Dr. Zvi Leshem — Scholem's Fanatic Love Of Books
In this interview with On Being's senior producer Lily Percy, Dr. Zvi Leshem discusses the life and legacy of Gershom Scholem and his fanatic love for Jewish books. Dr. Leshem is the director of the Gershom Scholem Library at the National Library of Israel.
Lily Percy: I’m so glad that I — I was thinking your name was Zvi, but I was going to ask you how to pronounce your name. So just say your full name.
Dr. Zvi Leshem: T-Z-V-I.
Ms. Percy: OK.
Dr. Leshem: phonetic pronunciation.
Ms. Percy: And it is Leshem?
Dr. Leshem: Yes.
Ms. Percy: Great. Zvi Leshem. Fantastic. All right. So, this is going to sound like an odd question, but just so we get levels, tell me about the first car you ever bought.
Dr. Leshem: It was a Subaru station wagon.
Ms. Percy: Oh.
Dr. Leshem: 1981, in Israel.
Ms. Percy: How old were you?
Dr. Leshem: 24, I think.
Ms. Percy: Oh great. So you really enjoyed it at that time, I’m sure. [laughs]
Dr. Leshem: Yes. Because we started having kids, so we needed a place to put them and not take the bus all the time.
Ms. Percy: Oh, OK. [laughs] It was a more family oriented car, like to picture you speeding.
Dr. Leshem: Yes, yeah. It was not racy at all. It was definitely a family car.
Ms. Percy: Oh, great. so, can you ask Daniel if he’s rolling there? If he’s recording?
Dr. Leshem: Are you ready?
Daniel: I’m ready.
Dr. Leshem: He’s ready.
Ms. Percy: Fantastic. All right. I don’t want to take up too much of your time today. So, why don’t you just go ahead by telling — start by telling me your name and what your title is, what you do at the library.
Dr. Leshem: OK. My name is Zvi Leshem, or as (inaudible) Dr. Leshem. And I am the Director — or I guess it could be called the Curator of the Gershom Scholem Library, which is a special collection of Jewish mysticism, primarily Kabbalah and Hasidic works, both primary sources and research material. And, I’m in charge of that library, which is a major center for Kabbalah research for the entire world.
Ms. Percy: So you, as part of your position there, you still bring in and are looking for new additions to bring to the library.
Dr. Leshem: Yeah, the — if I go back a little bit, I guess, we’ll get into it. Gershom Scholem, when he died in 1982, left the great majority of his library to the National Library. At that time, there were about 25,000 titles. And now, 30 years later, we’re up to about 35,000. So, we’re growing by several hundred titles a year, yes.
Ms. Percy: Wow. So, tell me, you know, when did you first become aware of Gershom Scholem yourself? When did you first hear the name, and then really learn about him?
Dr. Leshem: I think that — I think I heard of him when I was in high school. I think my brother once borrowed one of his books, and then had it lying around the house and said it was completely incomprehensible. And then when I got to university in New York, I started reading Gershom Scholem. He was coming up a lot in my classes in Jewish studies. And so, I read a fair amount of Scholem in my undergraduate days. And then when I came to Israel, I heard him give a lecture once, I think it must have been about ’80 or ’81, not that long before he died. And then when I went back to graduate school in Jewish Philosophy, so obviously at that time I did a lot more reading about him. A lot more reading of his writings, and also about him. And when I came to work here, obviously since then I’ve done a tremendous amount of reading about him. Because he’s himself a major topic of research as this program attests to, and not only a researcher.
Ms. Percy: So, you know, since you studied philosophy yourself, was there something — oh.
Dr. Leshem: Daniel wants a time out here.
Ms. Percy: Sure.
Daniel: Just because I heard an email coming in.
Dr. Leshem: Of like here? Oh.
Ms. Percy: Oh, email, yeah.
Daniel: mute it somehow? You see down here the — yeah.
Dr. Leshem: Yeah. Oops. (Inaudible) control options.
Daniel: That’s good. Usually it shows up.
Dr. Leshem: Yeah.
Daniel: Maybe …
Dr. Leshem: Maybe get a little.
Daniel: Open volume mixer, maybe?
Dr. Leshem: Oh yeah.
Daniel: Yeah, see if you can close that out. And then …
Dr. Leshem: OK. Now the volume.
Dr. Leshem: There we go. No?
Daniel: Maybe her mouse is backwards. Right click — left click. Something. Something is off. Or can we turn it off manually? Here why don’t we …
[ crosstalk ]
Daniel: Yeah, there we go. And just while you’re at it, turn down the other ones, just in case. Yeah, good. OK. Great.
