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Monday, April 20, 2015

Memories of the JTS Library

Some of you may be surprised at this title; that's for two reasons. One is that the JTS, Jewish Theological Seminary is the academic center of Conservative Judaism, and I'm Orthodox, and another is that I'm not an academic, intellectual type. Those precious old books of Jewish Law aren't what draws me at all.  So, why am I suddenly writing about the JTS Library?

Honestly, I haven't thought about that library for decades. But just now I saw an article in the Jewish Forward about major changes in JTS and how they are packing up the library for a move.
The library at Manhattan’s Jewish Theological Seminary — Conservative Judaism’s largest rabbinic seminary — holds the most impressive compilation of Jewish historical materials outside of Jerusalem: hundreds of ancient Jewish marriage contracts, thousands of unique manuscripts, and tens of thousands of fragments recovered in Egypt from the famed Cairo Genizah.
Now, the future of this collection is a matter of heated debate in Jewish scholarly circles as JTS sells off real estate assets to help ease a years-long financial crunch. Over the next few years, JTS plans to sell two buildings now serving as residence halls to developers, along with air rights to its main campus. The school will also replace its current library building with a new library and conference center. (Forward)
I was in that library once, almost fifty years ago. I was not there to do research, study or anything like that. I was there because of a call many of us young Jewish activists got because of a major emergency. There had been a fire in the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and precious irreplaceable historic books and documents had been damaged and worse.
The Jewish Theological Seminary library fire was discovered on Monday, April 18, 1966 at 10:15 AM when smoke was seen pouring from one of the small upper windows of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America library tower at Broadway and 122nd Street in New York City.
The tower, with only few small windows, was the perfect environment for a major conflagration. There were no floors separating one level from another, only steel library stacks surrounded by catwalks. The tower was like an oven and the fire spread quickly. Extinguishing it was extremely difficult, with only one entrance and stairwell from the bottom and limited window access.
Fire Chief Alfred Eckert dispatched masked firefighters to the highest floor that could be safely reached. The firefighters spread canvas tarpaulins over as many shelves of books as they could, while hook and ladder trucks sprayed water through the highest openings in the tower, cascading down to the fire below. (Wikipedia)
Jews of all stripes  gathered there to rescue and clean the books. I was one of them. We went into a massive room that smelled of the recent fire. Books and papers were charred. I don't quite remember everything we did. I do remember checking for dampness and sorting the various books and papers according to their condition.

The collection of Judaica, historically important Jewish books and documents in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America library is precious to all Jews and predates the rather modern "inventions" of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist Judaisms. What is today in America called "Orthodox Judaism" was once the standard, the only Judaism in existance. The old books in the library are Jewish treasures for all Jews, not just for those who consider themselves  Conservative Jewish. That's why we all went running to help. I do not know how davka the Conservative Jewish library ended up with such an incomparable collection.

I hope that the JTS Library's treasures will be stored and displayed as safely as possible, so that future Jews will have them for study and research.

4 comments:

Reuven Miller said...

I was there also!

reuven miller

Batya Medad said...

Who knows; we could have been there the same time...

Sammy Finkelman said...

In the beginning, the distinction between Conservative ad Orthodox wasn't clear, or it wasn't clear this institution was not Orthodox. That happened around 1925 or so.

The JTS I think was founded by Solomon Schechter (correction, he was recruited as its second president in 1902) who also transported the contents of the Cairo (or Fostat) geniza to Cambridge, England in 1896-7.

Many of them still have not been gone through, or at least not digested. Not all of it wound up in Cambridge - some wound up other places. Who knows what would have hapepned had Solomon Schechter and others not taken it to England.

Solomon Schechter was also the chairman of the committee that edited the Jewish Publication Society of America Version of the Hebrew Bible that was published in 1917.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Schechter

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cairo_Geniza

http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/news/2013/historic-rivals-join-forces-to-save-1,000-years-of-jewish-history

Batya Medad said...

Sammy, thanks