The Arty Semite

Mysterious Manuscript Owners Come To Life

By Rebecca Schischa

While a bunch of musty old books may not, at first, sound like a diverting idea for an exhibition, Columbia University has succeeded in bringing to life an illuminating collection of Judaic manuscripts.

Courtesy Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Decision from the Venetian Doge regarding the status of the Jews in Corfu, 17th century

“The People in the Books: Judaic Manuscripts at Columbia University Libraries,” on display in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library until January 25, is all about bringing to life the stories behind the manuscripts — who were the authors, owners and real people who handled these books, papers and letters hundreds of years ago? This is all about the “paratext” — the scribbled notes written in the margins of books, the changing ownership of a manuscript, the physical aspect of text. In other words, all the bibliographical clues that lead us to visualise the interaction real people had with a manuscript during its active life.

The exhibition, broken up into sections such as “Travellers,” “Congregants,” “Mystics,” “Doctors” and “Timekeepers,” gathers together diverse and rare manuscripts such as philosophical treatises, sefarim, letters, ketubot, and calendars, which are written in Hebrew, Dutch, Judeo-German and Spanish, among other languages, each giving its own vignette of Jewish community life in Europe and beyond.

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