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Penn Libraries News

Gratz College Gifts Gratz-Mandell Jewish Music Collection to the Penn Libraries, Launching Partnership to Catalog and Digitize Materials

The collaboration will ensure lasting access to significant collection of Jewish Music History

A musical composition with text in German.

The University of Pennsylvania Libraries and Gratz College are collaborating to ensure access to a significant collection of more than 15,000 items in manuscript and print that documents the musical life of synagogues in Germany and throughout Europe before the Holocaust.

Through this new partnership, Gratz College, the oldest independent and pluralistic college for Jewish studies in North America, is gifting the Gratz College-Eric Mandell Jewish Music Collection to the Penn Libraries, where the collection will be fully cataloged for the first time. Supported by a grant award from the Federal Republic of Germany, the Libraries will also digitize 190 music manuscript compositions, establishing the Gratz-Mandell Jewish Music Digital Archive.

"We are honored to partner with Gratz College to ensure perpetual access to this priceless collection,” says Brigitte Weinsteiger, Interim Director of the Penn Libraries and Gershwind & Bennett Family Senior Associate Vice Provost for Collections & Scholarly Communications. “The project to digitize the Gratz-Mandell Jewish Music Collection and make it discoverable is important not only to Gratz and to Penn, but to the world’s cultural and scholarly record.”

The project is one of several major archive digitization efforts initiated by Gratz College, including the Barbara and Fred Kort Holocaust Geniza Project, which was launched in November 2022 with the Gratz Holocaust survivor testimonial archive. Gratz College President Zev Eleff shares, “With the commitment and financial support of the German government, along with Penn’s expertise in preservation and digitization, Gratz College is emerging as a field leader in Judaica digitization, amplifying the reach of this important collection."

The physical and forthcoming digital archive will join Penn’s collections in Jewish sound, including the Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Sound Archive, which is regarded as one of the most important resources in the world for the study of Jewish culture, folklore, history, linguistics, and literature.

“The Gratz-Mandell Jewish Music Collection amounts to a time capsule of a destroyed world of Jewish sound,” notes Arthur Kiron, the Penn Libraries’ Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections. “Thanks to its survival, and by partnering to catalog and digitize the collection, we are able to reconstruct and even potentially perform this otherwise lost sacred soundscape.”  

A giant of musical Judaica

The Gratz-Mandell Collection includes manuscripts, books, articles, clippings, catalogues, anthologies, sheet music, vocal and instrumental compilations, and more, all collected by German-born cantor and collector Eric Mandell, who resettled in Philadelphia in 1941 after fleeing the threat of Nazi expansion in Europe.

For many scholars of Jewish music, including Israel Prize-winning musicologist Edwin Seroussi, the Emanuel Alexandre Professor Emeritus of Musicology and Chair of the Academic Committee of the Jewish Music Research Centre at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the name ‘Mandell’ is legendary. In fall 2023, Seroussi was awarded the Ellie and Herbert D. Katz Distinguished Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania’s Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies to study German Jewish sacred musical intersections using the Gratz-Mandell Collection.

Seroussi describes the focus of the materials as “a trove of German Jewish music culture.” The collection records the musical repertoires of synagogues — primarily in Germany, German-speaking territories, and to a certain extent Eastern Europe — before the Holocaust.  

“Not many materials from that period have survived,” he notes.

Mandell (1902-1988) was born in Gronau, Westphalia, Germany and at a young age trained under prominent cantors with plans to be a cantor and music teacher. At the same time, he began collecting original scores and books about music, a passion that would continue throughout his life. After surviving the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Mandell fled to Amsterdam and managed to transfer his budding collection to the Netherlands. Unfortunately, his collection had to be left behind as the Nazis expanded throughout Europe and he fled again, this time to England, in 1939.

Mandell moved to the United States in 1941 and became music director for Har Zion Temple in Philadelphia, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1970. Upon his arrival in the U.S., he attempted to recover his collection and continued to build it by purchasing works from Holocaust survivors, immigrant cantors, and auctions and estate sales. Over the years, the collection came to fill Mandell’s brownstone house. According to a Music Library Association article, it was highlighted in exhibits at the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1947, the Jewish Museum of New York City in 1948, and at the Smithsonian Institute for a 1954 celebration of the tercentenary of Jewish settlement in America.

While in Philadelphia, Mandell also did some teaching at Gratz College, which had a significant program in Jewish music at the time. When Mandell retired in 1970, he endowed his collection to the Schreiber Music Library at Gratz. He then oversaw the acquisition as consultant-curator and advised the college on the purchase of audio equipment and furniture to aid in the use of the collection, such as a grand piano. In 1989, Gratz College relocated and designed a special room to house the Mandell Collection with temperature and humidity controls to aid in preservation. The college also cataloged the printed books in the collection.

Decades later, much of the Mandell Collection remained unexplored—but an ambitious new leader at Gratz and a tenacious fellow at Penn were committed to giving the collection new life.

An instrumental partnership

Seroussi began championing the collection and advocating for this digitization partnership when he met the president emeritus of Gratz College, Dr. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in spring of 2019.

“That's when we started to play with the idea of moving [the collection] to Penn. But at the time it was a faraway dream,” Seroussi says. “So it took five years ... for the dream to become reality.”

