Author Archives: Michelle

About Michelle

Michelle Chesner is the Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University.

Digitizing microfilm and a well-used Haggadah

Way back in 2011, the Libraries began a partnership with the Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts (IMHM) at the National Library of Israel (NLI) to digitize over 200 manuscripts from our Judaica collection that the IMHM did not have in microfilm.  We subsequently posted those manuscript images on a specialized site on the Internet Archive, and in the NLI’s KTIV database of Hebrew manuscripts (which, to date, holds records, and in many cases digitized images, for 81% of the world’s known Hebrew manuscripts). Over the course of the past year, Columbia University Libraries made the decision to make our collection further accessible, by digitizing all of the microfilm for the Hebrew manuscripts.  The images were almost immediately loaded into KTIV (they will be added to our Internet Archive site as well), providing freely available images of over 1400 of our nearly 1700 manuscript titles to users around the world.

Digitizing the microfilm and providing easy access the manuscripts is useful at many levels – the manuscripts are essentially browseable now in a way that previously would have taken months.  In browsing through thousands upon thousands of images, I stumbled across a Haggadah that looked quite interesting, with lovely illustrations of the Passover Seder.

While black and white microfilm images don’t do justice to an original, they can serve as a first step to learning about important manuscripts. After looking at the images of what looked like a series of prayers for various holidays, I went to look at the original manuscript, and was not disappointed.

MS X893C J55 v.11 is one in a series of liturgical books acquired for the collection by Professor Richard Gottheil. This book, produced in the 18th century, contains a Passover Haggadah as well as prayers for various holidays, a wedding, and the Sabbath.  The Haggadah was well-worn and used, with lovely illustrations and decorations.

The manuscript begins with a grand illustration of two lions.  It was this preliminary image, (which looked rather dark in the black and white image,) that compelled me to take a look at the physical manuscripts, where I saw the gold leaf and color that had been used for its decoration.

After the lions, I was treated to three men holding the main symbols of the Passover Seder: a (rather small) Pascal lamb; a (somewhat decorated) matzah; and a very large vegetable that could only have been maror, the bitter herb used to represent the bitterness of the Egyptian slavery.

Turning some further pages, I was delighted to see what might be considered by some to be a travesty: a page covered in remnants of food and drink that had been consumed at the Passover Seder. The residue of food left behind three hundred years ago has a definite aura that does not come easily when looking at a child’s dirty or sticky book in the present day.

Several owners, from the de Montsales family (Avraham, Aharon, Moshe) left their marks on the pages, and so the Haggadah must have been treasured by its owners. (The de Montsaleses feature in a total of five of our manuscripts from the Comtat Venaissan, from the early to mid-18th century.) Who knows who might find inspiration in our sticky, wine and food stained Haggadot three hundred years from now?

Purim literature beyond the Book of Esther

A scroll of the book of Esther Columbia MS General 192

Masekhet Megilah (Venice, 1528)

In considering the literature relating to the holiday of Purim (due to take place next Thursday), the text that comes to mind instantly is the book of Esther, read on the eve prior and day of the holiday.  One with more familiarity to Jewish texts might cite the Talmudic tractate of “Megillah,” which is dedicated to the Rabbinic discussion of many aspects of the holiday of Purim and the story of the book of Esther (or Megilat Esther).

In addition to the classical rabbinic writings, however, Purim is unique for the lively parodies that were and are produced in honor of the holiday, which celebrates the hidden and the unexpected.  Masekhet (Tractate) Purim is probably the most famous of these.  It was originally written in 14th century Italy, but it was copied, printed, edited, and added to many times over the centuries. It is written in Aramaic and Hebrew, in the style of the Talmud itself, with additional parodies of the major Talmudic

B893.2 K12

Megilat Setarim/Masekhet Purim, Venice, 1552

commentators, Rashi and Tosafot.  Columbia’s copy of the Venice 1552 edition includes some inscriptions from various owners, including Barukh Almanzi, whose collection forms the cornerstone of Columbia’s Judaica holdings, and, following the “hadran” at the end, Mikhel son of Shelomoh.  (The “hadran” is a traditional series of phrases one reads upon completing a Talmudic tractate.)


Columbia MS X893 Se 394

Another “tractate” that was common for Purim was “Masekhet Shikorim” (Tractate of the Drunken Ones). Because of the injunction that one should drink on Purim until unable to tell the difference between “blessed be Haman” (the villian) and “cursed be Mordekhai” (the hero), drunkenness is a common feature of the various Purim parodies.