Dr. Leshem: OK. We were having some background noise …
Ms. Percy: Oh, no, yeah, I know. Email is always the thing [ laughs ] that comes up.
Dr. Leshem: OK
Ms. Percy: So, you were saying that, you know, you studied a lot more of his ideas when you were a philosophy student. Is there a particular idea or something that kind of just blew your mind when you were reading about him?
Dr. Leshem: I think the most fascinating thing about him, to some extent, is his whole interest and transformation as a very young person, from a person who came from a very assimilated and bourgeoisie Jewish family in Berlin, which was trying to consciously to less it’s connection with Judaism. And he underwent this tremendous awakening as a teenager into Judaism and to Zionism, and then ultimately into Kabbalah, which at that time, was the most esoteric topic there could be, even amongst the Berlin Orthodox rabbis who he found to teach him Tulmud. He couldn’t find anyone to teach him Kabbalah. That was not their province at all. And he basically went to university and created this new discipline of his own. So I think that his whole transformation from his origins into what he became is very fascinating.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, you know, and he contributed in so many different ways through, obviously, Kabbalah and then, you know, the library, you know, being a librarian, being a researcher, curator himself. What are the things that you feel when people talk about Gershom Scholem that they don’t really talk about? That they kind of miss?
Dr. Leshem: Could you ask me that again? I not sure I understood.
Ms. Percy: Oh, sure. You know, when you read about Gershom Scholem today, and people focus on different aspects of his work, is there something you wish they would talk about more? Maybe focus on, that people miss?
Dr. Leshem: That’s an interesting question. They talk about so much. I’m not sure if anything’s been missed. I think maybe some things — well, [laughs] don’t quote me on that.
Ms. Percy: No, no, no. It’s OK for you to take time to think about it, too.
Dr. Leshem: Yeah. That’s an interesting question. I can’t think of anything off-hand. Nothing comes to my mind yet, but ...
Ms. Percy: Well, when you talk about him, what is the anecdote that you point out yourself? You know, sometimes that helps.
Dr. Leshem: Well, one of the interesting things from the — just the — from the Zionist standpoint that also reappeared later was his whole relationship with Buber. Buber was someone with whom he had a great — a lot of respect for. But whom he also was involved in various conflicts of different kinds throughout his life, almost. And the very first thing that Scholem published as a teenager in Germany was actually a letter to a Zionist publication attacking Buber for supporting World War I. For supporting Germany in World War I. Buber was seen, then, as sort of the leader of the Zionists in Germany. And he was very patriotic, and was supportive of the German war effort. And Scholem was this young guy, writes this letter, this very brash letter, saying if we’re really Zionists, then Germany isn’t even our country. We all want to go to Palestine. So this war has nothing to do with us, and why are you supporting it? That was the very first thing that he ever published. And many, many years later, he had all kinds of scholarly things with Buber regarding different interpretation of Hasidism and things like that. So it’s very interesting that they had this sort of dialectical relationship throughout their lives. Until Buber passed away.
Ms. Percy: That is interesting. Do you have copies of those letters in the collection?
Dr. Leshem: OK, so maybe just a word about the collection. I want to delineate the two things here. We have — there’s the Gershom Scholem library, or Gershom Scholem collection is more accurate here. And there’s also the Gershom Scholem archives. So, the reading room, the Gershom Scholem collection basically includes things that were published. So we have books, and we have articles, and we have — not manuscripts, but photocopies of manuscripts. We also have many, many rare books, thousands of rare books. But all of Scholem’s correspondence and his various certificates and documents of all kinds are found in the archives, which is in the same building here in the National Library. So these letters and things like that are not — the letters are found in the archives. This particular one, which was published, I would assume we also have a copy of it, because it was published. But, a person who really wants to study Scholem really has two different places they need to sit in the library. One is in the Scholem collection, and one is in the Scholem archives.
Ms. Percy: How interesting. And so the archives would also contain audio of him, video of him?
Dr. Leshem: There are audios and videos, some of which, I think, have been uploaded to the National Library website, but the — what’s in the archives themselves are more letters and documents and a lot of photographs. The Scholems seemed to like to be photographed. There are really a lot of photographs from many different periods. Just to be exact, I should point out that in terms of letters, the letters in the archives are found in the archives of the person who received them.
Ms. Percy: Oh, got it.
