Rambam’s world

Rambam’s world

YU Museum’s exhibit shows riches from across time and space

The slightly battered wooden object is one of the first things you see when you walk into the exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum on West 16th Street in Manhattan.

It’s fairly small, clearly old — 11th century, in fact — and intricately but not fussily carved; the Hebrew at its top surprisingly includes vowels.

Pitchu li shaarei tzedek, it says. Open the gates of righteousness for me, it reads, quoting Psalm 118.

It’s the door to an ark that held sifrei Torah in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo; the synagogue’s been rebuilt many times, but Maimonides knew it in one of its earliest incarnations.

So you walk into the exhibit — it’s not big, but it is packed — drawn by the door, and you are on the Golden Path.

A view of the exhibit, showing Maimonides’ world

It’s an exhibit about the Rambam, Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides — so many names for such a powerful person — the philosopher, writer, and physician who was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1138 and died about 66 years later in Cairo.

Because Maimonides was such an extraordinary figure, because he was so influential in so many fields, because his memory has remained alive in ways that almost no one else’s does, the exhibit could have gone in many directions.

And it has.

After a look at Maimonides’ history and the history of the world in which he lived, and that followed, you see all sorts of treasures.

At the beginning of the exhibit, you see a neatly written manuscript with a name — Moshe ben Maimon — at the bottom. That was the Rambam’s own signature, signed with his own hand, still neat and legible 800 years later. It’s hard to say why that’s so thrilling — probably something about the hard-to-assimilate understanding that legendary people who lived centuries ago also were human, and did such things as sign their names, and that those deposits of ink on parchment survive them.

Arthur Szyk, Maimonides, New Canaan,1950, Watercolor and gouache on paper (Collection of Yeshiva UniversityMuseum, gift of Louis Werner)

But it is so thrilling.

Another room is filled with manuscripts, mostly astonishingly neatly written, but there are outliers, scribblers with whom it’s easy to identify. There are illuminations, still bright and still gorgeous even now.

There are fragments from the genizah, the storeroom for centuries of no-longer-kosher-but-still-holy fragments of books — in the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the ancient Cairo shul that was home to the wooden door.

There are early printed books; one room is a fascinating collection of tomes that trace the evolution of Hebrew printing, which, as it turns out, could be highly profitable.

Later in the exhibit, there are pieces of Jewish Americana, and then of modern ephemera — t-shirts from the Maimonides School in Brookline, among other bits of fluff.

Panel from a Torah ark door, Egypt, 11th century, with later carving and paint (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore and Yeshiva University Museum)

The exhibit was inspired by the collection of Robert Hartman, a semi-retired businessman and Orthodox Jew who lives part of the year in Florida and the other part in Lincolnwood, in Chicago.

Mr. Hartman loves collecting Rambamiana; it’s clear in his voice when he talks about it.

It’s a passion that he grew into, a bit at a time.

“There was a time when I was in my late 30s and early 40s when I was examining faith and reason,” the 60-something Mr. Hartman said. “I was born Orthodox, I was and am involved in everything Orthodox, but I’m also a person of logic and reason. So, I wondered, how do I synthetize faith and reason?”

Because Maimonides had examined those dilemmas at length, when Mr. Hartman talked about it with friends, “someone led me to the ‘Guide for the Perplexed,’” Maimonides’ work that examines those questions, with terrifyingly analytic rigor.

Commentary on the Mishnah, by Moses Maimonides; Egypt, after 1168 (The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

“I tried to study it on my own, but I became even more perplexed,” Mr. Hartman said. “It’s not an easy book to study on your own. It’s almost impenetrable.

“But eventually, I found a way into it.

“Sometimes, just before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I go to the bookstore for something to read, including during the long davening. I happened to come across a book called ‘Maimonides: Guide for Today’s Perplexed’ by Dr. Kenneth Seeskin, who teaches at Northwestern,” not far from Mr. Hartman’s house.

“It was basically the Cliffs Notes version,” Mr. Hartman continued. “It still took me the entire Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur davening to get through it, but now that I’d seen it, how could I not go back to the original?

“I used the Shlomo Pines translation, from the 1940s, at the University of Chicago,” he said. “It took me a long time, but I finally got it.

Mr. Hartman, center, is at the show’s opening in May; it’ll be open through December.

“And then I became — well, I don’t want to use the word obsessed, but I was obsessed. I wanted to share it with family and friends. I talked about it obsessively.”