Columbia MS X893 J756 v.11

Columbia MS X893 J756 v.11

An Italian poem uses a different literary genre for its Purim parody.  This manuscript’s title translates as “Give honor to the beautiful Purim” and seems to parody the Italian tradition of a “wedding poem,” treating the holiday as if it were a bride.  The end of the poem describes itself as a “pretty song to be sung in the evening and the day of Purim.”

Columbia MS X893 J7494

Another poem, in Judeo-Greek (left), is followed by a story of a miraculous salvation experienced by the Jews in Sicily, called Purim Sicily.  There is an entire genre of location specific “Purims,” which commemorate miraculous salvations to the Jews in particular cities they describe. There are examples in our collections from Egypt, Saragossa, and Carpentras, in addition to this Sicilian one, and they will be discussed in a later post.

Another common form of parody was the Purim play, which used the story in the book of Esther to poke fun at contemporary events and people.  A “Shoye Shpil” written in German with Hebrew characters (below) describes the characters of the Purim story in a contemporary 19th century manner.

Columbia MS X893.2 M85

Purim parodies continue to be written in the present day.  Here’s an example of one created in 2016, which adds yet another chapter to the so-called “Masekhet Purim,” (with tongue-in-cheek references to contemporary controversies) and new ones are likely being prepared this week for the upcoming holiday.

Samuel Johnson and Hebrew at Columbia

Samuel Johnson’s copy of the Psalms

We’ve discussed the history of Hebrew language study at Columbia in previous posts, but until now, not much has been said about Revered Samuel Johnson’s connection to the study of Hebrew. Samuel Johnson was the founder of King’s College (renamed Columbia after the American Revolution), and its sole faculty member until 1757.  He served as president of the college until he was succeeded by Myles Cooper in 1763.

Samuel Johnson’s Psalms

Samuel Johnson’s Psalms

As cited in Isadore S. Meyer in “Doctor Samuel Johnson’s grammar and Hebrew Psalter,” (in Essays on Jewish Life and Thought. Presented in Honor of Salo Wittmayer Baron. Edited by Joseph L. Blau [et al.]. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959, pp. 359-374), Dr. Johnson explained that he was drawn to Hebrew at a young age, when he found a book of his grandfather’s that included Hebrew words.  By the time he was President of the newly established King’s College in New York, he considered Hebrew “indispensably necessary for all such as are designed to be teaching Christianity.”  Hebrew grammar and Hebrew Bible were included in the fourth year studies of the King’s College curriculum.

Samuel Johnson’s Psalms

Johnson clearly showed his dedication to the prominence of Hebrew by using his own Hebrew-Latin Psalter for the Commencement.  His copy of the Psalter, used at the early commencement ceremonies, includes a handwritten formula that was used in the giving of degrees at King’s College.

Monis to Johnson (bottom)

Even before his King’s College days, though, Johnson was a dedicated student of the Hebrew language.  As early as 1716, he received a letter from

Monis to Johnson (portion of verso)

Judah Monis (future professor of Hebrew at Harvard University, who would print his grammar in Boston as the first book with Hebrew moveable type in the New World) expressing Monis’s dismay that Johnson had not visited him as promised. Monis, who had just converted to Christianity from Judaism the year before, wrote the letter in Hebrew “for Want Inglish [sic] Words” and “…Take particular Pleasure in the Hebrew Tongue.”

Additional items in Samuel Johnson’s collection attest to his study of Hebrew.  An early manuscript shows Johnson’s initial attempts at Hebrew writing:








A later pamphlet (with Christian principals of belief rendered in Hebrew among the traditional Hebrew Bible quotations) shows just how far Johnson’s penmanship had progressed:



Johnson’s final contribution to Hebrew studies was the publication of his own Hebrew grammar, produced, so he wrote, to better teach his grandson the Hebrew language (he was dissatisfied with the Hebrew grammars that already existed).  Columbia owns a number of copies of this volume, which was printed in multiple editions.  One of our copies of the first edition (1767) was donated to Columbia by Samuel’s son, Samuel William Johnson.

Johnson’s dream of creating a chair for Hebrew language would not be fulfilled for a couple of centuries, but his legacy of Hebrew studies at the University continues to this day.