Dr. Leshem: So the letters in the Scholem archives are letters that he received. One of the interesting examples of correspondence that has not yet been published but that we’re interested in is a correspondence between Buber and Agnon. So — I’m sorry, between Scholem and Agnon. So, the letters that Scholem wrote are in the Agnon archive, and the letters that Agnon wrote are in the Scholem archive. So, you have to do a little bit more work if you want to get the full picture.
Ms. Percy: Great. So let’s talk about the library a little bit. In an article I read, you described Scholem kind of wonderfully as a stocker of books. I really loved that idea that you said. What did you mean by that? If you could kind of introduce us to him as a librarian.
Dr. Leshem: He really was, and I thought I’d maybe I’d read you a passage or two from his diary.
Ms. Percy: Sure.
Dr. Leshem: Which is called From Berlin to Jerusalem. From around his university times. Let me read you two short passages and I think you’ll get the idea. He writes the following, and this, of course, in the original in German. Thanks to extreme thriftiness, I had been able to save a few hundred francs from my stipend. For weeks on end, I ate only fried eggs with fried potatoes in a cheap restaurant. I took my savings to the two second-hand book dealers in Berlin that specialized in Judaic and bought Kabbalistic writings. That’s one. Another one. If I received any money, I would run and change some into English currency and use some to buy books of Kabbalah. And then he gives an example of how he wanted to buy a certain book. And he says, I said to myself that I would eat a little less, and in doing so, I would own a copy of Etz Hayim. Etz Hayim is one of the books of the great 16th century Kabbalist, the Ari, from Safed
And you can see also if you come here and you look in some of the books, he liked to write in his books. So we have both marginal notes, which are of a research nature, but he also sometimes writes in the beginning of a book a detailed account of how he got the book. How much he spent on it. Where he bought it. Sometimes he writes that he traded it for a different book. And he also, being a German, we say in Hebrew, we call them yukies, a very, very exacting people. He also kept lots of books, a list of books. So he has, for example, in the archives, there’s a typewritten list of the books that he brought with him when he moved to Israel in 1923, 1,767 titles, including 503 in Kabbalah.
And he has also lists of — later on kept lists from 1957, he had a notebook called notes on the status of my library, which listed all the books according to categories, and listed also the books that he’d lent out in great detail and when he got them back. And he crossed them off. And he — you really see that he stocked books that — the most famous anecdote of this category is a little pamphlet that he published in 1937 called Alu L'Shalom, which literally means go up — it means both go in peace, and also come to Scholem, which was a title, it’s a sort of play on words. it was suggested to him by Agnon. It’s a small pamphlet that he listed 111 books that he was lacking from his library. It’s a negative catalog, 80 Hebrew books, and 31 books in other languages.
And he writes in his biography — his autobiography that this was, of course, a tremendous mistake, because the minute that he published this booklet, the prices of those books all went way up, because the book dealers in Jerusalem knew that he would pay pretty much anything to get these books in his library. And so he ended up paying a lot more for the books, because he published this little pamphlet. So that’s a very, very famous curiosity that we have.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, I mean, you’ve got to be passionate about books to, you know, not eat essentially to go buy books.
Dr. Leshem: Yeah, can I give you another little quote that is also really cute from his correspondence with his mother?
Ms. Percy: Sure.
Dr. Leshem: So after he came to… 1923, then he had his mother looking for him for books in Germany that he couldn’t find. And their correspondence has been published. And in 19 — uh, I believe in 1925, she wrote to him the following, presumably in response to his requests. I must add that I fear that I shall someday see you drowning in a sea of your Kabbalistic manuscripts, 200 at a time, and that is too much. To which he wrote back to her a year later, apparently not impressed by her concerns. Dear mother, the book on alchemy that was neglected due to your hasty journey is very important for my studies and I request that you don’t forget about it.
Ms. Percy: How old would he have been when he wrote that?
Dr. Leshem: When he wrote that, he was 28.
Ms. Percy: Oh, still demanding.
Dr. Leshem: Yeah. Yeah, well, I think he was kind of a tough personality and very demanding on himself more than anyone else, but also on the people around him.
Ms. Percy: So, in my readings about him and his curating of these books, I read about him saving a lot of texts — Jewish texts, from World War II. Can you talk a little bit about things that he kind of saved?
Dr. Leshem: Uh, yeah, he went, in 1946, he was sent from the Hebrew University, together with another professor, to travel to Eastern Europe, and look for Jewish books that had been looted by the Nazis. And had been collected in various warehouses, and different places in Europe for their — for purposes of their research, or pseudo-research or their documentaries — documenting the Jewish culture that they were trying to destroy, but yet they felt the need to document and that.
