“You guys can touch the pages! Please touch the pages,” chirps Jewish Public Library (JPL) librarian Nicole Beaudry to a class of ninth graders from Bialik High School who have gathered in their school library to participate in a rare book workshop called Risen Leaves. Over the next hour, the group is surprised to hear tales of greed, passion, torture, censorship and propaganda – all told through the history of some of the JPL’s rarest holdings. The goal, say the curators of the collection, is to bring these historic works out of boxes and into the hands of the community.
After the Second World War, the Offenbach Depot in Germany distributed unclaimed books and property of those who had perished or had not returned for their belongings. The antiquarian books in the collection were distributed to libraries in Europe and North America, and the JPL received more than 1,500 volumes, which remained in storage until 2014.
Thanks to generous funding from former Montrealer Michael Paul – himself a collector of antiquarian books – the JPL’s rare books collection has been properly catalogued and shared with the community. Risen Leaves has been presented at Jewish and non-Jewish high schools, synagogues and churches, and will soon be held at the Université de Montréal.
“History is taught as an abstraction and these books make it all tangible,” says Eddie Paul, the head of bibliographic and information services at the JPL. “People remember stories and the stories that we’ve been able to bring to these books makes them memorable.”
The collection includes a Scroll of Esther, a manuscript written on goatskin in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of Ethiopian Jews, a copy of the Zohar with a scandalous backstory that has a direct connection to the founder of the JPL, works of Flavius Josephus and many others.
“These kids have all gone to museums and to places where they are only allowed to look and not allowed to touch, and this is that rare circumstance where they can reach out and touch the objects for the first time,” says Bialik librarian Stephanie Trapid. “Most of these students have never had that experience before and it’s such an amazing thing for them to know that there is so much history in these objects.”
It is important for the transmission of history to be an intimate experience and not just taught academically and through a screen, says Beaudry. “Always interacting with everything through a screen reduces the realism of what it is you are interacting with, because you are always working through a barrier.”
There was no barrier for these students as they handled works written by some of the historical figures who they are learning about in class. “When they were printed, none of these books were intended to sit on (a) shelf behind a locked door,” says Beaudry. “They were in homes, synagogues and early libraries, in order to be used and handled by their community and in order to bring something to the community. So, to bring them back into the community in order to make them accessible and return them to their intended use is really important.”