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To Make Books Without End

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

By Marsha Lee Berkman

Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History’s Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library

By Joshua Teplitsky

Yale University Press, 317 pp., $26.00

Publication date: January 22, 2019

The landscape of the seventeenth century was one of stark contrasts: the concurrent struggle for scientific inquiry and cultural enlightenment amidst the devastating carnage and aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War. The war, which began in l618 and ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, not only decimated the population of Central Europe, but also reconfigured the political and territorial map that led to many different factions, particularly in Germany, as it enlarged as a power struggle to include many other hostilities.

Despite this, one of the effects of the cultural ebullience of this pre-modern period was the fact that it was the beginning of the golden age of libraries. Great national and university acquisitions created their foundations, which often had their origins in private collections. Book collecting, the mark of a cultured man, became a popular pastime for the elite. Acquiring books provided elevated status and entrance to other people that crossed the barriers of language and land. For some it was an effort to preserve the past. For those who prized the fervor of great minds, it was often the admiration for thought and learned discourse. For others, a simple love of study and scholarship, the actual physical presence of volumes that contained the knowledge and erudition of former civilizations. This was not confined to Europe. In the early eighteenth century in America, far from the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War, Ben Franklin and his friends created the Library Company of Philadelphia in order to have at their disposal books that would provide a resource for their intellectual and political discussions. Thomas Jefferson who famously wrote,” I cannot live without books,” later amassed between 9,000 and 10,000 volumes in his personal library at Monticello in the 1780s.

In Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History’s Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library, published by Yale University Press last year, Joshua Teplitsky, an assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Stony Brook University, explores the extraordinary life and times of David Oppenheim through the library he began as a young man. Born in Worms in l664, he eventually became the Chief Rabbi of Prague, the most prestigious rabbinical position of the time, until his death in 1736. Raised in a family of wealth and privilege, Oppenheim became equally renown for his book collection. Teplitsky writes, “From the first moments of his self-conscious collecting, he expressed the will to make books without end,” echoing a familiar verse from Ecclesiastes (12:12), ”Of making books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

His uncle Samuel Oppenheim was the most important Court Jew of his time, serving the Habsburg court to become a procurer of military supplies for the Holy Roman Empire. Jews, who were prohibited from most other professions and had faced expulsions and difficulties during the German Reformation, now became the brokers in a new world forged of bourgeoning commerce and capitalism as a result of the war. Engaged in conflicts for control after the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia and the changes it wrought, the nobility of the age were in desperate need of supplies and financing. Jews were able to fulfill that capacity by virtue of their far-flung liaisons with other Jews, especially those who were engaged in commerce or trading. To a large extent they played a significant role in creating the modern political state of Germany. By virtue of their position Court Jews were also leaders of the Jewish community, establishing synagogues, study houses, sponsoring centers of advanced study for Talmud and the publication of books and manuscripts, as well as representing Jews to the Christian community and the ruling class.

Subject to the whims and fluctuating fortunes of the countries in which they resided, without sovereignty of their own, however, the Jewish world of the seventeenth century had not entirely escaped the damage inflicted by the war between Catholics and Protestants, but their emerging role brought about a vibrant re-structuring of Jewish life in Central Europe. It was relatively tranquil for Jews when Oppenheim was growing up. His family saw to it that he received a superior education. He studied with the most famous rabbis of his time, often far from Worms, and became at a young age one of the most recognized Jewish scholars of his period. Oppenheim, following the custom at that time to form favorable family alliances, was married at seventeen to a woman whose father was the Court Jew of Hanover. After the death of his first wife, his second marriage further secured his position as a member of a family who were part of the governing body in Prague. By the time Oppenheim was twenty-two, he had already amassed an impressive and sizeable library, a man “whose greatest delight is in books.” What is most remarkable, however, according to Teplitsky, is the way in which Oppenheim’s library not only contributed to the intellectual and social life of Jews of his era and promoted communication among diverse Jewish communities, and even non-Jews, but also enabled his own ambitions for status and prestige. The library that he amassed gave him an edge over his rabbinic contemporaries with knowledge and texts that were not available to them except by his permission. He became the keeper of the keys to his kingdom, providing or denying access, giving him unprecedented authority over material that was not available elsewhere. Even schools for advanced rabbinic studies still had limited resources. From the beginning, it appears that Oppenheim kept meticulous notes about the contents of his collection, arranging each page alphabetically as well as stating the previous owner and payment to purchase each volume. However, as his acquisitions continued to evolve and Oppenheim’s reputation grew, the collection assumed an increasingly professional structure.

