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My Valentine’s Date With a Jewish Book

Jack Lunzer with his real jewels

Jack Lunzer with his real jewels

How did you spend your St. Valentine’s Day? Reading Yitro? On a date? Hanging with “quirky alone?” How about a torrid love affair with a Jewish Book? I visited Sotheby’s Manhattan auction house exhibition space, where thousands of books are on view from the Valmadonna Trust, a private collection of Jewish books which is estimated to be worth $40 Million (plus the buyer’s commission aid to the auction house). The 13,000+ books were collected by Jack V. Lunzer, 84, an Antwerp-born commercial diamond merchant based in London.

Valmadonna is a town of 1100 souls in Italy which is located in the Piemonte region of Alessandria. The Lunzer family has a connection to the village and thus named the collection the Valmadonna Trust. It could have been worse. Their connection could have been to Cantalupo or Il Christo, the adjacent towns. Can you imagine the Cantaloupe Trust or Il Christo?

Bomberg's Bounce

Bomberg's Bounce

Among the books in the collection are one of only 11 original copies of the Communist Manifesto (1848) in German; and a Babylonian Talmud from 1519-1523 that was printed in Venice by the Christian printer of Hebrew books, Daniel Bomberg (the myth, perhaps true, is that the copy was brought to England by King Henry the 8th, during his attempt to find a loophole to divorce one of his wives). It is said that Lunzer negotiated for 25 years to obtain this item from Westminster Abbey. Another item is a Hebrew Bible from 1189, which was written by a scribe in York England and looted in 1190 when the Jews of York were massacred. One hundred years after this English pogrom, in 1290, King Edward the First (Longshanks) forced Jews to wear yellow badges and expelled the Jews from England in order to confiscate their property and money and to receive the support of his barons and the populace who hated the Jews and their perceived usury. I guess Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” was right to whip at axe at Longshank’s military forces.

Italy in the 16th century was the cradle of Hebrew printing at the industry’s very inception, and the Valmadonna Trust includes virtually complete holdings of existing Jewish texts printed during this era, from Mantua, Venice, Naples, Livorno, Pisa and Trieste among many others. Highlights among these Italian works include a copy of the sole complete edition of the Mishnah with commentary by Maimonides. Printed in Naples by Joshua Solomon Soncino and Joseph ibn Peso in 1492, this edition contains forty-seven woodcut illustrations interpreting the rules of eruvin (explaining it and not just decorating)

A Viennese Grace After Meals

A Viennese Grace After Meals

Another fascinating book is Judah ben Jehiel’s “Nofet Zufim,” or “Flow of the Honeycomb.” The first Hebrew book printed during the lifetime of its author (most likely at Mantua around 1475), this humanist text compares biblical Hebrew rhetoric to the Greek and Roman classics. Also on view was a document in Hebrew and Marathi from early 20th century Pakistan; and a Hebrew prayer book printed in 1516 in Fez.

Hebrew printing north of the Alps began in Prague in 1512 with the circle of Gershom ben Solomon Kohen. Prague was soon established as a great hub of Hebrew printing, from which point printing in Polish communities such Lublin sprung. The Valmadonna Library boasts a Passover Haggadah printed on vellum by Kohen in Prague in 1526. Not only is this book the earliest dated and illustrated edition of the Haggadah known to exist; it is also fascinating in that it contains, as the lyrics to a song, the first printed verse in Yiddish. A later Haggadah, published in 1556 by Gershom Kohen’s grandsons, is another highlight of the Valmadonna Library. Due to the fire that ravaged the Prague Jewish ghetto in 1557, only one other copy of this edition is known to exist, in the British Library. Many other major Hebrew printing centers are represented in the exhibition, including Basel, Paris, Cracow, and Geneva. Please note: The Haggadah, weirdly, made no mention of Manischewitz.

ValMaDonna Donna Bo Bonna...

ValMaDonna Donna Bo Bonna...

Lunzer set out to assemble a library of early printing from every town and village that had a Hebrew printing press, and it is good to remember that printing in Hebrew required a license from the royal government of the time, and it was easily revoked. In addition of Prague and Italy, Lunzer purchased books from Calcutta, Constantinople, Bombay, and Shanghai.

If you are in NYC, see this before February 19, when it will be returned to Lunzer’s garden shed, or get auctioned off to a collector or academic library.

1 Comment

  1. Larry

    2/16/2009 at 4:34 pm

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