Once a year, when I was a Hebrew-school student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights, our class would visit the seminary’s rare-book library, which houses one of the great collections of Judaica in the world. Despite our antsy, adolescent irreverence, there was something about those books that commanded immediate attention, even a kind of awe.
I have never forgotten the image of a small High Holy Days prayer book from 15th-century Spain, its odd oblong shape designed, the curator speculated, so that the owner could conceal the little volume in the sleeve of his coat to avoid detection by the Inquisition. All books over time take on a posthumous pathos, but these books — many acquired in the early part of the 20th century when people as well as books were once more threatened with burning — were survivors many times over.
As the city celebrates New York Is Book Country this weekend on Fifth Avenue, I cannot help thinking of the seminary library at Broadway and 122nd Street, where the vitality of books and the precariousness of books are simultaneously on view, a double message inscribed on every page.
I recently went back to the seminary’s rare-book collection. You do not browse. Rabbi Jerry Schwarzbard, the librarian for special collections, wearing white cotton gloves and laying out the books on a strip of black velvet, retrieves the old volumes for me one at a time. The first book he shows me is the prayer book I remembered seeing as a student. It was printed around 1480, which makes it an incunabulum. The Latin name means “from the cradle,” a reference to books produced between 1450 and 1501, when Gutenberg’s invention was in its infancy. The book, printed somewhere on the Iberian Peninsula, is the only one of its kind. What happened to its owner is unknown. Rabbi Schwarzbard handles the volume as if it were still in the cradle, turning the pages gingerly to show me where a passage was snipped out by a censor. But despite its wound, the book is in remarkable shape. Paper was not introduced into Europe until the 12th century, but the high rag content made for low acidity and surprisingly durable pages. I have paperbacks from college that look far worse.
What are 20 years to a book that survived the Inquisition? I, meanwhile, am more than twice the age I was when I saw it last. I am married, I have children and I am mourning my father, who died this year. I can’t help thinking that part of the dread I felt seeing those fragile books as a teenager was unconscious anticipation of the moment when I would see them again as an adult and realize that I was the ephemeral one.