045: Mr. Lowy’s Room of Wonder
May 3, 2018
Listen Now [44.7 MB, length: 48:41]
Down an obscure hallway at our downtown Ottawa location, there is a mysterious room overflowing with majestic tomes and ancient wisdom. The Lowy Room is a self-contained museum housing over 3,000 rare, often unique Hebraica and Judaica items dating back to the 15th century. In this episode, we pay a visit to the current curator of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection, Michael Kent, who gives us a guided tour of some of the incredible items in the collection and shares the stories surrounding their journey.
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Mr. Lowy’s Room of Wonder
Geneviève Morin (GM): Welcome to Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage. I’m your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults, guide you through our many services, and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
Here we are at our main building at 395 Wellington in Ottawa and we’re on our way to meet Michael. Beautiful marble halls with gold accents and brass handrails. It really reminds us that we're in a place of importance.
We’re going to a tucked-away corner of the building that you would never guess is here.
Down an obscure hallway at our downtown Ottawa location, there’s a mysterious room overflowing with majestic tomes and ancient wisdom.
“The Lowy Room,” as it is affectionately known by LAC staff, is a self-contained museum housing over 3,000 rare, often unique items dating back to the 15th century. In 1977, Jacob M. Lowy donated this collection of Hebraica and Judaica to LAC, on the condition that it would be kept together as a distinct collection and that it must have its own dedicated curator. In this episode we pay a visit to the current curator of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection, Michael Kent, who gives us a guided tour of some of the incredible items in the collection and imparts some of the stories surrounding their journey.
[Sound of opening door]
Michael Kent (MK): Hey!
GM: Hi, Michael! I’m Geneviève.
GM: Nice to meet you.
MK: Nice to meet you. How are you?
GM: I'm good. How are you?
MK: Doing well.
GM: I’ve never been here.
To view photos of the Lowy Room and the items mentioned in this episode, you can access a direct link to our Flickr album on the episode page for this podcast.
MK: As you can tell just looking around the room, in fact, all the books are facing us. They’re on wood bookshelves, glass fronted. I mean, it's a gorgeous space and I love coming in here every day. And believe it or not this collection is actually part of the main reason I went to library school.
MK: I was an undergraduate student taking a Jewish Studies class at the University of Ottawa with Professor Rebecca Margolis. And she brought the whole class here to visit the collection with Cheryl Jaffe—the then curator gave the tour. And I thought it was just a phenomenal thing and it wasn't a kind of profession that was on my radar. And Cheryl Jaffe mentioned masters degrees in library science programs and masters in archival studies programs, and that if working in an institution like this would interest us down the future, to maybe consider one of those programs.
So, after I finished my MA, I had a scholarship opportunity and I said, well, library sciences seemed really cool when I went to visit the Lowy Collection in LAC. And now it's come full circle. I'm in here now and I give tours to undergraduate students and who knows if I'll be able to count some of them amongst my colleagues in a few years from now.
GM: You're paying it forward. That's great.
MK: Yeah. So, I thought, I mean there's so many amazing things in this room and so many of these things—in many cases, one of the only copies, if not the only copy in the world, is in this room. And at over 3,000 rare volumes, obviously we're not going to look at all of them today.
And I thought just before jumping into some of the books maybe talk a little bit about the history of the collection, and it often surprises people. This is Library and Archives Canada and in the library sector, we’re the national library of Canada. Our focus is telling the story of Canada that's been published, that's been written down. So what's a collection of 3,000 rare volumes of Judaica—the vast majority that was printed outside of Canada and in many cases before Europeans had even discovered North America—doing here in our country's national library?
So if you'll join me over here, I’ve pulled out several pictures, a couple of reproductions that maybe help tell the story. So I mentioned the collection—the Jacob M. Lowy Collection—and I have a portrait here of Mr. Lowy, one of the famous Yousuf Karsh photos, Karsh being a local photographer. And this collection here—with a few additions over time—but this was his personal collection. And he actually donated it to the Crown that came to the then National Library in 1977, so just over 40 years ago. Last year, 2017, was our 40th anniversary.
GM: Happy birthday.