Confronted with Mr. Hartman’s passion for Maimonides, a friend introduced him to a book dealer, “who had a beautiful Moreh Nevuchim,” as the guide is called in Hebrew.

It was a powerful experience. “Imagine holding a 500-year-old book in your hand,” Mr. Hartman said, his voice trailing off.

Some background on him — Mr. Hartman is the son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. Sarah Hartman was in Auschwitz, and Tibor Hartman was in Terezin. Most of their families were murdered. They met after the war and moved back to Hungary together. “They built a little bit of a life for themselves, and for me, but then when communism came in, they got out.” That was in 1956; Mr. Hartman was a small child then.

So “when you hold a book like the Moreh Nevuchim, your mind wanders,” he said. “Who held it? Who read it? When you are running for your life, do you put a 500-year-old book in your suitcase?

Guide for the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides; Barcelona,
1347 or 1348 (Courtesy of the Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen)

“I had very complex feelings. And from then on, I started to get more serious about collecting. I’ve been doing it for maybe 25 years. I buy a book every year or two. I didn’t start with the idea of creating a collection, but it grew.”

He also loves knowing that the books that he owns now have been owned by many other people, and some of them have been famous. Sir Moses Montefiore; the collector David Solomon Sassoon; David Oppenheim, the chief rabbi of Prague; Shmuel Salant, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem — all have owned one of the books that’s now part of Mr. Hartman’s collection. It’s a generational connection that he loves.

He also loves “the sparkle in my grandchildren’s eyes when I pull some of these books out and tell the stories,” he added.

When he realized that he wanted to have his books at the heart of YU’s exhibit, he went to a younger friend with whom he’d worked “early on in my collecting life,” he said. That’s David Sclar of Teaneck, “a nice, solid, Orthodox guy, and a serious scholar,” Mr. Hartman said. The two have worked together for years.

Dr. Sclar, who lives in Teaneck and teaches history and is the librarian at the Frisch School in Paramus, is a dedicated academic and teacher. His background has made him good at understanding how disparate elements can come together to a logical, emotionally satisfactory whole.

Sefer ha-Mitsvot (Book of the Commandments) by Moses Maimonides; Yemen, 1492 (Hartman Family Collection)

“I grew up in Minnesota, outside Minneapolis,” he said. “I’m partly Sephardi and partly Ashkenazi. My dad is from South Africa, the son of an immigrant. His parents were from Lithuania, but both of them were Sephardi. ‘Sclar’ means ‘glassmaker’ in Czech; before they went to Lithuania, the family had been glassmakers in Venice.”

His mother, on the other hand, was third-generation Minnesotan, which makes him fourth; his parents met in Israel.

After earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona, Dr. Sclar moved to New York, where he got a master’s from YU and his doctorate, in early modern Jewish history, from the CUNY Graduate Center. For seven years, as he worked on his doctorate, he had a job in the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which “has the greatest Judaica collection ever assembled,” he said. He basically fell into the job, which he got from a friend of a friend, although he was entirely qualified for it, so it wasn’t entirely luck.

“I practically lived there. I got to know Hebrew manuscripts and rare printed books. It completely changed my life. It was flabbergasting. It was completely eye-opening. It changed everything for me.”

After that, Dr. Sclar held fellowships at the University of Toronto, Princeton, Harvard, and Oxford.

Dr. David Sclar speaks at the exhibit opening. (David Sclar)

But he’s married, he has three children, and he couldn’t commit to the peripatetic life of all but the luckiest academic. “I needed a job,” he said. “It’s not easy to find jobs in academia in my field.” There aren’t very many of them.

But he found a job at Frisch, where he is very happy. “It’s been good,” he said. He teaches, which he loves; he also writes academic papers.

The YU show about Maimonides isn’t entirely about Maimonides, Dr. Sclar said. Through the Rambam, “it is exploring 800 years of Jewish history. I want everybody from a scholar of Maimonides — which I am not — and a person who loves manuscripts and rare things, to somebody who has never heard of Maimonides, or only heard of it as a medical center.

“My goal was to be able to tell an open-ended story of those 800 years, and also to tell specific stories that crop up along the way.”

One of those stories is the development of printing.

