Page 17 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 18

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9
L o w e n t h a l —
O
n
C o m m u n i t y L i b r a r i e s
of the Pentateuch, the Onkelos version; but I had long ceased
to wonder that the people of the Book, in this case Arabic-speak-
ing Jews, should have fairly worn out the copy of a translation
in a language neither they nor any other Jews have spoken in
some fifteen hundred years.
I have even had the thrill of ordering a book to be written—
in manuscript, with fancy decorative flourishes—precisely as books
were ordered and written centuries ago. Up in the foothills of
the Atlas Mountains, at a picturesque town called Sefrou, I heard
of its famous native Hebrew poet, Rabbi Raphael Moses Elbaz,
famous at least in Sefrou and as far distant as Fez. Back in Fez,
I asked if a copy of his works could be had at a bookstore. They
had never, I was told, been printed. When I looked as dis-
appointed as I felt I should feel, 1 was bidden to cheer up; I
could arrange to have a volume of his poetry written out by a
local scribe. The scribe sat cross-legged before a low desk in his
his little shop, a den not much bigger than a dry-goods crate. We
agreed on a price per page, and since Rabbi Raphael Moses
Elbaz, who died toward the end of the 19th century, had been a
prolific genius, I contented myself with ordering two copies of
a hundred-page anthology, leaving it to the
Sopher
to select
characteristic specimens of Elbaz’ religious, moral, and erotic
poems. Months later—during which time I could almost hear the
Sopher
tell other customers, “Be patient, I ’m busy with my Paris
trade”—the books reached me at my home in Paris. Anyone
hungering to read Elbaz will find one of my copies in the Hebrew
Union College library; and I can only warn him, apologetically,
that due to my inexperience in medieval ways, the paper, which I
neglected to discuss with the
Sopher
, is not so good as it could be.
I also warn him that the script is puzzling, suggestive of Arabic.
And the style is mediocre. But the lively flourishes or doodles
of the scribe carry on the Moghrebi pattern employed for genera-
tions.
In the communal libraries, the study halls, of old Jewish cen-
ters, whether in North Africa or in Poland, the very appearance
of the books piled on the shelves or scattered on the tables told a
story. For the most part they looked woe-begone, draggled, and
worm-eaten—not, however, because of neglect but because they
were used until they were virtually used up. The best books are
the worst preserved, because they are the best treated, for what
better treatment of a book can there be than to read it so often
that its pages fall apart? Speaking of some of these veteran
volumes, now retired among the treasures of Harvard’s Widener
Library, Prof. Harry Wolfson has eloquently observed: “They
have broken their backs and worn out their covers in their noble
calling.” While I am a lover of beautiful bindings and hand-
some pages, I could wish no better fate for the spick-and-span
volumes I see in so many of our present-day communal libraries
than disintegration through a passionate overuse.