MK: Yeah. I hear it was also another important anniversary in the country, but my focus was the Lowy one. [Geneviève laughs] And to really understand the story of Mr. Lowy and why he would collect this collection, why he would donate this collection, we need to go back just a little bit in time and look at his father. So I have a picture of his father here. His father was a Rabbi Raphael Lowy. And he was the rabbi in Bardejov, which is—I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly—contemporary Slovakia, the Austrian-Hungarian empire, when Mr. Lowy was born and raised.
Rabbi Lowy was really one of these older-style Eastern European rabbis where as much as he was the leader of the Jewish community he was also the leader of the Jewish community for the non-Jewish community. So, very well connected with the local mayor, with the local police of—the local chief of police, sorry, and general society within his village.
And the significance of this—being a rabbi in the 1910s, 20s and 30s—was that in the 1930s with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the rise of the Nazi movement, he was actually able to use his connections to help Jews escape. So he is personally responsible for helping thousands of Jews escape Slovakia—
MK: —and find their way to other places. And to give a sense of the work he was doing, we have a copy of a letter here that was written by the Hlinka Guard. The Hlinka Guard were the Nazi sympathizers in Slovakia. I can't read Slovakian, and thankfully I have a very handy English and French translation here. I've been talking a bunch. Do you want to read out this one line here starting with “The”?
GM: “The removal of Lowy is as precious as the removal of a thousand Jews. The matter of Lowy’s return is very serious and because of that, I must warn you about it. Please discontinue to issue the yellow identification letter for the city of Bar”—you have to pronounce that.
GM: “Bardejov. The local commission will forward you the list of Jews which are needed.”
MK: And to understand this line, the Hlinka Guard were very active Nazi sympathizers and doing the work of removing Jews to be sent to death camps. And you need a sick, twisted logic to make sense of this, but these people had the mandate to remove and kill as many Jews as possible. And yet they said this one particular Jew was more important than a thousand other ones. And I think that really speaks to the work he was doing to thwart their efforts.
I once—as an anecdotal aside—I searched Rabbi Lowy through Google Books—just because Google Books helps you find all kinds of weird reference works—and I was quite pleasantly surprised at how many biographies of Holocaust survivors the search delivered. And they were all mentioning Rabbi Lowy as the person who helped them escape.
GM: Wow. The language in this letter is extremely striking. It really is. It's mechanical, it's methodical, it's…management speak almost. It’s, “Well, this is a better investment because we get a better return.” It's a little chilling.
MK: The Nazis were phenomenal bureaucrats. And I think that really…success is maybe the wrong word. Or at least how we use success now but certainly had a lot of foresight and planning in what they did. And I think the world is fortunate that there were, on the other side, also people like Rabbi Lowy, who were able to maneuver that system and thwart it.
GM: So how did they end up in Canada?
MK: So as I mentioned Rabbi Lowy helped thousands of Jews escape Slovakia, and one of the individuals he helped escape was his own son, Jacob. I should mention just as we finish the story of Rabbi Lowy, he never used his connections to help himself escape. And he stayed until the very end and would ultimately perish in the Holocaust. But kind of that mindset—the captain goes down with the ship—he wasn't going to leave Slovakia while there were still lives to save.
MK: Yeah. And so, his son Mr. Lowy escaped Slovakia in 1938. So really cutting it close in terms of the outbreak of World War II. Spent the war years in London, United Kingdom, and after the war—well a few years after the war when immigration laws for Jews loosened up to Canada—he did come to Canada and settle in Montreal. In Montreal, [he] got involved bit by bit in industrial real estate and that's the other thing I tell the undergraduate students when they come through is, fair warning: industrial real estate pays a hell of a lot better than librarianship. [Geneviève laughs] I think librarians have cooler jobs.
And that sort of maybe explains how he was able to acquire a collection of this value and rarity. That being said, books weren't the only thing he was spending money on. Very active in all kinds of non-profit sectors and community leadership and very generous in general in Montreal and across Canada, something that he would eventually receive the Order of Canada for.
And while we look around this room and we see the rare books, I think it's also important to understand he was in general a lover of books and this is actually just a portion of his overall collection.
He also collected modern works of Judaica as well as modern printings of core Jewish religious texts. My understanding is a core part of the more modern Judaica formed the basis of the Judaica library at McGill University. And the core base of the modern religious texts formed the basis of a yeshiva—a Rabbinical college—library in Israel. As well as a portion of the collection stayed with the family and was distributed amongst the grandkids. So someone with a strong love for books that goes beyond just the items here of a particular rare quality.
And I think it's important, though, to understand, where was his interest in books coming from? So, I mentioned he [was the] son of a rabbi. And in Europe he went to a cheder—very traditional Jewish school—where he got formation in how to learn Jewish rabbinic texts. And that would have been maybe the first step on the road to becoming a rabbi himself, had the war not happened, had he not relocated to Montreal. In that context, he was studying, again, important Jewish religious texts and studying them in Hebrew and Aramaic and the original languages. So at one point, he participated in a contest in the school to memorize Mishnayot—and the best, maybe, Canadian example I can come up with is a spelling bee.
MK: And the prize for that was a book, the Even ha-Bochen. We have here a picture of the cover page of the volume that he won. It's a very basic book. It's a cheap paper, it's a cheap printing.
MK: It has some flaws to it. But this would have been the first book Mr. Lowy ever owned. And it's an interesting thing that we think of now, how is just your first book—at probably around 13—such a transformative experience? But again, we have to think of the context of 1920s Eastern Europe. Books were significantly more expensive in general. And the resources available to people were less. And the thought of a child maybe owning anything let alone a book would have been certainly less common than we're used to here in Canada in 2018. So really a special experience for a young man to actually receive something, own something. And it really set off that lifelong love of books.
And that leads me into a very important thing that I always think I have to mention, is, he had this traditional Jewish education. So, he knew Hebrew. He knew Aramaic. Being raised in Slovakia, he would have known Slovakian. He would have also known German. Coming to Canada, living in Montreal, coming through the United Kingdom, he knew English. He had a base in French. I'm pretty sure he had Yiddish and it wouldn't shock me if he had a bit of Latin as well.
And when we look around this room and we see books in Hebrew and Aramaic and Yiddish and English and French and German…. It's important to highlight [that] while I can't tell you what book he took off the shelf and read and which ones he didn't, we can certainly say he had the ability to read almost every single book in this room.
GM: I can also really appreciate how this whole collection is a portrait of a type of newcomer to Canada. That this is, this is a learned person with so much to bring and contribute to Canadian society, as we know he did. But this is sort of a portrait of who he was, and again, the multilingual, the passionate academic, the generous collector. It's interesting to be standing in the presence of…without him being present.
MK: I definitely feel the more and more I work with the collection, the more and more I get to learn about Mr. Lowy. And it's a neat way to connect with a person who I've never actually met.
GM: Happens to me as an archivist, as well. At some point, you start speaking to the person who produced the papers even though they're not there. Because you know them. You get to know them.
MK: And it's part of the fun aspect of the job.
GM: [Laughing] Talking to yourself.
MK: I work in a room by myself, I’ve got no one else to speak to. And I'll highlight that, and again, with that Holocaust connection and him coming to Canada as a refugee and him being able to become quite wealthy in Canada, quite prominent in Canada, that was one of the core things that actually fuelled the donation to the people of Canada. He recognized the rarity and the significance of the collection and wanted to thank Canada and give back to Canada and Canadians in appreciation for what Canada allowed him to do, and especially considering the context he came from.
The donation of this collection wasn't a one-and-done engagement with the Lowys. Mr. Lowy was quite connected with the collection for many years up until his death. Mrs. Lowy lived for close to 20 years after he did and she stayed very involved with the collection.
There was other instalments and other gifts from them, and it was really an ongoing relationship the two of them had with the collection and with Library and Archives Canada…and two just very special people we were thrilled to have as part of the LAC family for so many years.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about collection items, so I thought we’d maybe look at some. The vast majority of the collection is books but I pulled out some stuff also that maybe isn’t quite books that we’ll look at first.
GM: Ooh, look at that.