And he spent most of 1946 or a lot of that time traveling to these places. This trip was very significant in many ways. First of all, it was very, very depressing for him. Obviously the Holocaust things, or the holocaust is depressing for all Jews who heard about it, who heard about the details, he also had lost his brother, Werner Scholem, who was his closest — the four brothers, the two of them were the — were very, very close. And he was killed in 1938 in Buchenwald.
That’s a very interesting story, their relationship. He was a communist. The two of them, well, as I mentioned, it’s a very interesting story. The two — and someone is writing a book about this at this time. There were four brothers. Two of them went into the family sort of pattern of business, and German culture. And the two brothers rebelled. Scholem rebelled by becoming a Zionist and a Jewish studies advocate. And his brother, Werner, rebelled by becoming a communist. And he was actually a representative in the German parliament from the communist party. In 1933, when the Germans came to power, when Nazis came to power, he of course, as both a Jew and communist, was right on the top of their list, and he was immediately arrested, and eventually was killed.
And so, Scholem obviously already was traumatized by the Holocaust, but he went to Eastern Europe and saw the destruction with his own eyes. He — it was very, very difficult for him. But basically, he was sent to — and this is also — some articles have been written about this topic, as well, this particular trip of his. And I know that at least one more is being written now. He was sent with lists of different collections of books that had been plundered by the Nazis to go through them. And the goal was to try to return them to their original communities.
If there were books from — that had been taken from the Jews in Prague, return them to the Jewish community in Prague, et cetera, et cetera. What Scholem did, and I’m — this is not my expertise, this particular topic, but it has — other people are writing about it, is he felt that books that would be returned to Eastern Europe where the communist regimes had taken power, would not really be returned to the Jewish communities, and would be kept for use by the governments. And he on the side managed to smuggle some of those books here to the library. So some of them got to Israel instead of going back to where they were supposed to go. But I’m really not an expert on the details of that …
Ms. Percy: No, no problem.
Dr. Leshem: … that mission. And those books — the books that are here in the library now from that collection are called (Hebrew Title?) the treasures of the exile. They have a special sticker, and those are books that are from that trip of Scholem’s.
Ms. Percy: So, how instrumental would you say that Scholem was in the founding of the National Library?
Dr. Leshem: OK, so in terms of his relationship with the library, first of all, he certainly is not a founder of the library. The library — we say we’ve celebrated recently our 120th anniversary of the library. Was in its initial stages. Was founded in 1892. As part of the Zionist movement’s idea, starting from some individual’s interest, really, to have a collection of books, a major library for the new community in Israel. And it went through various stages and transformations.
And when Scholem came in 1923, the library had already been in existence for several decades. And he was appointed to be the head of Judaic division of the library by the professor Shmuel Hugo Bergmann, who was also a friend of his. And who was then directing the library and who wrote on document in the — which is in the Archives, the letter that he gave to the British mandatory government to ask for permission for Gershom Scholem to enter the country. He wrote that he’s needed to set up the Jewish part of the library, that there’s no one like him in Palestine who has such great knowledge of Jewish books. So Scholem came here. His original plan, Scholem’s, was to teach mathematics in Isreal. He thought that would be a good way for him to make a living here. So he started out in the university and studying mathematics, but ended up switching to his true love of Kabbalah. And writing — finishing his dissertation in 1922 on the book Bahir, which is an ancient Kabbalistic book.
When he came to Israel in 1923, he was offered a job as a math teacher, and he was offered a job in the library, which was less profitable, even less profitable, than being a teacher. But he decided that he would take that. It interested him a lot more. So he came here in 1923 as the head of the Judaic studies part of the library. Um, he began teaching at Hebrew University in 1925, when Hebrew University was established. And the library then combined, and became the National and University Library, which is was until 2008, when the two institutions split again. And he continued to work here until 1927 only. And then he became a full-time University professor, but he was involved in the library his entire life.
So just to mention some of the really important things he did in the library, even after he left officially, he helped establish, in 1925, the Kiryat Sefer, which is the national bibliography of Israel, which lists all the books printed in Israel, and discusses bibliographic issues. He helped establish the institute for the photographing of Jewish — or of Hebrew manuscripts, which is a very important part of the library here, where we have tens of thousands of photocopies of Jewish manuscripts from all over the world, which are in great use, which he — most of them are now on microfilm and will eventually be digitized, of course. And he was very involved in setting that up. One of the famous things that he did, which is still in use in many libraries in the world, is in 1927 he published a revision of the Dewey decimal system for Jewish studies, which is colloquially known as (Hebrew?), the Scholem system. Dewey, who was a very devout Christian, gave almost all of the numbers within the number two out of the 10 numbers, number two is religion. And almost all of number two in the Dewey system is for various aspects of Christianity. 2.9 is all other religions. And 296 — 29 is all other religions, 296 is Judaism. So if you have a huge library, you can't get by with such a small …
Ms. Percy: Of course not.
