going and introducing myself and thanking him again for the photocopies but every time I look over he is surrounded.

I leave this room and find the room with a video of Mr. Lunzer speaking about the collection. If I can’t speak to the man, I’ll listen to him on tape. This room is packed as well; when the video ends and loops around to the beginning, some seats open up. I take one and settle in to hear about the collection. After a few minutes, a diminutive woman with a familiar face walks by me, looking for a seat. It takes me a few minutes to recognize Dr. Ruth.

I’m starting to get tired but I make another pass through the collection to get to some of the corners that I missed when the crowd was at its peak. I decide to go down at 4:45 to avoid the crush at the coat check. As I leave Sothebys just a few minutes before 5, I hear a man behind me in the lobby trying to gather a mincha minyan (a quorum of ten men for the afternoon prayers). I look back and see more than 10 men. I can go meet my college friend and not feel guilty.

As I leave, I realize that indeed, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I enjoyed the books, and I took some notes on things I noticed to follow up on in my own research. I also was grateful to the designers of the exhibit for finding a way to not only see some books but to really see and feel the magnitude of the collection. I also enjoyed seeing--and being in--the crowd. At the beginning of Edward Rothstein’s article in the New York Times he asked whether bibliophilia could be a religious experience. I thought of this as I was leaving and hearing the mincha service starting behind me. And the thought occurred to me: this hadn’t just been a day trip to the big city, but a pilgrimage of sorts.

(The original title was "Diary of a Bibliomaniac" but I changed that after some reflection on the meaning of the terms "Bibliomaniac" and "Bibliophile.")
(I had originally called Bomberg a Calvinist but a sharp-eyed correspondent e-mailed to point out that there is no evidence that Daniel Bomberg was ever a Calvinist--and, of course, he certainly wasn't a Calvinist when he began his printing career in Venice.)


Chortkov said...

I went twice. It was indeed amazing. The second time i took my 7 year-old son. Even he was impressed.

renaissanceman said...

Wow. What a description. I only wish that when I went I would have had a guide who could describe it like that.

R J Keefe said...

A deeply moving show. A friend who used to work in Judaica at Sotheby's implored me to pay a visit, and I'm very glad that I did, even though I can only read two or three words in Hebrew. The atmosphere of revered learning was intense, and intensified by the extremely engaged crowd.

Your entry really does the show justice. I hope that the institution that acquires the library has the wit to show some of it at least as Sotheby's has done.

Lion of Zion said...

"A few minutes later, I see him again and he tells me that he saw Dr. Ruth walk by in the other room."

i guess she likes jewish books. i was working in the rare book stacks at jts a while back when i caught the tail end a vip tour being given to her her. the person with her (i think it was wachtel?) maid sure to show her the title pages, etc. with race images.