MK: Yeah. I have these two items here and I love showing these when I have the library science groups or the archival studies groups or museum studies groups come through. These are called Tefillin. They've got two little black boxes with leather straps and these are actually based—there's four verses in the Bible that essentially, when translated to English, say that you will bind these words as a sign upon your hands and as a frontlet between your eyes. So in Orthodox Jewish communities, those four verses are interpreted literally.
And inside these boxes there's actually handwritten parchment on vellum—vellum, handwritten in ink, very traditional style of writing—of those four verses. And they are bound literally on the arms and between the eyes. And it's interesting—and I always think of—to maybe think about the dividing line between what's an artifact that would be in a museum, what's a textual thing that would be in an archives or a library. I mean these are handwritten documents so maybe they’re an archival piece. It’s clearly a physical artifact. Maybe it's a museum piece. It's biblical text. Maybe it's a library piece. And I think it really hits to some of these gray areas we're hitting in our professions. And I mean some of the great opportunities to maybe work together.
GM: One thing's for sure—all the three professions would agree on—is it's a conservation nightmare.
GM: Because you've got wood, leather, and parchment in there.
GM: And ink!
GM: We don’t know what that ink is made of.
MK: Yeah. I'm not too worried in one regard. The text in every Tefillin out there is the same. As well as archaeologists have found Tefillin fragments in Israel that go back over 2,000 years. So, clearly they got a good system for making these.
But again it's a neat thing in terms of understanding Jewish textual life and a Jewish text being used in a way maybe a little different than just something you would read. And an interesting way to think about this gray line between our fields and cultural institutions and memory institutions.
And I'll show one more non…—I don't want to say book item, that's the wrong word—let's say codex item. Codex is what we think of a book right now as pages that are bound together.
GM: You're opening up a metal tube that seems to have been banged up quite a bit.
MK: It went through a war. It survived World War II.
GM: It deserves the dents, then.
MK: Yeah. So this is actually a scroll. Again it's on vellum—it's on animal skin. It’s handwritten. And this is the biblical book of Esther. Probably not that old, maybe 100 to 200 years. But produced in the same way biblical books would have been produced on scrolls 2,000 years ago, if not more.
And in Jewish ritual situations the church biblical texts are still read off scrolls of vellum in the traditional manner. And on the Jewish holiday Purim, this particular book is read as part of the observance of the holiday. So this book was found after World War II. It had been hidden away during the war. We don't know who the original owner was but statistically speaking, they didn't survive the war as a Jewish person. So it's found its way here over time. But it's always sort of neat to think about how books existed before codexes. As well, it’s also neat to see that the manuscript tradition that was essential pre the Gutenberg printing press has still continued in certain situations.
GM: I have so many questions about this. First of all, that it resides rolled…
GM: …that its natural resting state is rolled. So it’s parchment—do you have to do anything to keep the parchment supple enough that it doesn't crack when you unroll it? What kind of conservation issues do you have for this? Because you've unrolled it, and it's fascinating. For people who are not familiar with parchment, as you mentioned, it's animal skin, and this one you can actually see a little bit of the remnants of this, the skin’s wrinkling in the surface. But as we all know in Canadian winter, skin can dry very horribly. And crack.
GM: So how do you deal with that?
MK: We're fortunate here that it's a climate-controlled environment. Though—as I always tell people when they say, oh, things are in such great shape because of the climate-controlled environment—the vast majority of this item’s existence it has not been in this environment. In some, it seems that when it was produced a little bit of a wax or finish was put on the backside of the scroll, which certainly helped.
GM: Keeps the moisture in.
MK: And as we mentioned, because it’s skin, probably the repetitive handling of this throughout time has actually really helped in preserving it. We spend a lot of time thinking, oh the oils in our body are bad. Actually the oils on our body are what prevent us from drying out and cracking ourselves. So vellum documents will actually absorb some of the natural oil from your hands as you handle them and our natural oil is very similar to the natural oil of the sheep or the goat that originally provided us with this document. And that will also help keep it from getting dried out. And again, this has been used in liturgical purposes would have got some regular handling. And again, I think it's just neat to look at a textual document in the form that we used pre-codexes.
