Scholars Convene at the Klau Library in Cincinnati

December 5, 2023

Rabbi Joe Skloot speaking at the podium

HUC-JIR’s renowned Klau Library in Cincinnati hosted The Jewish Book in the Early Modern World symposium on November 13-14. The symposium was organized by HUC-JIR Director of Libraries Yoram Bitton; Dr. Jordan Finkin, Deputy Director of Libraries and Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian; and Rabbi Joseph Skloot, Ph.D., Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual History. The conference brought scholars from around the world to explore how sixteenth-century books and the unparalleled holdings of the Klau library tell the story of Hebrew printing and the Jewish people. The scholars who attended the symposium shared their latest research which often focused on materials from the Klau Library’s collection.

Rabbi Skloot, also the author of the newly released publication First Impressions: Sefer Hasidim and Early Modern Hebrew Printing (Brandeis University Press), led one of two public lectures. His talk focused on a book published by a group of silkweavers in Bologna in 1540, a prayer book according to the Italian Jewish tradition. This popular publication included a unique commentary and provided a wealth of insight about the context of rituals in 16th century Italy.

Rabbi Joseph Skloot, Ph.D. speaking at a podium

Rabbi Joseph Skloot, Ph.D.

Rabbi Skloot described some of the prominent topics and resources they explored during the symposium: “How did news and knowledge travel quickly across continents in the sixteenth century? A notebook from the Jewish community of Venice and a frontispiece in a single volume of Maimonides’ legal code reveal the answer. How did Jews, Christians, and Muslims collaborate despite pernicious antisemitism? The introduction to innovative Hebrew grammar and the paper in a one-of-a-kind code of law offer clues. These treasures, housed in the Klau Library and made available to symposium participants—as they are to all researchers visiting the Klau Library—opened new avenues for scholarship and collaboration, the effects of which will be felt in the years to come.”

Dr. Alexandra Gillespie, Vice President and Principal of the University of Toronto, Mississauga, delivered the evening Feld Memorial Lecture on the global history of printing. Among Dr. Gillespie’s many projects and interests, she heads Hidden Stories funded by the Mellon Foundation, which uses a variety of investigative techniques to reveal new information about early printed books. In her presentation, Dr. Gillespie shared about the various new technologies used to analyze rare books, including the printed volumes of Rabbi Yakov ben Asher’s Arba’ah Turim found in the Klau collection.

Dr. Alexandra Gillespie speaking to a group of people in the Klau Library

Dr. Alexandra Gillespie, Vice President and Principal of the University of Toronto, Mississauga

Michela Andreatta, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature and Jewish Studies Program Coordinator at the University of Rochester, says, “The conference provided me the precious opportunity to spend two days in conversation with distinguished scholars from various fields both from within and from outside of Jewish Studies, present on my current research project in front of an invested audience, and engage in inspiring discussions. The visit also allowed me to take advantage of the vast resources of the Klau Library and consult several early prints related to my research.”

Dr. Andreatta notes the importance of the Klau’s large collection. “The 1523 Bomberg edition I presented on at the conference, Mikneh Avram (Peculium Abrae) by the Jewish philosopher and physician Avraham de Balmes, is extant at the Klau Library in three copies: two copies are of the bilingual Hebrew-Latin edition and one copy of the Hebrew edition. By way of comparison, the National Library of Israel owns only two copies of this work.”

Ishai Mishory, Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, describes the Klau’s holdings as “simply unparalleled” and crucial in wrapping up pivotal research for his dissertation. He says, “Having conducted research in several storied libraries in Italy such as the Vatican Library and such august institutions as the British Library, I can happily say that the Klau’s holdings of early modern Jewish print do not fall from those and indeed in several cases – surpass them. I felt so lucky to be allowed into this world-class Jewish collection.”

During the symposium, Dr. Finkin gave what Dr. Andreatta described as a “mind-blowing” tour of some of the rare materials housed in special collections, including MS 444 (First Cincinnati Haggadah, 15th c.), MS 815 (Perek Shirah, early 19th c.), and Receipt for Palestine (1920). The medieval haggadah is one of the most important items in the collection since illustrated manuscript haggadot from medieval times are very rare and each one is important. Perek Shira is a liturgy that lists each of the creations and the various ways they praise God each day. Each miniature drawing is accompanied by a different biblical verse. The receipt for Palestine was handwritten in 1920 and has a story of its own.

MS 444 (First Cincinnati Haggadah, 15th c.), MS 815 (Perek Shirah, early 19th c.), and Receipt for Palestine (1920)

Left to right: MS 444 (First Cincinnati Haggadah, 15th c.), MS 815 (Perek Shirah, early 19th c.), and Receipt for Palestine (1920)

The gathering allowed the scholars to present new research, consult with their colleagues, and spend invaluable time with the Klau Library’s materials, many of which had been available to them only remotely.

We thank the HUC-JIR’s Dean’s Office, The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, and the Mayerson JCC for their partnership in this initiative, furthering scholarship in Jewish Studies and amplifying the impact of the Klau Library and its resources.

Read more about the symposium presentations on the library blog.