A Middle Eastern Torah dating from the 10th to 12th century, a 14th-century Torah commentary by Rashi, and an early 15th-century manuscript of the Zohar that once belonged to the false Jewish messiah Shabbetai Tsvi are among the pieces on display in an exhibition of Judaica that opens Jan. 26 at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.
About a third of the 110 items in “As It Is Written: Judaic Treasures from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library” come from the Friedberg Collection, donated to the library by Toronto financier Albert Friedberg and his wife Nancy in several instalments beginning in 1995, and credited with putting the library on the map as a major repository of rare Judaica.
Other items come from a collection of rare Hebraica donated to the university from the estate of the late Toronto Rabbi Abraham Price; from the Schneid Collection of Jewish Art, donated from the estate of artist and art historian Otto Schneid; and from the Druck Collection of kibbutz and secular Haggadot published from the 1930s to the 1980s.
The exhibition also includes a tribute album dedicated to Sir Moses Montefiore on the occasion of his 100th birthday in 1884; photos of Chinese Jews taken by Bishop William Charles White; and a collection of rare postcards of about 120 pre-World War II synagogues from all over Europe, many of which were destroyed.
According to the catalogue by curator Barry Walfish, the exhibition “takes visitors through more than a thousand years of Jewish history and culture.” A specialist in Judaica who earned a PhD in medieval Jewish intellectual history and medieval interpretation of the Bible, Walfish began working as a Judaica specialist for the Robarts Library in 1980 and for the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in 1991.
“In putting this exhibition together, I discovered a lot of things I hadn’t known about before – it’s been quite an adventure for me,” he said. “I tried to include items from the most important collections that we have, but I had to be quite selective because our exhibition space is quite restricted.”
Still, the scope of the exhibition is impressive. Seeking a Canadian connection, Walfish included a display case of Canadiana from the 18th century to the present. The oldest item, a 1752 broadsheet listing goods offered by the Jewish merchants Nathans and Hart, is “one of the first items printed in Canada as well as clear evidence of a Jewish presence in Halifax almost from the time of its founding.”
There is also an 1878 prayerbook edited by Montreal Rabbi Abraham de Sola; a mystical treatise about the Golem of Prague written in 1909 by Rabbi Judah Yudl Rozenberg of Toronto and Montreal; a volume of poetry by Montrealer Y. I. Segal published in 1921 and regarded as the first book of Yiddish poetry printed in Canada; and a wartime Yiddish pamphlet titled “In Battle against Anti-Semitism” by communist-socialist politician J. B. Salsberg of Toronto.