GM: Yeah. No, it is. And it still works.
MK: So, I'll now maybe pull out some of my favourite, actual books. And again, we have over 3,000 rare books in this collection and that's separate from our reference collection. So, we're really just going to see a handful. But I think it gives a sense of some of the neat stuff that's here. Some of the stories that we have around the books and some of the fascinating research topics and areas that exist in this collection and collections like it.
GM: As a first-timer in this room, it's very exciting to look at this cart. So Michael's put a few books on the cart for us to look at and it's just these various types of volumes—small, large, skinny, fat, pink, brown, white. They're just so beautiful. And again, it's not just a collection of books, it's also a collection of craftsmanship.
MK: Yeah. And I'll mention in a bit as we look at some of the more specific examples—but the mindset around books has changed significantly over time. I mean when they were first produced books were very expensive. They would've—you would have expected them to last for hundreds of years and be passed down and move around.
GM: They were luxury items.
MK: Yeah. Well, that's actually maybe a great way to start talking about the first item I pulled. So, this is a copy of Josephus, The Antiquities. And it's actually the oldest complete book held at Library and Archives Canada. I have to say that word “complete” with that little asterisk, because there's a single page of the Gutenberg Bible in the rare books vault. [Geneviève laughs] The oldest complete book.
GM: And is the date on the front correct? It’s 1470?
MK: So with the Gutenberg printing press being 1454/1455, we're talking 15 years after the invention of the printing press. So very early days. And of course, Josephus was a medieval bestseller and a Jewish historian, but works preserved by the Catholic Church to understand some historic context of Christian scriptures.
GM: Well, it's interesting you mention it. My background in history—in art history—is clearly European Christian history and I'm seeing—in French we call these enluminures; I’m not sure what you call them in English.
MK: In English, we’d say illuminated letters.
GM: Illuminated letters. Is that a tradition that transcends cultures?
MK: I actually had a—we had a calligrapher in here once who was also a historian and he got talking about these. And the answer he gave to why these are in so many early books was that pre the printed book, manuscripts were—in addition to being practical books—were also works of art. And printing started—and printing’s actually pretty boring when you compare it to a manuscript—so part of the idea of illuminated letters and some of the little decorations around the text was to still give a little bit of that manuscript feel and that art feel.
And in that regard, we maybe don't need to look at this from an art history perspective, but maybe it's almost an economic thing that we can say, this is an exercise in meeting consumer expectations. Though certainly gorgeous, they're not on every page.
GM: Is this paper, or parchment?
MK: This is paper. And again, every new chapter or section has an illuminated letter. It is paper. It’s rag paper, it’s made from linen. And I mean it's in amazing condition.
GM: It is. It’s still crisp white.
MK: People have constantly argued with me that there is no way this is from 1470…this is a modern copy. And I have to be quite insistent…no, it’s 1470. But again we have to recognize the material they were using was different. Rag paper is made from linen and sort of the example I like to give people is if you leave a T-shirt on your back porch and it rains, you wait for the shirt to dry, whatever. If you leave a newspaper which is made with modern paper, which is from wood pulp, on your back porch and it rains, you probably just have to throw that paper out.
So it's such a better material. Obviously a lot more expensive when you think a shirt can cost you 20/30 dollars and have eight to ten pages worth [of] writing area, while a package of printing paper will cost you 10 dollars and have a thousand pages worth of writing area. But the significance of this is that it lasted so much longer. And that's in the condition it is nowadays.
GM: The other advantage that librarians have over archivists when it comes to these sorts of works is because the books—again the natural resting state is with the cover closed—the beautiful colours stay vibrant. As opposed to a print or a map that you would leave exposed to the light—they fade. So, we have something from 1470 that looks like it was made yesterday.
MK: Yeah. We’ll jump forward a little bit in history with some of the books. This is from 1544, so we’re talking now exactly 100 years after the invention of the printing press. And one thing that’s neat, too, again it’s a Hebrew bible. And Hebrew is a non-vowelized language, much like Arabic, though over time little systems of dots and dashes above or below the consonants were developed to give indications of the vowels. And in early printed books, we often don’t see them because they were single dots and it was so precise, they weren’t there. And we actually see in this one that these dots and dashes are appearing.
