The National Library of Israel (NLI), formerly the Jewish National and University Library, is a venerable institution that is home to the world’s largest collection of Judaica. Yoel Finkelman has been the curator of its Chaim and Chana Salomon Judaica Collection since 2014, and is helping oversee the library’s renewal process.
How did you come to be the NLI’s Judaica curator?
The idea was to bring in people who were not necessarily professional information scientists, but who had a background in the content; people who saw things from the perspective of researchers and readers, to be content experts responsible both for collection expansion and for being content advisors across the library staff.
I’d spent most of my professional career teaching Torah in women’s batei midrash in Jerusalem, or in an academic context. Personally and professionally, it was time for a change. So I jumped at the opportunity to be involved in something this exciting and unique – and a little bit out of the box.
What does a curator do?
People are used to the term “curator” in museums. They expect curators to be the people who create exhibits. But only a small percentage of the collection in a museum is visible.
Part of the goal of the renewal process is to make these vast, unique collections more accessible to the public. We have the largest, deepest, most diverse collection of Jewish books, manuscripts, archives, periodicals, music and photographs that’s ever been collected.
We have two volumes of Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah in Judeo-
Arabic. The only copy of Hatikvah in Naftali Herz Imber’s own handwriting. We have seventh-century magical bowls, biblical manuscripts, underground Soviet dissident literature, the first Jewish periodicals.
How do you keep all those materials organized and accessible?
That’s one of the biggest challenges. We have an extremely knowledgeable, talented, diverse staff. Nevertheless, if we come across a potential donation or purchase, it can be difficult to put it into context if it comes from a place that’s not particularly well-documented, to find out how unique and important this is.
We’re trying to be nimble and diverse, and as up-to-date and knowledgeable as we can, calling on academics and people outside our institution who can help guide us to what matters in such diverse areas.
Have you had any interesting acquisitions lately?
We had a really marvellous donation, a suitcase full of North African Hebrew and Aramaic magical amulets, probably late 19th, early 20th century. It made its way from North Africa to the Soviet Union, where it was given to someone for safekeeping. A Jewish doctor from the U.S. was on tour in the 1950s to see the Soviet medical system, and in a visit to a synagogue, the rabbi gave him this suitcase and said, “You have to take care of it; it can’t stay here.”
That suitcase stayed in his family until very recently, when the family donated it to us. It’s a marvellous story of the transnational migration of this set of texts outside the typical canon of what educated Jews might be aware of – this long tradition of magic and amulets. This is the kind of thing that gets us excited.
This past year, we also acquired a set of drawings by Franz Kafka. That’s a very complicated saga, but broadly speaking, Kafka’s friend Max Brod ignored Kafka’s wishes to have all of his material burnt and came to Palestine in 1939.
When Brod passed away in 1963, he instructed the executors of his own will to donate his archive, including the Kafka materials, to a public institution in Israel. He mentioned the library. It took a lot of doing and a lot of lawyers and lot of bickering back and forth. Eventually, the courts realized that the material belongs here.
The NLI seems to have more global aspirations than most national libraries. Is that true?
That’s something unique about the National Library of Israel. Other national libraries focus on documenting the geographic borders of a nation-state. Israel and the Jewish people are in a somewhat unique situation because of the relationship between the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.
On the one hand, the Jewish people is larger than the geographic borders of the State of Israel, and also, the nation-state of Israel includes significant cultural and religious minorities.
So we try to do both – to be the national library of the State of Israel, with its majority Jewish culture and many cultural and religious minorities, and also to be the library of the Jewish people, because of the uniqueness of the State of Israel and the Zionist project.
Is the NLI accessible to Israel’s Muslim community?
The simple answer is yes – the collections are open to anybody and everybody. But part of the process of renewal has been a deliberate attempt to reach out to, and be accessible to, to focus on educational and cultural activities for Israel’s Arab minority.
There’s a section on the website in Arabic and recently added tools to allow reference services in Arabic. And not a week goes by that there isn’t a group of schoolchildren from east Jerusalem on a field trip to the library.
Part of the decision to change the name from Jewish National and University Library to National Library of Israel was to be more inclusive in that sense. Israel is both a Jewish state and also a state that has minorities who need to be served and documented.
What’s in store for the new NLI building?
Key to the renewal plan was the decision by the State of Israel to give the National Library what is, in some ways, the most desirable piece of real estate in the country, between the Knesset and the Israel Museum.
In addition to bringing us out of the closed campus of the Hebrew University, the building will include a permanent exhibit, rotating exhibits, lecture halls and concert halls. By early 2022, the permanent exhibit should become a must-see stop for any visit to Jerusalem.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity