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Special Collections
Decanting memory: a celebration of 500 years of Jewish printing

From November 1st-3rd, 2017, staff from the JPL travelled to Ottawa to participate in a joint exhibit with the Jacob Lowy Collection of Library & Archives Canada commemorating the 40th anniversary of their rare book collection. The exhibit, entitled Decanting memory: a celebration of 500 years of Jewish printing combined showcased a selection of the JPL’s rare books alongside titles from the Lowy collection.

Along with the joint exhibit which featured books like the JPL’s incunabula 1481 edition of Josephus’s Antiquities, we also brought along books for 3 group workshops. Two classes from Ottawa’s Jewish day school system as well as the Ottawa branch of Hillel, participated in what has become an ongoing initiative to teach people about the history of Hebrew printing and many of the unusual stories behind these books, their authors, and the printers. In an early morning workshop with Ottawa Jewish Community School, we showed our 1707 printing of Tobias Cohn’s Ma’aseh Toviyah, a scientific reference work printed in Venice. Cohn was a polyglot with a familiarity of Hebrew, German, Polish, Italian, French, Spanish, Turkish, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. This famous illustration depicts a human body and a house side by side and comparing the members of the former to the parts of the latter.

The book served as a medical textbook during its time, and when we asked some of the students if they could guess the general intent of the book, one student (who had at some point probably read about the humours and temperaments) guessed correctly because she recognized the Hebrew words for fire, water, and wind.

Prior to 2014, the Rare Books Collection languished variously in the far corners of rooms housing the Jewish Public Library’s (JPL’s) many special collections. In 2011, Dr. Michael Paul, an associate professor of medicine at Memorial University in St. John’s (and a former Montrealer) discovered an equally far corner of the JPL’s website that we hastily put together called “Five Centuries of Bestsellers at the Jewish Public Library”, a sampling of a few books from our Rare Books Collection we had photographed and captioned. As we soon found out, Dr. Paul is an antiquarian book collector himself with a particular interest in Judaica. It was this association that prompted an ongoing level of financial support that allowed us to catalogue the collection, and ultimately exhibit in to coincide with the JPL’s centennial in 2014. This exhibit was entitled “A Roomful of Dwellings: The Antiquarian Books of the Jewish Public Library” and featured a sampling of books ranging from bibles, works of ethics and philosophy, Hebrew grammars, travelogues, kabbalistic works, and an array of curiosities. At the time, we had only catalogued about a third of the collection; Dr. Paul’s support allowed us to work through the next 2 years and in December of 2016, the collection was finally completed.


Dr. Paul also responded enthusiastically to an initiative we began in 2014 and continues as part of the JPL’s ongoing outreach activities. We’d conceived of a series of rare book workshops designed for elementary and high school students, in which young people – subsumed by electronics and digital media – would be exposed to printed books dating back to the 15th century. Typically, books that old are only viewable under glass cases in museums but the idea here was to teach these young people how to handle the books; witnessing young people regard this material with mystery and wonder has in fact been the culmination of this project. These workshops have since been expanded to other libraries and community centres where we teach the history of printing (and in particular Hebrew printing)

The first published history of the JPL, Unzer bibliotek (Our library) refers to the collection as having begun with one of its co‐founders, Yehuda Kaufmann who, in 1914, travelled to Philadelphia spending several hundred dollars in the acquisition of old Hebrew books.” In 1944, the JPL sponsored the first comprehensive book exhibit in the Montreal Jewish community in conjunction with the Canadian Jewish Congress and the YMHA; the exhibit featured many from the collection of Hyman Ressler, who was manager of Canadian Buttons Ltd. since 1919. Ressler died in 1951 and his widow donated the collection to the library. The JPL’s rare book collection became the repository for these additional books.

Most of the books however, arrived through the 1947 post‐Holocaust initiative by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Organization in the Offenbach Archival Depot to repatriate the over 150,000 lost and stolen volumes the Nazis had taken. Books whose owners could not be traced were donated to libraries around the world: the JPL was one of these libraries. As evidenced by the condition, many of these books had already travelled great distances before having ended up in the attics and synagogues of Eastern Europe. The collection is a microcosm of diaspora, worlds carried around from country to country by people for whom these volumes represented a homeland.