MK: So what we’re now seeing is in a period of 100 years, how the printing press technology has evolved and the book-making technology has evolved. We now have these very small books with a very refined and detailed style of printing.
GM: Mmhmm. And it has gold edging, which the other ones don’t have.
MK: Yeah. And this would have been created for a merchant. And I mean it looks like a pocket book—it would literally fit in your front pocket. And it tells us something about these merchants, and again their, probably their religious lives and their own devotion. Why is this for a merchant? Because this is someone who’s travelling a lot, and if they’re going to read the weekly biblical portion that would have been read in a synagogue, they would need a book that would travel with them.
MK: So again, it tells us something neat about the owners, that they would want books like this.
I’ll show you what is probably one of the items that we’re most excited about in the collection. This is a single volume from a set that’s up here on a shelf. So we have the 27 volumes up there and I just pulled out the one. So this is the Bomberg printing of the Talmud. And the Talmud is—after the Hebrew scriptures—probably the most important document in Jewish religious life. And while it’s kind of a system of Jewish case law, it really does touch every aspect of Jewish life in terms of theology and philosophy, in terms of ritual practices, and as well as Jewish law governing all kinds of human interactions, such as business law and property law.
GM: They’re beautifully bound, this beautiful creamy white. Again, I’m guessing this is parchment bound, with gold lettering, gold detailing on them. They’re works of art.
MK: Yeah. So, what’s special about the Bomberg Talmud, they started this project in 1519 and finished in 1523. The Bomberg Talmud is actually the first complete printing of the Talmud. And it was a document that was finished in late antiquity, I’d say around the year 500 BCE, but not printed, of course, until there was a printing press.
MK: And what becomes even more fascinating is when we hear the story of who actually printed it. I love bringing through the tour groups and I ask them, “Who do you think was the first person to print the Talmud in its entirety?” And, you know, it must have been a great rabbi or a great sage or… In actuality, Mr. Bomberg was a Roman Catholic.
MK: He was a professional printer and a bookmaker, and, of course, he had to employ many Jews and rabbis in their own right to help him with this project. But he was very involved with this production. And what’s maybe most significant about the fact that the Talmud was printed by a Catholic—well, the Catholic Church didn’t put a censor in Mr. Bomberg’s printing press because, well, he was a good Catholic. There’s no way he would print something that went against Catholic dogma.
However, as history shows us, religious leaders—priests, imams, rabbis—tend to overestimate the religiosity of their followers. [Geneviève laughs] And Mr. Bomberg, being a professional book producer who took his work very seriously, produced as proper [a] Talmud as he could.
MK: So, while he wasn’t the only person at this time period producing Talmuds—again, there were people before him who produced individual volumes, there was people after him that did complete printings—he’s probably produced the most authentic printed one because he didn’t have to worry about censorship the way other Jewish producers would have.
The legend around the copy that’s in the British Library—and I say legend, I don’t know how true it is but sometimes something’s a good story so you tell it for the value of that story—is that King Henry VIII purchased that Talmud and brought it over when he was still Catholic and trying to find permission or a rational to justify getting divorced. And someone had mentioned, well, there seems to be a couple of things to do with divorce in the Old Testament, which is the Jewish scriptures. And Jews seemed to get divorced and have rules around it. So maybe we buy their Talmud to understand how biblical divorce works and use that to create an argument for the…to give to the Pope.
[Geneviève laughs] So, that’s one of the neat things when you get into book history and you track the movement of books, is you start to discover that books moved in ways we maybe didn’t expect them to.
So I’ll show you this one. And again, it’s a Talmud. And if we open to a random page—I mean I know we’ve looked at a few random pages—they all have the same feel. It’s the core text of the Talmud in the middle, the core commentaries around the side. But again, what’s fascinating about this one is the story behind its printing. And this one is actually printed in 1948. And when we look here, [reading] “Printed manual offset by Druckerei Karl Winter, Heidelberg, Germany, under supervision of Procurement Division, European Quarter Mass Depot, United States Army.” So this was actually printed in a displaced persons camp after World War II.
