Beginning next week, the Library of Congress will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its Hebraic Collection – started with a gift from Schiff in 1912 – with a five-month exhibition that explores the Jewish experience through the written word.
“Words Like Sapphires: 100 Years of Hebraica at the Library of Congress, 1912-2012” opens on Oct. 25 in the South Gallery of the Jefferson Building and closes
March 16 April 13, 2013.
The exhibition showcases more than 60 items dating from the seventh century to the present: Hebrew manuscripts, incunabula (pre-1501 books), a Torah scroll, the first Hebrew book published in the United States, a Yiddish-language version of the U.S. Constitution – and more than a dozen books donated by Schiff a century ago.
“We are pleased to be able to bring to the American people and visitors from around the world items from the collections of the Hebraic Section that have never before been exhibited, plus treasures that haven’t been on view at the Library in more than two decades,” said Peggy Pearlstein, head of the Hebraic Section.
Medieval rabbis and poets used the image of sapphires to convey the clarity of carefully selected words and the beauty of the written page – an idea that provided the exhibition with its title and inspired the presentation of the objects.
“Every exhibition at the Library is unique, based first on its content but also on its unique design,” said Kim Curry, a senior exhibition director in the Interpretive Programs Office. “For ‘Words Like Sapphires,’ we were inspired by the beauty of the objects in the exhibition, while the exhibit’s title inspired us to create a sumptuous, jewel-like presentation. We also worked closely with our designer to create a wide-open design because we expect the exhibition to be very well attended.”
The collection of Hebraica at the Library got its start in the early 1900s as part of an effort by then-Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam to build an institution that more fully represented the breadth of world knowledge and cultures.
“This was part of his overall vision of having a much broader library,” Pearlstein said.
In this, Putnam sought the help of Jacob Henry Schiff, one of the most influential bankers and philanthropists of the age.
As head of the Kuhn, Loeb and Co. investment bank, Schiff helped finance America’s growing railroads, emerging companies such as Westinghouse and Western Union, and even Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
Schiff made a lot of money – he was worth an estimated $50,000,000 upon his death in 1920 – and donated large portions of it to charitable causes.
“Mr. Schiff spends almost as much time giving away money as in making it,” Forbes magazine reported at the time.
Schiff felt strongly about his Jewish heritage and devoted much of his life and fortune to supporting Jewish causes and institutions. His philanthropy helped support Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Jewish Division of the New York Public Library.
To Putnam, Schiff seemed a natural choice to help establish a Hebraic collection at the Library of Congress. He also knew exactly what kind of help he wanted Schiff to provide.
In a letter to Schiff written on April 1, 1912, Putnam described a Hebraic collection owned by bookseller Ephraim Deinard and gently proposed that Schiff buy the material and offer it as a gift to the Library of Congress.
“I venture to lay this suggestion before you,” Putnam wrote.
He purchased 10,000 books and pamphlets from Deinard – a collection that spanned nearly 500 years – and donated them to the Library. He also went Putnam one better: Schiff provided funds to hire a person specially designated to maintain the collection.
Schiff’s original gift and another donation in 1914 formed the basis of a collection that now includes more than 200,000 items in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac and Amharic.
“Washington wasn’t a large city at the time. It was small, and there wasn’t a large Jewish community,” Pearlstein said. “But scholars in the United States would be able to come here and do research. It put us on a par with the great national libraries of Europe.”
The exhibition, part of the Library’s multiyear “Celebration of the Book,” was made possible with support from the Abby and Emily Rapoport and the Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen trust funds at the Library of Congress.
Several other programs are planned in conjunction with the exhibition.
Earlier this year, the Library published “Perspectives on the Hebraic Book: The Myron M. Weinstein Memorial Lectures at the Library of Congress.” The book will be the subject of a free, public program at the Library on Oct. 29.
On Oct. 25, Emile Schrijver, curator of the Jewish special collection at the University of Amsterdam, will discuss “The Jewish Book Since the Invention of Printing.” On Nov. 5, poet Peter Cole will discuss “One Hundred Years of Hebrew Poetry.”
“It’s an exciting moment to be able to celebrate a centennial, and we’re looking forward to the next century of collecting material and making it available to researchers and the public,” Pearlstein said. “It’s not an end. It’s really just a stop along the way for what I hope will continue to be more wonderful materials we can acquire for the Library.”
UPDATE: The “Words Like Sapphires exhibition” is now available online.