Teplitsky writes, “At the core of Oppenheim’s identity and activity as a rabbi, intellectual and communal leader stood his library.” He further notes that the library became notable “among Jewish colleagues and Christian contemporaries…and informed the decisions of local courts.”

Unlike other Jewish libraries of the time devoted only to learned and religious works, Oppenheim’s library consisted of a wide range of material, including not only rare scholarly manuscripts, but also broadsides that he used to publicize his own talents and pedigree, pamphlets, and popular material that he employed to his advantage, as well as comprising an archive of the intellectual and common activity of his generation, including rare material and little-known manuscripts that he used to render decisions as a rabbi.

A cursory review of the library’s holdings provided in the book reveal the great diversity of his collection, reflecting Oppenheim’s own eclectic interests, from learned commentaries on the Pentateuch and Talmud to the Tsene-urene, a Yiddish book specifically intended for women, known informally as the woman’s bible. Unusual volumes, such as “The Book of Names for Writs of Divorce,” and a book of oaths and charms that related to symptoms of spirit possession, as well as complex laws of marriage, also found their way into Oppenheim’s library. Later, as his collection expanded, Oppenheim turned to buying estates, especially from widows who were eager to turn them into currency at a time when books were considered an important commodity. A result of the diversity and number of his books in his collection is that Oppenheim became prominent as a man of letters.

As Oppenheim’s reputation grew, he continued to receive books as gifts from colleagues and those seeking to improve their position, further adding to the value and breadth of his library acquisitions. A catalogue of his library always remained with him, even though the collection itself was most often housed at Hanover, rather than Prague, to escape the watchful eye of the Catholic Church. Developing an identity of its own, with a librarian and caretaker who carefully managed the vast and growing collection, each book was inscribed with Oppenheim’s personal title page, featuring images of Moses and Aaron and above them, a representation of King David holding a lyre, framed by two angels. With a modern sensibility, David Oppenheim announced his own nobility by drawing a comparison to his namesake. As Teplitsky writes, “Oppenheim adopted ancient Israel’s greatest political figure as his symbolic presence on the page to unite books, learning and power.”

Teplitsky’s portrayal of Oppenheim reveals a man who was both erudite and among the most gifted scholars of his era, and at the same time, able and eager to promote himself and to cultivate his persona of celebrity status to further advance his standing amongst his contemporaries and in the world at large. Not content with remaining in the shadows of rabbinic pedagogy teaching in the academies, or resting on his acumen in rabbinic law, or even serving as rabbi of the most notable synagogue in Central Europe, he became a man of the world through the sheer force of his personality, cleverness and ability, looked up to as a paragon not only of scholarship, but of culture and discernment in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world, a man at home in the political sphere as well as the synagogue, able to nimbly bridge both worlds. Teplitsky describes Oppenheim’s ability to “garner the attention and favor of the royal court.” He benefitted from their favors and was also sought after as a man who could intervene for others, as well as the Jewish community. From the information that the author presents, it appears that this course was consciously premeditated by Oppenheim to enhance his standing and to bring him acclaim, attaining one conquest after another politically and in terms of his library and his own personal aggrandizement.

