In the Beginning: Three Jewish Firsts from the Rosenbach Collection

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - 12:00pm - Sunday, January 12, 2014 - 5:00pm
2008-2010 Delancey Place, Philadelphia, PA 19103
United States

Jewish and non-Jewish families alike can find another reason to celebrate by checking out the Judaica exhibit happening at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.

If you live in the Philadelphia area you can get the inside scoop through In the Beginning: Three Jewish Firsts in the Rosenbach Collection, an informal presentation surrounding three rare collections of Jewish literature led by exhibition curator Judith Guston. She will talk about the exhibition’s items that document the rich and storied heritage of the Jewish people, how the Rosenbach acquired these significant books and manuscripts, and answer questions as you explore further.


On display Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - Sunday, January 12, 2014

Exhibition included in general admission. Cost per visitor is $10.00.

Curator led group tours are available from October 1st to January 10th, at 9:30 or 10:00 am, Tuesday – Friday.

Cost per visitor is $25.00.

Please contact Farrar Fitzgerald at 215-732-1600, ext. 135, or [email protected] for more information.


And even if you can’t check out the exhibit, here are eight points of reflection covered in the display.

1. Shift to the Written Word: In 587–6 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar’s armies besieged the city of Jerusalem, home of the Jewish Kingdom of Judah, destroying its Temple and forcing the remaining inhabitants into exile in Babylon. Until the Persian King Cyrus defeated Nebuchadnezzar in 538 BCE and ended the exile, the Jews had their first experience of Diaspora, or dispersion from their cultural and religious homeland. For a people steeped in the oral tradition, writing became central to retaining their faith in exile. On display is an amulet, inscribed in Assyrian and likely one of the eyes of a votive statue.

2. Female Presence: Unlike much of ancient texts throughout history, where women remain invisible, some of the earliest examples from Jewish printers were the work of women. Estillina Conat, whose husband was also a printer, published her own book in 1477. Estellina Conat’s first printing of this medieval religious work is quite rare among surviving early Hebrew books, with only 6 known to be extant. The Soncino printing is less so, but still rare, with 38 remaining. Suffice it to say, there were not many to start with and they endured many challenges to survival over time.

3. Local Firsts: The first Hebrew book printed in Lisbon in 1489 is in the Rosenbach’s collection. The first Hebrew bible printed in Portugal, known as the Lisbon Pentateuch, was printed in 1491. It is bound in a rare box binding, one of only six survivals in the world—and the only Lisbon Pentateuch still bound in the original box binding, a form peculiar to this geographic location and time period.

4. Power of the Printed Word: Jews would be expelled from Portugal in early 1497, right after the completion of the Bible from 1496 on display. As Jews moved to the Ottoman Empire—their new home in the diaspora—the book moved with them to Istanbul, ending up somehow in the collection of the Turkish Sultan. In 1840, there was another blood libel, this time in Damascus. Philanthropist Moses Montefiore and his bibliophilic secretary Louis Loewe tried to resolve the tragedy. Buying the Bible at “full price” (according to a note written in the book itself) from the Sultan’s collection, they encouraged him to declare the blood libel false, saving the lives of the Jews of Damascus.

5. Mistaken Identities: In an effort to increase England’s bottom line, the early settlers of the New World were encouraged to equate Native Americans in the New World with “The Lost Tribes of Israel” --Jews (who most English people and puritan immigrants had never seen). Books were published describing the similarities between the two groups and used to further the religious conversion seen by many English Puritan settlers as necessary for bringing about the End of Days.

6. Baptisms for Teaching Degrees at Harvard: New England Puritans envisioned themselves as the new Chosen People whose exodus and wanderings had led them to a New Jerusalem. Spiritually driven to know the roots of their faith as the Jews did, they were also driven to bring Jews into their faith through conversion as mentioned previously. One Jew, Judah Monis became the first Jew to receive a degree from Harvard University and, in his desire to become a faculty member, was required to convert to Christianity. His private conversion was deemed inadequate, so a public baptism was held, complete with published documentation of his new set of beliefs. Buried in a Christian cemetery, Monis was frequently referred to as a Christianized Jew and continued to teach Hebrew during his tenure as a Harvard faculty member.

7. New Beginnings in Philadelphia: The New World presented an opportunity for Jews to participate in the industry and commerce they’d historically been excluded from. In the late 1700s, Michael Gratz left London, where laws regulating Jewish employment were shifting. In comparison, America seemed open—a few Jews had already established themselves as merchants in Philadelphia, one of which Michael was apprenticed to upon his arrival. In time, Michael and his brother would form their own trade business, eventually bringing them wealth, respect and something Jews of centuries past could never have imagined: belonging and ownership within the larger culture. On display are many items from the original Gratz family, as well as their descendants.

8. A Wealth of History in Our Hometown: The Rosenbach Museum & Library was founded in 1954 through a testamentary gift by Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach and his brother, Philip. Renowned dealers in books, manuscripts, and fine art, the brothers played a central role in the development of private libraries that later became the nation’s most important public collections of rare books, such as the Folger and Huntington Libraries. The brothers’ own personal collection, now the core of the Rosenbach, features treasures the brothers were unable to part with, including the only surviving copy of Benjamin Franklin’s first Poor Richard Almanac and the manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The collection has since grown to include the papers of poet Marianne Moore, Bram Stoker’s notes for Dracula, and the drawings of Maurice Sendak. 



Event Type: 
Arts & Culture
Arts and Culture
History and Preservation
Visual Arts
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