Inscription from Samuel William Johnson

Title page of Samuel Johnson’s grammar

The semester of the Jewish book

Image courtesy of Dina Mann, IIJS

Columbia University Libraries exists to support teaching and learning, in the classroom and beyond. This usually occurs in the form of research consultations, classroom presentations on doing research, online research guides, and various other reference interactions.

Image courtesy Dina Mann, IIJS

This semester, however, a wonderful partnership between a professor and a librarian gave graduate students a rare opportunity to study the history of the Jewish book in the place where the books are held: Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript library.  Professor Elisheva Carlebach, Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture, and Society and director of the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, taught a graduate seminar titled “Jewish Book Cultures in Early Modern Europe, and each week, Michelle Chesner, the Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies, brought a selection of materials relating to the readings and topic discussed at that class session.

Teshuvot RaSHbA (Rome, c. 1469-1472)

The class began with the earliest forms of writing, including, ostraca, papyri, scrolls, a cuneiform tablet and a marble Greek epigraph for a Jewish boy from the 3rd century.  The class then moved on to incunabula, the first printed books.  Thanks to Columbia’s extensive collection on printing history and book arts, the class was able to see first-hand the various techniques and tools for making type and illustrations for the books.  A copy of an early printing press housed in the University Archives Reading Room was perfect for explaining how books were made in the 15th century.

Image courtesy Dina Mann, IIJS

Students learned about the swift spread of the printing arts among Jews, and about how print impacted Jews and Judaism – both internally and externally.  A session on censorship and Christian Hebraism illustrated the positive and negative impacts of renewed Christian interests in Jewish texts during the early years of print.  Visiting scholars included Dr. Isabelle Levy, an adjunct instructor at Columbia, Columbia alumnus Professor Joseph Skloot (Hebrew Union College), and  Professor Joshua Teplitsky (Stony Brook University).

Mahazor, Soncino-Casalmaggiore, 1486, with indications of bearer type

Additional sessions dealt with Jewish books in languages other than Hebrew (including Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic), illustrations in Jewish books, and paratexts.

One particularly memorable session was dedicated to the Footprints project, which traces the movement of the Jewish book through time and place, often based on evidence found within the books themselves. Students formed pairs and compared two copies of the same edition to see how clearly different routes through time and place can impact the book and its use.

Image courtesy Dina Mann, IIJS

For their final paper, each student was required to choose a book and research it in depth – from cultural, material and textual perspectives.  At the end of the semester, the students joined together with three other classes that had been working on various aspects of the book (Manuscripts in the Muslim World, Medieval Manuscripts as Material Texts, and Classics and Print) to present the results of their research.

Image courtesy Dina Mann, IIJS

It is rare to have an opportunity to take a history class where all of the primary sources are laid out in front of the students for hands-on examination. It was a truly wonderful experience, one which we hope we will be able to replicate in the future.

Gift of c.200 items greatly enhances Judaica collections

At the beginning of 2018, the Norman E. Alexander Library received a generous gift to be added to Columbia’s collections.  The gift includes printed and handwritten materials from the 14th to the 20th centuries, and spans the globe, from Djerba to Dresden, from Mantua to Maryland, Jerusalem to Jessnitz, Sydney to Sulzbach, and many more.  Included in the gift were about 30 volumes from the famed Valmadonna Trust Library of London.  The majority of that collection was acquired by the National Library of Israel in early 2017.

Particularly amazing about this collection was that it filled many gaps in our existing collection that could not be filled due to our current collecting priorities and budget.  We are thus particularly grateful for this, and are very pleased to say that many of the materials have already been used in classes.

Some of the highlights are described below, with forthcoming posts on more of the collection.

A Hebrew-Ladino Biblical lexicon (Venice, 1617): This has already been used in not one, but two classes! “Jewish Literature In Translation” and “Jewish Book Cultures in the Early Modern World.”An important example of later illustrations can be found in the Sefirat ha-omer book produced by the Roedelheim press in 1900.  The book includes lovely images with various depictions of notable days on the Jewish calendar:

The Darmstadt Haggadah is a glorious illuminated manuscript, originally produced in the 15th century.  Columbia’s collection is most strong in the early modern period, and we don’t have very many illuminated medieval manuscript, so this facsimile of that manuscript is an important addition to our teaching collection.In the United States, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was of primary importance to Eastern European Ashkenazi immigrants to the Lower East Side.  Their Constitution was printed in Yiddish (here, from 1913):