MK: And when we talk about World War II, we say well World War II ended, and Europe was liberated. But we often forget that it took years and years for lives to recover. And in many cases—especially people who had been in concentration camps—they didn’t have anywhere to go after the war. Either the communities they came from were totally destroyed, or the houses that they had owned in the past had been given away and the new owners weren’t going to just hand them back. So, people spent years in these displaced person camps trying to figure out where to go.
So, one of the things that happened in these displaced person camps—again, them having heavy Jewish populations—is the members of these camps went about rebuilding Jewish life. And you hear many stories about military officials being quite shocked that they were going into these concentration camps—that were now displaced person camps—and asking the residents, “Well, what would you like?” And the local rabbis and leaders within these camps saying, “We’d like printing presses.” You’re thinking, clothing, food, entertainment…no, you want a printing press?
But the leaders of these camps said, “Well, Hitler just spent close to a decade trying to destroy Jewish civilization and we need to rebuild Jewish civilization.” And Jews, as the people of the book, and so much of Jewish civilization being tied down in the written word—“We need to start reprinting these things.” And it’s just a fascinating way of thinking about how Jewish rebuilding and Jewish resistance to the Nazis is very much tied to book history and some of the stories a book will tell us.
Other than that— But what’s even more fascinating is it doesn’t actually stop here. But if we slide up to the top of the page, we see this dedication. What’s fascinating about this dedication is that, I mean, there are so many other things you could put in this dedication. Had the rabbis behind this project said, we’re going to dedicate this to the victims of the Holocaust, if they said we’re going to dedicate this to the survivors for their spirit so they can rebuild—any number of that stuff, we wouldn’t think anything of it.
But here they are, the first major product of Jewish intellectual rebuilding, and they’re saying thank you to the American service men who lost their lives or got injured in World War II in the liberation of the camps and of the Jewish people. And there’s a Jewish value called hakarat ha-tov, which maybe a loose translation, sort of, recognizing and giving gratitude at the first possibility. And I think this printing is a fascinating example of that value. How do they choose to dedicate this volume? It’s not to the victims of the Holocaust. It’s not to the members of their own people who are rebuilding their lives. But it’s actually to the service men coming from a different continent and different countries, who liberated the camps and saved the lives.
And again, it’s an amazing part of book history, understanding what are some of the motivations and thoughts and considerations around the product of a book beyond just what’s written on the page.
MK: I’ll close on one work but two volumes. And I always like showing these two as the majority of what we looked at is print books, I’ll show you a print book here. But I’ll also show you a manuscript. So, manuscript book meaning a handwritten one. [Sound of book being opened]
MK: Yeah. So when we look at these two volumes, the one on our right, here, it’s got a nice red binding. Everything’s nicely printed, it’s clear. The paper is light and in good shape. And then we compare it here to the manuscript volume, it’s leather on board, the leather’s peeling, it seems held together with twine.
MK: The paper is stained, it’s beaten up. The ink is…it’s readable. So if I were to ask you to apply your keen skills and abilities as an archivist [Geneviève laughs] to identify which one is older, which would you point to?
GM: Oh goodness. Well, that’s a trick question, obviously.
MK: It is a trick question.
GM: I’m supposed to say that the beat up one is the younger.
MK: Yeah. And, I like doing this with the school groups because they all point to the beaten up manuscript one.
GM: Well, it looks like something that’s—
MK: It looks like it’s from the 1200s.
GM: Yeah. It looks like it’s something that’s off a pirate ship. It almost looks like it’s got smoke damage and it’s tobacco-coloured.
MK: So, believe it or not, this manuscript is actually from the 1800s.
MK: And I know it’s got to be newer than this print volume because this print volume is the first edition of this work, period. And what this is, it’s actually a handwritten copy of this book.
MK: So this book is the Shulchan Aruch, and again, it’s a code of Jewish ritual law, so something an observing Jewish person would want. This was produced either in North Africa or maybe Yemen. And in the Islamic world, for a good chunk of time, the printing press didn’t take off the way it did in Europe. Was there some printing presses? Yes. Was it particularly common? No. And in part because of the strong tradition around calligraphy in the Islamic world, there being a strong taboo against any kind of pictures or statues. So there was that strong connection to calligraphy.
