Needle in the Bookstacks
What the librarians are reading, thinking, or dreaming up for the HUC-JIR libraries.
Monday, December 15, 2008
The Book as Witness - 1
Previously I have posted entries entitled The Librarian as Witness, in which I celebrated memorable persons in Jewish life and history whom I have been fortunate to meet, in order to share an anecdote that revealed as aspect or aspects of those persons one might not know, overlook, or take for granted.
This entry I entitle The Book as Witness because a single book may contain more than what is apparent between its two covers. For example, not long ano I was perusing the little-used collection of old prayer books shelved in our Kiev Collection (i.e., the collection before we adopted the Library of Congress classification scheme, which was in 1981). I found several volumes of Tehinot ("women's prayers") in Yiddish from the very early 19th century, including one not listed on WorldCat or the standard bibliographies.
But another one stood out immediately - a volume entitled Modlitwy, the Polish word for "prayers," published in Warsaw in 1861 by Henryk Natanson. This small (16 cm.) volume contained Tehinot, not in Yiddish as one might expect, but in Polish, prepared by one Rozalia Felix. At the head of the title-page was the word, "Techynoth," the word "Tehinot" in a Polish spelling, that clinched the deal.
The first question that entered my mind was, "Who was this book's intended user?" Obviously a Jewish woman, but - and this is the perhaps unusual part - one who was more acculturated in the Polish language than Yiddish. From quality of this book's paper, printing, and cover, this we may wonder if there was already a Jewish middle class aspiring to be as Polish as they were Jewish. A little further digging shows there indeed was.
The book's publisher, Henryk Natanson (1820-1895), was a well-known Jewish publisher and related to a Jewish banking family in Warsaw.
And perhaps emblematic of this Jewish middle class class was Samuel Orgelbrand (1810-1868), a publisher whose company produced between the years 1829 and 1868 some 600 titles in Polish and 100 in Hebrew. Most notably of his Hebrew output was an edition of the Talmud, and of his Polish, a 28 volume encyclopedia, the first of its kind in the Polish language. (Indeed, "Orgelbrand" was used in Polish to mean an encyclopaedia in general, just as "Webster" is used in English generically for a dictionary.)
While I was able to find much about the Natanson and Orgelbrand families, I, alas, was unable to find out anything about Rozalia Felix, the woman responsible for the book of prayers itself.
Examing the book further I found a brief introduction in Polish, signed by Dr. M. Jastrow, who was identified as the preacher at the synagoue on Danilowiczowski Street. (Later, Danilowiczowski Street was renamed Nowy Świat, and is a major street, on one side of which one accesses Warsaw University and on the otheer, the Old City (Stary Miasto) and the Jewish Quarter.
Now the detective work became even more interesting. M. Jastrow is none other than Marcus Jastrow, probably better known to most readers of this blog entry as the person whose name is almost synonymous with "Aramaic dictionary"!
Marcus Jastrow was born in Prussian Poland (or Polish Prussia) in 1829 and died in Philadelphia in 1903. After receiving his education in Posen, Berlin, and Halle, he was engaged as the preacher at the German congregation in Warsaw. While there he became deeply interested in the Polish language and culture, and in 1861 preached his first sermon in that language.
The year of this little book of prayers is also significant, for tow years later, in1863 there was a violent uprising by the Poles against the Russian Government, a rebellion in which Jews boldly took sides with the Poles. Indeed, Jewish victims of the repression were honored by the Polish Christians at public ceremonies. (Ceremonies, which I must add, took place on the Sabbath, in which Jastrow openly participated, and for which he was condemned in the Jewish community.) Jastrow was even imprisioned by the Russian authorities for three months for his provocative actions, after which he was expelled to Germany. And in 1866 he settled in Philadelphia, where he died over 35 years later.
So a dusty old book in a language on a shelf untouched for decades may be like an archaeological "tel," as an historical witness to persons and events otherwise unimagined.