An important collection of Yiddish sheet music delighted the students in the Jewish Music in New York class, and potential researchers have already reached out regarding their interest in further research:

Unfortunately, there are too many examples that exist of antisemitic materials, but when contextualized, they can be very important for the study of the phenomenon.  Below, a series of books depicting “Jewish” (and sometimes “Italian”) jokes.  These made in appearance in a class on Jewish Humor.A notable event related to antisemitism is the false accusation, trial, and punishment of Alfred Dreyfus.  Here are some drawings of notable characters from the trial, in Hermann-Paul’s pro-Dreyfusard “Deux Cents Dessins” from 1900 (our copy includes some of the original drawings as well).

The gift also includes a lovely collection of artists’ books, mostly from the early 20th century.  Artists’ books are already a strong collecting area at Columbia, but the Rare Book and Manuscript Library did not have too much in the way of Judaica until now.  Most of these are from pre-WWII Europe or pre-State Palestine.

Das Hohe Lied (1911), one of 250 copies, with colored lithographs by Lovis Corinth:

Uriel Birnbaum’s Moses (Vienna, 1924) is just breathtaking:

Abel Pann’s The Bible in Pictures (Palestine Art Publishing Company, 1925):

We’ll post more examples in the coming months, as the processing continues and the books are made accessible to our users.

New Acquisitions: Personal Prayers and Kashrut

According to the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, Tkhines, or “supplications” were a “private devotions and paraliturgical prayers usually in Yiddish, primarily for women, published beginning in the early modern period.”  While one of our recent acquisitions definitely falls under the category of Yiddish prayers for women, it was not published, but rather produced by hand, that is, in manuscript.

This small but lovely volume was created for a women called Pearl, the daughter of Phineas and the wife of Abraham Deutsch.  The scribe, Jacob Segal, was clearly a talented writer and decorator.  The text is clear and large, and the illustrations beautiful.  This was clearly a manuscript to be used in heartfelt prayer and devotion.  The manuscript is currently on exhibit as part of “Yiddish at Columbia” in the Chang Octagon Gallery in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library until June 15, and can be found under call number MS General 286.

A second new acquisition is a colorful collection of illustrated laws on ritual slaughter, or shehita.

This volume deals specifically with “bedikot,” the laws of checking the animal after slaughter to ensure it is kosher.

The manuscript thus includes a detailed illustration of the animal’s innards, so the shohet (ritual slaughterer) would be able to identify various flaws or defects that would render it treif, or unkosher.

The volume was written in Italian (with some technical Hebrew terms) and illustrated by Israel David Luzzatto in Mantua around 1804.  Israel David was the uncle of Samuel David Luzzatto, who is well represented within our manuscript collection. (Many thanks to Shimon Steinmetz, who identified the connection between the two Luzzattos!)  The manuscript also includes a certificate affirming Luzzatto’s knowledge of the laws he describes.

There are many illustrations throughout the manuscript.  Some are whimsical, like the bird on the right.  Others are more practical, like a table of colors that identify the kashrut status of the animal based on examination of its internal organs (certain shades of black would render the animal treif, while another color, like red, would indicate that the meat was kosher and could be eaten.

Paint would have been carefully mixed to produce the correct color for the samples, as this would have been used as the exemplar for legal decisions, and so the color needed to be unfading and clear.  (The color labeled “green” in Hebrew is  correctly yellow here, as that is the color meant by the word “yarok” in the shehita literature.) This manuscript is available for use as MS General 285.

George Arthur Plimpton and Hebrew Manuscripts

George Arthur Plimpton (1855-1936) was a man of many passions, including book collector, founder of Columbia’s “Friends of the Libraries” and Barnard trustee.  He donated his collection on the history of mathematics (among many other things) to Columbia shortly before his death. We know of a few Hebrew manuscripts that were included in his collection, classified under the MS Plimpton Hebrew heading. (Plimpton collected Hebrew books as well, including a Hebrew-Latin treatise on astronomy and arithmetic, and Sefer ha-Mispar, on arithmetic)

MS Plimpton Hebrew 004 is a scroll in Hebrew describing a trip made by a Dutch Jew to India, where he met the “black and white Jews of Malabar and Cochin.” Interestingly, we have another manuscript in our collection from a different acquisition that describes a similar trip, also by a Dutch Jew.