As a scholar of Jewish music, Seroussi was deeply invested in the future of the Mandell Collection, immediately understanding the importance of both preserving the physical collection for the future and making it easier for scholars to access all over the world — so much so that he returned to Philadelphia on sabbatical to work with the collection. Seroussi credits Gratz College President Zev Eleff, who took on the role in 2021, with recognizing the magnitude of the collection’s importance and with giving Seroussi free reign to review, audit, and organize the collection.

A stack of loose musical comopositions shows their frayed edges.
A stack of loose music papers of liturgical music shows the fragmentation of the collection. The composition on top on the top of the stack is a Keddusha (Keduscha in Ashkenazi spelling, "Sanctification", starting from "Kevodo male 'olam"). It appears to be a piece by Cantor Moses Zivy from Müllheim in Germany. The melody is adapted from the opera "The Night Camp in Granada" (premiered in 1834) by composer Conradin Kreutzer (1780-1849). It shows the many adaptations of the romantic operatic repertoire to the Jewish liturgy in the German traditions; Edwin Serioussi.

For months, Seroussi and his wife, Cantor Marlena Fuerstman, sorted through the boxes in the library.

“There was a huge amount of physical work sorting out all these materials,” Seroussi explains. “So in the fall of 2021 Marlena and I came to Philly. We went to Gratz College and met with President Eleff, who, after a working meeting in which I reviewed for him the significance of the collection, told me, ‘Edwin, this is the key to the room. You do whatever you think that needs to be done.’”

Eleff says, “Without any financial relationship, Edwin and his wife spent months in our offices working and exploring the materials. Each day he would come down to my office and share something new that he had found.”

“We really prepared the collection so that Penn and [Gratz] could start a negotiation because nobody knew: What are we talking about? How many books, how many manuscripts?” Seroussi says. “I wrote a professional assessment of the scope of the collection, the importance, certain measurements that we did regarding ... the footage that is needed on the stacks to hold it, [describing] technical issues, genres of materials — manuscripts, books, sheet music, scores, journals.”

Being awarded the Katz fellowship in 2023, Seroussi indicates, “allowed me to come back, and work on the preparations for the actual moving of the collection to Penn and exploring its contents with the goal of publishing short essays highlighting some special items.”

Treasures to uncover

Kiron, Seroussi, and Eleff are all excited by the possibilities for new scholarship that could come from this partnership. In addition to the many avenues for study within the field of Jewish music, the collection offers plenty of opportunity for wider cultural study.

For example, as a self-described “American Jewish historian who’s tone deaf,” Eleff said he personally appreciated reviewing the Mandell Collection’s High Holiday prayer books, which Mandell annotated: “For me to see what scholars called lived religion – his annotations, marginalia on the side of prayer books – just demonstrate how he was able to apply his scholarship to the basic, day-to-day sensibilities of American Judaism.”

Seroussi, whose own research focuses on Jewish music, has accumulated a variety of research topics and questions outside of his field that he hopes another scholar will be able to answer once they have access to the materials.

“One of the questions that I have, one of the riddles, is: How did [Mandell] amass the financial means to put all this together? Because he came as a refugee in in the early 1940s, barely saved himself from the war. ... And here in Philadelphia he was a cantor in a synagogue and a music educator. I don't know how he could have afforded to put together this amazing collection,” Seroussi says.

Seroussi believes the answer could lie in an element of the collection that has not yet been explored: Mandell’s personal correspondence. More than 500 letters related to the collection and Mandell’s acquisitions are awaiting study.

"There is a huge stack of letters that I assume will provide future scholars with the answers as to: how did he recover his collection after the war, and what was his network, the people who provided him materials? I know that cantors just sent him materials for free because they knew that he was the person to keep them. This is part of the of the story. It's a fascinating story in itself,” Seroussi says.

Meanwhile, as staff in the Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts and Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image begin the work of cataloging and digitizing, Seroussi continues digging through the materials and will publish his findings on an ongoing basis.

“I hope that I am only one of many researchers who will find interesting items for their purposes,” he says.

Eleff agrees, noting that the digitization work will expand the collection’s reach.  

“What we do is take what is one instance – the physical collection – and we duplicate it. The ability, therefore, to now have two assets, two resources – one in the digital collection, one at Penn – is only going to increase the magnitude of this very important collection."


About the Penn Libraries

The Penn Libraries provides a network of information resources and knowledge services that are vital to teaching, research, and learning at the University of Pennsylvania. This network includes 19 physical libraries, recognized for their collections, and a digital library known for innovation and richness of content. Through exhibitions and lectures, and through the acquisition and preservation of literary and artistic artifacts, the Penn Libraries documents a wealth of social and historical periods, bringing scholarship to life at the University and in the various communities it serves.

About Gratz College

Founded in 1895, Gratz College is the oldest independent college for Jewish studies in North America. Today, Gratz enrolls a diverse population of students from around the world in graduate-level programs that reflect its historic focus on Jewish studies and education. An early adopter of online education, Gratz's premiere programs include Doctorates in Holocaust/Genocide Studies and Education Leadership, as well as the only Master’s in Antisemitism Studies in the United States.

Featured photo: A composition for the liturgy at the synagogue in Bochum, early 20th century, when Eric Mandell was cantor there. He may have issued it himself for chanting the prayers; Edwin Seroussi