After a five-year renovation, the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, reopened fully last month.
Outside, the building, on a particularly unwelcoming stretch of Broadway, just a few blocks north of Columbia’s always-bustling campus, and Barnard’s more demure gated main buildings, north of Union Theological Seminary’s right-on-the-street doorway, looks more or less unchanged, and certainly the subway, emerging from underground right there, is exactly the same.
But inside, it’s new.
The seminary has prided itself on its library, with its enormous collection of rarities, for decades. But now it can make its collection — 11,000 manuscripts, 25,000 rare printed books, and thousands of other materials such as scrolls, broadsides, and ketubot, according its website — more accessible to scholars, as well as more inspirational, educational, and just plain interesting to visitors.
Dr. David Kraemer, who earned his doctorate from JTS in 1980 and is a professor of Talmud and rabbinics there, also is the seminary’s librarian. He’s worked with the curator, Sharon Liberman Mintz, and other experts, on the show that’s now hanging in the new library. The exhibit — “To Build a New Home — Celebrating the Jewish Wedding” — displays pieces of art and fragments of documents that somehow have something to do with marriage — sometimes obviously, as is true of the ketubot, the wedding contracts, and sometimes in ways that you have to squint to see — the 15th century Bible from Yemen is open to the story of Adam and Eve, who were married if not formally, then at least by common law.
In choosing the pieces of art for the new library’s inaugural exhibit, “We took advantage of thematic connection — our new home, the new home that starts with a wedding,” Dr. Kraemer said.
Yes, it’s a stretch, but the beauty and variety of the objects legitimate it nicely, or at the very least make the viewer not care.
Among the themes running through the exhibit are continuity and change; perhaps not coincidentally, those words are the guiding principles of the Conservative movement. To be specific, the exhibit documents “the continuity between Jewish weddings in different places over the centuries, and at the same time, the way Jewish wedding practices have changed in surprising ways over those centuries,” Dr. Kraemer said.
“It’s also about the diversity of Jewish practices in different communities, and about the ways in which Jews adapted elements from the cultures of their neighbors.”
So can you be specific, Dr. Kraemer? Well, yes, he can be.
Take the chuppah, he said. “Most people identify the chuppah — the portable canopy — as the sign of a traditional Jewish wedding.” In fact, though, “it’s the sign of a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish wedding, beginning in about the 16th century; in a sign of how permeable the boundaries between Jews and the cultures in which they live can be, by now, many American non-Jews get married beneath a chuppah. It’s a beautiful, photogenic, symbolically open object.
“We have a series of early printed books that have images of different kinds of Jewish weddings,” Dr. Kraemer continued. “One of the earliest pictorial representations is of a bride and groom sitting in front of their guests, in big, throne-like chairs, for the wedding ceremony. There is no chuppah.”
In another illustration, from a book published in Amsterdam in 1683, the viewer sees “the custom of hanging a beautiful domed roof over the couple”; it’s painted to look like the night sky.
“In a way, it’s as if the marriage was taking place outside, under the stars,” Dr. Kraemer said; it also refers back to God’s promise, in Genesis, that Abraham’s descendants will multiply until they are like the stars in the sky or the sands by the sea, uncountable in their multitudes.
Dr. Kraemer talks about some of the examples of cultural permeability in the exhibit. “There is a wonderful ketubah from Mantua in 1689,” he said. “The border of the ketubah is quite beautiful, but you might also say that it’s shocking,” he said. “There are many nude bodies in the decoration. On the one hand, you’d say it’s not that surprising. It’s Italian. But it’s a Jewish religious document, and that makes it surprising.”
And it’s not as if the nude figures are tucked away discreetly. “There’s a very prominent nude Adam and Eve,” he said. ‘You can’t miss them.
“And beyond them, when you look at the biblical and apocryphal imagery in the cartouches that decorate the border, you see several images of God, who is quite explicitly represented as a kind of angel, with a human body and wings. On the top right, God creates Eve out of Adam, and God is front and center.
“It’s surprising that this is in a Jewish document. Many scholars are of the opinion that the artist was Christian, but then that shows two very interesting things. One is that the Jewish community worked with local Christian artisans. And the other is that the Jewish community was far more open than it was meticulous. It shows that they were open to the Italian culture that surrounded them.”
