Ex­plor­ing the Jewish Trea­sures At the Li­brary of Con­gress

Forward Magazine - - & - BY AVIYA KUSH­NER prayer mach­zor, memshelet zadon, in­cunab­ula in­cunab­ula,

The li­brary’s main read­ing room is one of the most beau­ti­ful places to read.

Isaw cen­sor’s marks for the first time at the Li­brary of Con­gress, home to a price­less col­lec­tion of He­brew books. I opened a 1486 edi­tion of the a High Hol­i­days prayer book la­beled Min­hag Roma, or Ro­man rite — printed in Italy, bound in mar­bled boards and fea­tur­ing leather cor­ners — and gasped at the cen­sor’s marks, still visible in the fa­mous Aleinu prayer, in a verse that refers to ad­her­ents of other faiths. I saw the cen­sor’s sig­na­ture; his name is still visible af­ter all these cen­turies.

I don’t think I ever fully un­der­stood the idea of a govern­ment or church of­fi­cial cen­sor­ing

un­til I saw it in a book that is more than 500 years old, and I have been think­ing about it ever since. I’ve been think­ing about the words I saw cen­sored, like the phrase

var­i­ously trans­lated as “wicked regime,” “un­law­ful rule” and “tyranny.” It’s a chill­ing re­minder of the world’s long his­tory of re­li­gious op­pres­sion, and a trib­ute to the mir­a­cle of sur­vival of the Jewish peo­ple. And it was in­ter­est­ing to think about it in light of cur­rent pol­i­tics, when re­li­gion, na­tional ori­gin and lan­guage are once again un­der attack around the globe.

There are 23 He­brew or books pub­lished be­fore 1501, in the Li­brary of Con­gress’s col­lec­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. — ac­ces­si­ble to all who fill out a small light-green book re­quest form, like in the old days. These

in­clude a 1469 edi­tion of ques­tions and an­swers by the Rashba (1235–1310); the ques­tions can seem con­tem­po­rary, such as the one won­der­ing if a com­mu­nity should hire a


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