Another manuscript in the collection is a fragment of a 14th century Torah codex that had been used as part of a book binding,

Thanks to the intrepid work of Jane Siegel, we have been able to identify two additional pieces of Hebrew manuscript, included in a handbook (PLIMPTON MS 093.93 1630) of handwritings (writing samples was one of Plimpton’s many collection strengths).  Both are handwriting samples from Amsterdam.

The first begins with an inscription: “For the memory and a guard, in the hand of Master Joannes Wilmet, who learned from [lit. by] me the Hebrew language, the year 526 [i.e. 1766].” It ends “thus is the song of my beloved for my dear friend, here in Amsterdam, the writer Eliezer Zusman.”  Joannes Wilmet was a Dutch “Orientalist,” who was known for his work on Hebrew, Arabic, and ancient languages.  It seems that the Jew Eliezer Zusman may have been one of his teachers of Hebrew.

The second writing sample is beautiful as well, with the letters embellished as if on a Torah scroll.  This one was written by David Friedrichsfeld, who was part of an 18th century movement to revive the Hebrew language called the Me’asfim (so-called for their periodical, ha-Me’asef). This document includes copious praise upon “the Prince Wilmet” (perhaps the same as the one described above)

Who knows what other Hebrew treasures may yet be found within the deep and vast Plimpton Collection?

Exhibition: Yiddish at Columbia (Chang Octagon Gallery, March 5-June 15)

As part of the celebration of the digital publication of the data for the LCAAJ, we will be launching a small exhibition in the Chang Octagon Gallery at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which will be on display from March 5-June 15, 2018.  The exhibition will feature a variety of themes including old Yiddish, Ritual, Yiddish Theatre, Yiddish Press, Yiddish in the Academy, and the LCAAJ. 

Launching the Digitized Data for the Language and Culture Archive of Ashkenazic Jewry (LCAAJ)!

Columbia University Libraries is very pleased to announce the launch of the website for the digitized data of the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry. An accompanying guide to the use of the digitized materials with many supplementary materials is also available.

The LCAAJ archive is an extraordinary resource for research in Yiddish studies that can shed much valuable light on language, ethnography, literature, folklore and music, anthropology, linguistics, Germanic and Slavic studies, and aspects of Central and East European history. The archive consists of over 600 interviews conducted between 1959 and 1972 with native speakers of Yiddish during a long-range comparative study to document the effects of physical, linguistic, and cultural channels and barriers on the geographic fragmentation of the Jewish and diverse non-Jewish populations that coexisted in Central and Eastern Europe before World War II. The LCAAJ project collected its interviews at essentially the last moment, when a diverse body of native speakers was still alive, aiming to address both the challenge of an endangered linguistic and cultural legacy, and the special potential that Yiddish provides for studying language and cultural contact and change.

This two-year project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, digitized approximately 140,000 pages of interview documents containing data from the interviews, carried out optical character recognition (OCR) and mark-up of the printed responses to enable their content to be searched and manipulated, and made all the digitized content freely available to scholars via the Digital Library Collections at Columbia. Additional work, funded by the Libraries, allowed for complete reprocessing of the full LCAAJ archive for scholarly use. This source for historical, literary, or anthropological research, for the study of languages in contact, and for the evolution and differentiation of language communities, is now available to a worldwide community of scholars.

The written materials accompany more than 5,700 hours of recorded interviews that Columbia Libraries has already digitized through generous support from NEH, private foundations, the New York State Conservation/Preservation Program, and Evidence of Yiddish Documented in European Societies (EYDES, a project of the German Förderverein für Jiddische Sprache und Kultur), through which the audio is publicly available. The long-term goal is to eventually link the written content to the audio recordings of the interviews and make the entire audio and written corpus available to students and scholars in an integrated form.

The interviews contain a wealth of comments about Jewish culture and history from a place and time that is largely out of our reach today. Bringing the LCAAJ archive into the digital environment will exponentially increase its value to historians of Jewish Studies and European history, linguists, anthropologists, and students and teachers of Yiddish. The availability of this data will greatly facilitate the online work of scholars to continue and enhance the important mapping work begun in the first three volumes of the printed Atlas, which were published by Niemeyer in 1992-2000.

As part of the launch of the project, an exhibition called “Yiddish at Columbia” will be on display in the Chang Octagon Gallery in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library from March 5-June 15, 2018. Additional events will be announced at a later date.