Guide for the Perplexed, Barcelona, 1347 or 1348 (Courtesy of the Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen. From the Yeshiva University Museum exhibition The Golden Path: Maimonides Across Eight Centuries)

Before you get to printed material, you see manuscripts; they were extraordinarily labor-intense, and the different styles that came from different times and places are visible even to the untrained eye.

“The manuscripts are not dated,” and nothing on them identifies the place where they were made, “but scholars can tell,” Dr. Sclar said. “Once you get to know these things, you see that there are distinct styles.” Usually scholars can date a work and be fairly certain about where it’s from.

Some of the art in Maimonides’ work looks distinctly Christian. That’s because “many printers had a Jewish scribe write the text — it would have been a commission to a professional scribe,” Dr. Sclar said. “Someone would procure the parchment, determine how many lines per page and the size of the margin, rule it, and leave an area for illumination. Once the writing is done, it goes to the artists.

“There were Christian workshops. Jews usually were not involved in the art.”

The exhibit includes some spectacular examples of illuminated manuscripts. The colors are vivid, and the gold shines.

Guide for the Perplexed, Barcelona, 1347 or 1348. Maimonides wrote this book, he also signed it. (Courtesy of the Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen)

“The gold is very malleable, and it is beaten very thin,” Dr. Sclar explained. So thin, in fact, “that if you were to put a piece in the palm of your hand, it would disintegrate. The artists would take the manuscript, once it was written, use gesso, and then the gold, which adheres to it. Then they would burnish the gold.” It’s still shining today.

Some of those manuscripts were from the 15th century.

We have the idea that the centuries before the Renaissance — the time we know as the Dark Ages — literally were dark, Dr. Sclar said. That’s wrong. “There was color and light, and they were making intense pigments.”

And then there are the first printed books.

“It was as revolutionary as the internet,” he said. “It is as revolutionary as writing language with characters that can convey different meanings when they are strung together, instead of using a pictograph.

Everything in the exhibit is treated with great delicacy; that includes this book.

“Printing was an explosion of knowledge that is impossible to comprehend now except maybe by those of us who remember what is was like before the internet.”

It turns out that there was a profit in printing in Hebrew; some of the printers were Jews, and others were Christians who identified a market. One of the exhibits is two of Rambam’s works, by rival Christian publishers. In a story that’s reminiscent of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, the rivals whose enmity led to the destruction of Jerusalem and whose story we tell on Tisha B’Av, those two printers let their competition turn into hatred, and then into literal fire. Eventually, it led to a papal bull prohibiting Hebrew-language printing.

As printing developed, printers had to figure out how to make it work. It started as great chunks of text, which isn’t necessarily inviting to the eye, even if the letters individually are beautiful. So the exhibit includes an example of a work by Maimonides with large blocks of blank space on each page. That was for the printer to retrofit with art or for the owner to fill in manually, should they decide to do so.

Another work by Maimonides includes a portrait of Shabbatai Tzvi, the false messiah whose charisma put him at the center of a passionate cult, on the frontispiece. It could have been there because the printer or editor was a Sabbatean, a cultist, but it also could have been a shrewd piece of marketing, because “about two-thirds of the Jewish world believed that he was the messiah,” Mr. Hartman said.

“That’s a piece of Jewish history that comes alive in this very, very rare book. The year after it was printed, he was exposed as a charlatan, and almost all the books were burned.”

The end of the exhibit begins with early modernity and goes on till today. “The modern period is where things open up,” Dr. Sclar said. “Things are refracted into separate distinct identities. Everyone can look to Maimonides to find something meaningful, and there are a multiplicity of Maimonides.”

In the end, the exhibit is less about Moshe ben Maimon than it is about the world in which he lived, the Jewish world as it developed after he died, and the way that his work and his memory changed in reaction to the outside world, as it influenced that world. It’s less about Maimonides’s content than his context, but it encourages interest in what he wrote as well as how what he wrote looks.

Or, as Dr. Sclar put it, “We don’t know the names of the vast majority of people who have ever lived. We don’t know anything about them. We can understand ourselves in that vein. Most of us are not going to be remembered.”

But the Rambam, Moshe ben Maimon, still is remembered, almost a millennium on.

Dr. Sclar wrote a catalog for the exhibit; it’s called “The Golden Path: Maimonides Across Eight Centuries,” and it’s available on Amazon.

The exhibit will be open until December 31. The museum is in the Center for Jewish History at 15 West 16th Street in Manhattan. The website is www.yu.edu/golden-path.

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