There are quite a few ketubot in the exhibit, and most of them are Italian, but that does not mean that this is an exhibit of ketubot, much less of Italian examples of the art. Instead, “the art of ketubah decoration reached its zenith in Italy, and it lasted longest there, and we have one of the largest collections of ketubot of any collection on earth,” Dr. Kraemer said. “We are soon to publish a comprehensive catalogue, a two-volume work. One of the volumes will be entirely about ketubot from Italy; the ketubot in the other is from all over the rest of the world.
“The ketubot we hold include fragments of one from Cairo that’s the oldest decorated on on earth, and we also have a 19th century ketubah from Ukraine, and a fine, very interesting one from the Hague in 1729.”
The exhibit also includes “a fragment from the Cairo genizah that is a piece of a prenuptial agreement.” That fragment, from the 12th century, tells a story that a novelist could run with. “This is a couple that previously had been married to each other, got divorced, and now are remarrying each other.
“This is a phenomenon that a scholar of the Cairo genizah discovered a number of years ago,” he added parenthetically. “It was clear that Jews in Muslim lands got divorced fairly easily; it’s probably because of the influence of divorce among Muslims. It’s an example of Jews doing as their neighbors did.
“And it is so fascinating, because the woman is saying, in effect, ‘Sure, I’ll marry you, but I have two conditions. First, my mother has to be able to live with us. And second, you have to promise not to abuse her.
“There are all kinds of fascinating pieces of information about relationships between men and women in these documents, and it reinforces what we already knew,” Dr. Kraemer continued. “It shows us that women had more power in negotiating than we imagine they’d have — and that they were most powerful before the wedding actually took place. We see that both in pre-nuptial agreements, and in ketubot.”
How so? “We have a ketubah from Venice, from 1749, that includes text on both sides. One side is the text of the ketubah, and the other is the tena’im, the conditions of engagement.
“What is clear, when you read the text, is that one of the pair is Ashkenazi and the other is Sephardi” — which was not unusual in the bustling port city — “and the bride insists that if there is a dispute, they will follow the bride’s customs.”
The exhibit also includes some modern material, including “the latest edition of the Rabbinical Assembly’s manual, which has an insert for same-sex ceremonies,” Dr. Kraemer said.
Most of the material on display “is beautiful,” he continued. “It’s a combination of instruction and discovery and delight. We want people to see some of the fantastic things that we have, particularly because this is our first exhibit.”
He discussed the changes the renovation has made. “Going back to 1984, we had a couple of exhibition cases outside the rare book room, and we would put up very small exhibits,” he said. “It wasn’t an exhibition gallery. The space outside the cases was the elevator lobby. But we would do small exhibitions. The problem was that we didn’t have full climate control. Because it was right outside the rare book room it was relatively stable but we could only show certain things,” the sturdier pieces in the collection.
“We had other exhibition space on the first floor, but it was entirely unsuitable for rare material,” he continued. “There was no climate control at all.”
Now, the space is tailor-made for exhibits. “We want to promote these materials not only for scholars, but also for the education and inspiration of all Jews. The materials are beautiful and exciting, so we have created this dedicated exhibition gallery, which is larger and has freestanding space. It also has walls on which we can show our rare materials, very significantly upgraded climate controls, and proper lighting.”
Each exhibit will be up for about three months, Dr. Kraemer said; that’s as long as the fragile materials can be exposed to light before the exposure begins to be dangerous to it. “So there will be about three a year.” This one will end on August 14. “The next one will be in cooperation with the Judaic studies library at Columbia,” he said. “It will be all rare materials, about the Jews of Corfu.
“Jews have been prominent all over the world. And we don’t want anybody to think that all Jews are Ashkenazi.”
The exhibit is open to the public, Dr. Kraemer said. “We want people to see some of the fantastic things that we have. If people want to organize groups, they should be in touch with me to schedule a tour. We will run curator tours and are thrilled to do that.
“People also are welcome to drop in during the library’s open hours. If they’re in the city, they’re welcome to come in. All they need is proof of vaccination.”
The Jewish Theological Seminary is at 3080 Broadway. Learn more about the exhibit at its website, jtsa.edu.