The practical implication of this was even if you were a Christian or Jewish person living in the Islamic world, you didn’t necessarily have access to the printing press infrastructure the way you would have in Europe. And as a result, the manuscript tradition also continued in these two communities. And what’s neat about these kinds of manuscripts is you’ll see—not in this volume but in several volumes like this—a title page where it says it was printed in Vilna, even though it was hand-copied in Morocco, because they copied it so literally.
MK: But it’s neat when—is this volume any different than this volume in terms of content? No. But when you think about the motivation of the person who produced this manuscript. Imagine you’ve— this wasn’t an expert. You can tell when you look at manuscripts that were produced in medieval Europe when there was professional manuscript artists—the columns were clean, the lines were straight, the letters were consistent. You see none of that here.
The column’s kind of in a wiggly line. It’s on an angle. The lettering isn’t consistent. This was an amateur person who wanted access to this book and hand-did it themselves. And imagine wanting a book so much that after your full day of work, you would then sit down and start copying one. Me, if I want a book for myself, I can go on Amazon if I want to own it. Otherwise, I go to the Ottawa Public Library. I couldn’t imagine sitting down for hours and hours and hours, and copying a book. And again, it just speaks to the love of books and the piety around religious observance that existed in this community that they would do projects like this.
GM: And how do we explain the physical state that this book is in? It’s—the only word that comes to mind is beat up.
MK: There’s a few things. One is this was produced by an amateur, not a professional bookmaker. So, right off the bat, part of the reason the books that we have that are [in] great shape from 500 years ago survived because they were made by professionals. You hire a professional to build your deck, your deck is probably going to last. [Geneviève laughs] You hire me to build your deck, fair warning: don’t walk on it.
GM: That’s hitting close to home. That’s something I’ve done.
MK: Oh dear. And we can see—
GM: Look at that!
MK: —just see how it’s bound. This was again—it was done by an amateur. So, it wasn’t going to hold up as well. It was likely very well used. Someone really wanted this, so they probably used it a lot. And again, there not being a printing press in this community, this volume was probably shared a lot. And it probably moved around and travelled. So, I think the condition is really just a reflection of use, which I kind of love because when I pull out a book that’s several hundred years old and it’s in perfect condition, it was never read, it takes away some of the story.
This is a book someone loved, that they produced it but loved that they continued to use it. That’s what I love about this volume, is that someone sat and made this. And like a regular person.
GM: They figured it out. They used what they had. No, it is. I’m starting to see why you love this book. [Laughs]
MK: I love all the books here. As I say, it’s a very special collection and I’m just so thrilled and privileged to be able to come here every day and work with it.
GM: If you’d like to learn more about the Jacob M. Lowy collection, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts. To view photos of the Lowy Room and the items mentioned in this episode, you can access a direct link to our Flickr album on the episode page for this podcast.
We’ve also provided a link to the LAC webpages related to the collection. There, you can book an appointment to visit the Lowy Room in person. As of April 24th, 2018, you can also see the latest addition to the Lowy Collection, the M… M…
MK: Mivachar Ha-Peninim.
GM: Thanks, Michael…which will be part of a seven-month LAC exhibition called Premiere: New Acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada. This book, first published in 1484, is a collection of proverbs, moral reflections and maxims. The exhibition that features it includes other brand-new acquisitions hand-picked by specialists from across LAC.
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Thank you for joining us. I'm your host Geneviève Morin. You’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guest, Michael Kent. And thanks to Théo Martin for his contribution to the episode.
This episode was produced and engineered by Tom Thompson with assistance from Paula Kielstra.
If you’re interested in listening to the French equivalent of our podcast, you can find French versions of all our episodes on our website, iTunes and Google Play. Simply search for Découvrez Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.
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Oy Gevalt, Klezmer Ensemble Music
Publisher: Sunset Hill Music (ASCAP)
Composer: Steve Rice