The exhibit also included a shared display of items from both collections representing some of the direct and indirect connections some of these works have to Canada. Amongst the Lowy contributions was a folio volume of the Talmud published by the Eagle Publishing Company in Montreal. The JPL offered up works by some grandfathers of famous Jewish-Canadian writers: a booklet in manuscript on homeopathic remedies written by Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg, maternal grandfather of Mordecai Richler, and the Otzar Taamei Hazal, a compilation of the various interpretations to biblical verses found in Talmudic literature, arranged according to the order of the Torah, written by Solomon Klonitsky-Kline, maternal grandfather of Leonard Cohen (with a dedication to his children and grandchildren). We also included a typewritten poem (To Keats) by A.M. Klein, and a journal kept by the poet Irving Layton.

Periodically, we hear stories of manuscripts or unknown books written by famous authors turning up in libraries, long after these authors have passed on: a rare copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio discovered in a provincial library in France; an anonymously-published novel by Walt Whitman found in the Library of Congress, and an unknown piece by J.S. Bach discovered in a small library in Weimar.

This November, the JPL will be co-curating an exhibit and series of rare book workshops with the Lowy Collection from Library & Archives Canada. We will be exhibiting books from our respective rare book collections, but also sharing one display case that will feature items with a Canadian connection. This past summer, one of the JPL’s new librarians had been assisting in the search for possible items to include in that shared case: our Jewish Canadiana collection consists of ephemera (news clippings, unpublished chapbooks, etc) dealing with all aspect of Jews and Judaism in Canada. While the material isn’t archival it is often unusual, and consists of things one wouldn’t find anywhere else, least of all the internet.

What she found was remarkable. In a box along with some old chapbooks written by Rabbi Yehuda (Yudel) Rosenberg was this:

Following some consultation with Prof. Ira Robinson (who has done extensive scholarly research on Rosenberg),  he told me that this was likely a booklet that formed the beginnings of a notebook based on his previous work, the Sefer Raphael-ha-Malakh.  It contains a series of 87 spells and remedies : a is a remedy for a mad dog bite parallels a section in the Rafael ha-Malakh which is much more elaborate and recommends: “Take an onion and crush it or grate it with a grater and mix with salt and liquid honey until it becomes like a salve. Rub it on the place of the bite several times a day...”  The range of ailments includes sore throat, stomach worms, bloody urine and much more. There are spells against the Evil Eye, to engender love between husband and wife, to deal with mice infestation in a house (“take meat from a wolf and burn it and scatter the ashes in the four corners of the house and there are formulae for getting the answer to questions in one’s dreams .

Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg, born in 1859 in the village of Skaryszew, Poland, received a traditional Hasidic education in literature and kabbalistic studies. In 1913, he emigrated to Toronto at the invitation of the Polish Jewish Congregation. When he arrived in Montreal in 1919, he became the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Orthodox Congregations of Montreal, a coalition of synagogues serving immigrant Ashkenazi communities too impoverished to hire their own rabbis. Although exposed to lay ideas and interested in politics, economics and the sciences, Rosenberg adhered to an ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Judaism. Though he wrote extensively, his most significant contribution to the literature would become his translation from Aramaic to Hebrew of The Zohar, a classic work of Jewish mysticism. Rosenberg viewed the project as a first step toward a renewal of kabbalistic tradition and the hastening of the arrival of the messiah.
Rosenberg played a pivotal role in Montreal’s kosher meat wars (1923-1925) in which he competed with Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Cohen for the rabbinical domination over the certification of kashrut in the city.

Rosenberg had been a doctor in Lodz but when he emigrated to Canada, he soon discovered that a medical practice required specific accreditation; Canada didn’t recognize his credentials and in light of the fact that Rosenberg’s practice included amulets, spells, and rubrics, his successful career as a rabbi here was more assured than that of a doctor. 

Ira Robinson has written extensively on Rosenberg, but a more personal account can be read in his daughter’s memoir , The errand runner: reflections of a rabbi’s daughter  (Leah Rosenberg) and in the biography of his grandson Mordecai Richler in Mordecai Richler, leaving St. Urbain.

The booklet, along with other items in the Jewish Canadiana collection will join books from the JPL’s Antiquarian collection in a joint exhibit with Library & Archives Canada from November 1-3 in Ottawa, entitled: Decanting Memory: 500 years of Jewish Printing.