The handwritten inscription is a little cheeky given that the book is intended to instruct young Jewish women in modesty and domestic duties.
“This is my book. If you have this book, you are a thief,” it reads in Dutch. “If you have it, I hope you sit on a barrel and have spiders crawl up your…”
The owner obviously recognized the value of her copy of Yiddish-language Der Brent Shpigl (The Burning Mirror), published in 1679 in Krakow and authored by Moshe ben Henoch Altschul-Jeruschalmi.
While the writer has faded into obscurity, Brent Shpigl can still be found in many ultra-Orthodox homes today, say Jewish Public Library (JPL) librarians Eddie Paul and Nicole Beaudry.
The naughty caution was scribbled sometime during the book’s long journey from Poland to Holland, and, eventually, to the JPL’s Rare Books Collection.
Now brown and brittle with age, the book is one of some 1,800 volumes and manuscripts of Judaica, both sacred and secular, in the collection, the oldest from 1481.
The two librarians host JPL’s “Risen Leaves” workshops, a kind of road show bringing selections and stories from the collection to schools, synagogues, churches and community groups.
The collection is carefully conserved in a climate-controlled space, but the JPL takes the view that the books should not be locked away in boxes all the time as they were in the past, Paul said. “They were meant to be used.”
“Risen Leaves” suggests their pages are meant to live again.
At this workshop held in Concordia University’s department of religions and cultures at the invitation of the Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies, several books were passed around and, as long as hands were clean, could be held and their pages turned.
The librarians focused less on bookbinding techniques or content as the circumstances of their printing, the context and people, to the limited extent known.
All the books are catalogued, but the provenance of most of them is a mystery.
The nucleus of the collection is as old as the 106-year-old JPL itself, said Beaudry. One of the founders, Yehudah Kaufman, a renowned Jewish scholar, bought precious books, often traveling outside the country, until he left Montreal in 1919. Even which ones those were was apparently never documented, she said.
The great majority came to the JPL after the Second World War, from the Offenbach Archival Depot in Germany where the American military collected written materials looted by the Nazis.
Those that could not be returned to their owner were distributed to Jewish communities around the world. Canadian Jewish Congress received 2,000 books, of which 1,500 were given to the JPL.
Again which ones those were was also not documented.
Beaudry and Paul bring complementary talents and interests to the workshops. Paul, head of bibliographic and information services, has worked at the JPL for decades. Beaudry is a fairly recent staff member who mainly works in the children’s section.
While a library science student at McGill University, she chose to go to the JPL rather than the university’s vast rare books holdings for an assignment to research six books. Her research into the collection continues to the extent the JPL’s resources allow.
Beaudry is Catholic, but was drawn to this antiquarian Judaica in part because she found Jewish women played a larger role in publishing than Christian women did, even back to the 1500s. Frequently, widows of printers stepped into their late husbands’ role.
Her favourite, Brent Shpigl, is believed to be the first book written in Yiddish for women dating back to the late 1500s or, as it states in the preface, for “men as ignorant as women.”
The text in this leather-bound copy goes right to the pages’ very edge on what appears to be recycled paper. This was an economy that kept its price down, Beaudry said.
The oldest book is Josephus’ History of the Jews published in 1481 in Venice. The pages of the thick volume are in remarkably good shape, but the rebinding, estimated to have taken place in the late 1800s, is not. The two covers and spine have fallen off.
It was donated to the JPL in 1974; again, even the name of the donor was not recorded, let alone how they came to acquire it.
Another intriguing specimen, and probably the rarest, according to Paul, is an Ethiopian Jewish prayer book in the Ge’ez language of the Coptic Church and in Amharic script.
The Liturgy of the Seventh Sabbath is really a manuscript, its very discoloured pages held together within wooden casing by string.
Transmigration of the Souls by a disciple of the revered 16th-century Safed mystic Isaac Luria, published in Frankfurt in 1684, may be a close second. Paul explained that Jewish printing was banned following the “hysteria” that swept Europe in the wake of the self-proclaimed Jewish messiah Sabbatai Zevi.
Transmigration, among other ominous things, prognosticates what happens to a Jew’s soul if they have sex with animals, he said.
A controversial work is Baruch Spinoza’s Theologico Politicus in Latin, a tractate so hot the author’s name appears nowhere. Even the printer’s identity is a pseudonym.
Anybody can consult the Rare Books Collection, by appointment. The JPL is also open to receiving genuinely rare books, printed up to 1899.
“Overcrowding is a problem,” Paul said, “but if a book is rare or valuable enough, we’ll find the space.”