One might easily conclude that Oppenheim was simply an opportunist, but Teplitsky’s portrait of him discloses a man deeply interested in the books he collected and in producing more books, vigorously working to retrieve neglected texts. He writes, “Oppenheim’s library generated new books as much as it preserved old ones and even determined the way ancient texts might be re-conceptualized and received.”

Oppenheim’s act of making books and in redeeming those that had been written and on the verge of being permanently lost by restoring rare volumes, meant that he was often involved in actually reshaping many texts and commentaries that had been held in private family libraries and homes. It is surprising that he appeared to have no authorial ambitions of his own. His interest seems to have been in appreciating what others had written and in many cases, improving it, or presenting content so that new perspectives emerged, occasionally including different versions of the same material.

As an Ashkanazi Jew, those predominantly from European countries, Oppenheim not only worked to revitalize the canon of biblical and Talmudic commentaries, but also at the same time reclaimed Sephardic texts by those Jews who had settled in Spain and surrounding areas, adding them to the literary canon, although many of them may have been marginalized by being translated into an Ashkenazic script to make them more palatable to European preferences, including his own. Oppenheim further sought to collect and preserve customs and traditions in an era of accelerated change, personally responsible for the publication of texts that up to that time had never been printed, creating a new literary and textual repository for posterity in an age that was a precursor to the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, that had its beginnings in Germany in the eighteenth century.

Teplitsky’s study is aided by many illustrations and reproductions that additionally help to illuminate the understanding of Oppenheim’s remarkable efforts. In writing about one man, Joshua Teplitsky has written about an entire epoch, a largely unknown aspect of both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by recognizing the significance of Oppenheim’s library in the overall perspective of the era and the importance of personal and political connections, particularly for Jews. Teplitsky comments, “Oppenheim’s library was a product of his unique family fortunes, social standing and personal taste.”

Prince of the Press is one of several books that have come out recently about Jewish libraries and bibliophiles, a new genre that appears to be gathering momentum, such as Sasha Abramsky’s The House of Twenty Thousand Books and Dan Rabinowitz’s The Lost Library: The Legacy of Vilna’s Strashun Library in the Aftermath of the Holocaust. Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, written by Alberto Manguela, essayist, novelist, bibliophile and Director of the National Library of Argentina was also published by Yale University Press, in 2018. In that book, Manguela wrote, “I’ve often felt that my library explained who I was, gave me a shifting self that transformed itself constantly throughout the years… a sort of multi-layered autobiography, every book holding the moment in which I read it for the first time.”

In a similar vein that speaks to the personal aspect of collections, a l995 photograph of writer, art collector and photographer, George Porcari, by Jorge Pardo, featured a set of large bookshelves with his acquisitions, instead of a traditional photograph, an invitation to discover Porcari by reading the titles of his books, a parallel to the way in which Oppenheim’s collection is a likeness of the man himself.

However, what separates this volume, that began as a doctoral dissertation and ultimately grew into this publication, is the author’s illumination not only of an individual and his library, but also of a nearly forgotten time in history through the unique prism of a remarkable collection created and selected by one man, while also revealing the mind and character of one of the most illustrious scholars and rabbis of the era. As a scholar himself, Teplitsky has broken through new ground to discover fresh material presented in an original way, restructuring dense content into a readable and rewarding format.

With Oppenheim’s death the library passed to Oppenheim’s son who died three years after his father, and then to his daughter, and last, to various heirs. With the advance of the eighteenth century, personal libraries were thought to be idiosyncratic and lost favor in comparison to national and university libraries. Oppenheim’s collection languished for some years before it was bought by Oxford University to be housed in the Bodleian Library. It contains forty-five hundred books and one thousand manuscripts, an invaluable resource for scholars as it sheds light not only on the Jewish world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but also on Christianity and Islam.

Oppenheim’s achievement however, as Teplitsky points out, took advantage of the politics of the day and combined with his own passion, created a monument to the Jewish past in Europe that remains a treasure trove for scholars today and a worthwhile read for those who are curious about the pre-modern leap to Jewish modernity.

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