If a library is a rich, resource-laden repository of information, literature, and historical resonance, then perhaps Jerusalem is the most vibrant library of all time. This lively, modern city continues to retain echoes of its unique past which reside in memory, physical sites, and caches of ancient paper upon which have been inscribed its history, sociology, and culture. Ancient scrolls, manuscripts, codices, and early books have been secreted in nooks and hiding places which have gradually come out into the light. Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint accompany the reader on an intricate guided tour through Jerusalem’s written treasures and the journey is both enlightening and fascinating.
As ancient manuscripts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are explored, their histories and caretakers are investigated carefully by the authors. Parts of their journey read like a suspenseful mystery or a challenging puzzle as note is taken of the interplay between historical eras and modern times. Many of the book repositories discussed are not what we think of as libraries in the modern sense. Hi-tech information retrieval, instant world-wide connection, and an emphasis on the sharing of information, are all the hallmarks and priorities of today’s libraries, and thus cannot be found among these shrines; nevertheless, a sense of the timelessness of the written word is palpable. Treasures in all states of preservation are uncovered in ancient synagogues, mosques, and churches, and the process of each search with its obstacles and challenges is a gripping piece of the story. The reader feels the presence of Jerusalem as a participant in the grand adventure.
The nuances of translation play into the complexity of understanding recently surfaced materials, and providing a new take on older materials. Additionally, the realities of modern libraries — including digitization, authentication, archival issues, and architecture — are addressed in this richly detailed accounting of the history of the book in Jerusalem.
The many photographs included help to bring the subject alive. Some are photos of historical figures but many are of illuminated manuscripts and decorated works, evoking a Jerusalem tapestry of beauty and depth. This scholarly yet accessible book will provide Jerusalem enthusiasts with a different side of the city; it makes accessible previously hidden gems and showcases a deep respect for the preservation of the written word.
Mack and Balint have teased out some of Jerusalem’s closely guarded secrets and have arrayed its other resources in a manner which will sharpen historical perspective, deepen understanding, and delight the eye.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.