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CAJS Library Exhibits

Current Exhibit

For over three centuries, Eastern Europe was home to the greatest living reservoir of Jewish civilization in the world. From among the ranks of East European Jews emerged many of the key religious, intellectual, artistic, and political currents that shaped Jewish life across the modern period. Over the course of the last two decades, the historic Jewish communities that once covered the broad swathe of territory between the Baltic and the Black Seas have moved to the center of the study of the modern Jewish experience. Fueled by unprecedented access to long-hidden archival riches in the former Soviet bloc, a new generation of scholars has carved out fresh questions and new arenas of inquiry.

Past Exhibits

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all peoples of "the book," that is, Scripture believed to be the revealed word of God. What defines each of these religious cultures, however, is not only their common heritage in the Biblical past but the distinctive traditions that each of them has developed for interpreting the Bible and what they believed to be its message and meaning. Indeed, it is the different ways in which they have interpreted the Bible that have decisively shaped the development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And all too often, perhaps, their different understandings of the Bible have also determined and complicated the tangled relations of these religious communities with each other.

This year's exhibition on Modern Jewry and the Arts presents work in a rich diversity of cultural media and genres. Jewish artists have been respected contributors to modern music, film, theater, and visual art, and their activities encompass high art, mass media, and popular culture forms. But what is "Jewish Art?" Any art produced by Jews? Any art with Jewish content? Is there a distinctive Jewish style?

Most of these questions presume standards set by conventional cultural histories, which despite universalizing goals, define the arts in national terms. Does that mean, then, that Jewish art is exclusively made in Israel, the modern Jewish state, or does it also describe art made by Jews in the Diaspora?

Christian Hebraism was an offshoot of Renaissance humanism whose devotees--biblical scholars, theologians, lawyers, physicians, scientists, philosophers, and teachers in Latin schools--borrowed and adapted texts, literary forms, and ideas from Jewish scholarship and tradition to meet Christian cultural and religious needs. Intellectual and cultural exchange did occur between Jew and Christian during the Middle Ages, but paled by comparison with what occurred between 1450 and 1750. Encounters between cultures can be fruitful, but also very painful. Certainly Christian Hebraism had such effects both upon European Jewry, and upon western tradition.

(Curated by Rebecca Kobrin and Adam Shear. April 21 to June 26, 1996, Rosenwald Gallery Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania)

The transmission of Judaism has always been heavily dependent on written texts as well as the oral traditions surrounding them. One way to examine this process is by analyzing the various formats of Jewish texts in order to try to understand how they may have been read. At two points in history the Jewish book has undergone fundamental transformations from scroll to codex in the eighth and ninth centuries, and from manuscript to print in the early modern period. It is this latter transformation that this exhibit will examine by focusing on the impact of printing on the format of the Jewish book and, by extension, on the Jewish cultural and religious experience.

Historians of general European culture have noted the importance of the printed book for the dissemination of knowledge to a wider audience and for shaping the ways in which texts were read and ideas were digested. In the study of Jewish culture, several scholars have noted the broad impact of printing, but this recognition has not stimulated an extensive analysis of this phenomenon. The study of the book has been primarily focused on subjects such as manuscript illumination and paleography, bio-bibliographical studies of Hebrew printers, and the censorship of Hebrew books. However, the question of the impact of printing on the transmission of Jewish culture is a major lacuna in the scholarly literature. We cannot hope to fill this gap in the scholarship concerning the history of the Jewish book in this exhibit. We do wish, however, to pose some basic questions: what effects did the printing press have on the transmission of Jewish culture and on a Jew's understanding of his (or her) tradition? How, in other words, did printing change Jewish texts and the use of these texts?

  • This catalogue is available for review in the CAJS Library with the call number Z6605.H4K63 1996
  • The catalogue is also available in PDF (5Mb) form as well as HTML.

  • "Tablet, Scroll, & Book: Judaic Treasures"
(Curated by Aviva Astrinsky and Dr. Sol Cohen. January 20 - March 18, 1994, Rosenwald Gallery Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania)

Jewish Literature is replete with references to the nobility of books and, by tradition, books are treated as special treasured objects. When they grew old or frayed, it was deemed irrelevant to throw them out. Old books were either carefully placed in a genizah (synagogue storeroom) or were respectfully interred. Rabbinic literature enjoins Jews to lend books to others, obligates Jewish communities to build libraries, and gives meticulous instructions on the binding, airing, care and preservation of books and manuscripts. Medieval Jewish literature encourages the Jew to make books his companion, to let bookshelves be his gardens: to bask in their beauty, gather their fruit, pluck their roses and take their spices and myrrh.

Yet, these very books, upon which Jews lavished so much love and reverence, became the objects of wanton hatred throughout the centuries. As far back as Maccabean times (175-163 B.C.E.), the Scrolls of the Torah were ripped to pieces and burned by the Syrian Greeks. Except for the attitudes of Christian Hebraists, Jewish books were the object of Christian attack throughout the Middle Ages. They were subjected to frequent censorship and periodic burnings. From 1242, when twenty four cartloads of Rabbinic manuscripts were burned in Paris, down to our own days, when the Nazi Holocaust decimated European Jewry together with its vast libraries, countless Hebrew books were destroyed and many important works were lost. Only a few precious manuscripts and incunabula (books printed before the year 1501) have survived. This sense of irretrievable loss gives special meaning to the assiduous efforts of institutions to collect and preserve the rare Judaica and Hebraica which have survived over the millennia, as the torch of Jewish learning was passed from one center to another, during the long wanderings of the Jewish people.

It is with these thoughts in mind, that we cordially invite you to experience a sampling of these Judaic treasures which constitute the true monuments of Jewish history.

  • This catalogue is available for review in the library with the call number Z6605.H4V8 1994