Dr. Leshem: … amount of numbers. So Scholem published, and it was revised and republished in numerous editions, a detailed system for classification of Jewish books based on topic. So it's sort of like Dewey, but he went into very, very great detail. In that system is still in use in many Jewish libraries throughout the world. So that's a very interesting bibliographic points.
He also published, in 1930, a bibliography of Kabbalistic manuscripts in the library with great details. And he was involved in many, many aspects of the library's functioning until, I guess, the ultimate thing, which was his agreement with the library, signed in 1965, to transfer his own library to the library after he would die, which is also an interesting document which includes also addendums such as a note on the books that my wife is allowed to keep. You'll see books that he thought his wife, Fania, who had began is one of his students, would be interested in keeping if he died before she did, which he did. And he also felt were not so significant to the collection, as not all of his books came here. The books that came here with the books related to Kabbalah, to Hasidism, to Jewish mysticism, and related fields. Related fields include a lot of other philosophy, a lot of psychology, a lot of other religions, especially Christianity in general mysticism, as well as special collections of things that were dear to his heart, such as a very fine collection of the writings of his dear friend Walter Benjamin, the philosopher and literary critic who also perished in the Holocaust. So we have — we get a lot of people who come here sometimes to research Benjamin, who is now very, very — a very big topic in philosophical research.
Ms. Percy: Are there any surprises in that, in his collection that he donated, the books that you would be surprised that he had? Or maybe people just wouldn't think that he was reading these.
Dr. Leshem: Excuse me?
Ms. Percy: Or maybe that folks who didn’t know him, would be surprised that he was reading.
Dr. Leshem: Look, he was a very great intellectual, and he had a very, very wide range of interests. So, you see from the library the — which is one of the interesting things about coming to the library, if you want to understand Scholem is just to see the books that he had. Although it’s important to realize that you’re not seeing everything. There are — people have sometimes written about why didn’t Scholem have such-and-such a book, based only on the fact that it’s not here in the room, and that’s a very — often a mistake. But he had a very wide philosophical interest. He has — and he has a lot of German literature, German philosophy.
He has, for example, a tremendous amount of Freud’s works, even though he personally found psychoanalysis to be very, I don’t know, distasteful is too strong a word. But it didn’t interest him, and he felt that it was misleading. He felt that it was certainly not appropriate to use it in research of philosophical figures, as he didn’t like the idea of philosophizing about — of psychoanalyzing writers, for example. So, he was also definitely even though he was on the left politically, he was certainly not a Marxist, but there’s a tremendous amount of Marxist philosophy and economic theory here. It's something like that. Also, the things which he disagreed with, he needed to know a lot about. So I guess that might be surprising, the amount of books that he obviously didn't like that he felt they were important that he have them in his collection.
Ms. Percy: Yeah. Well, it's interesting. I'm blanking right now on the name of the book, but there's a forward to one of his collections that has a Christian historian who writes the foreword. And I was very surprised to read a Christian historian writing about Gershom Scholem. So, you know, when you mentioned right now that Scholem had Christian writers in his collection, I'm surprised to hear that, too.
Dr. Leshem: Scholem, look, coming from the cultural background that he did, which was very Christian, that he was you know coming from assimilated, middle-class Berlin Jewish family in the 1910s, 1920s, he was surrounded by Christianity and he was very interested in Christianity. And he saw a lot of connections between Christianity and Jewish mysticism. So there is — here we have both works of Christian Kabbalah, which are mostly Renaissance works in which mostly Italian Christian philosophers, such as Pico della Mirandola, who translated Kabbalistic work into Latin. So that we have. But we also have a huge amount of works on Christian mysticism. Which is not about Kabbalah, it's about within Christianity itself, what kind of mystical experiences or ideas were propagated by various Christian theologians. So that we have a very strong section of.
In comparison, we have a relatively small collection on Islamic mysticism, Sufism, because I think Scholem was less aware — it was less on his radar. He was less interested in it. And recently we sort of tried to fill in some of the things we are missing from the collection. But I think you do see the cultural biases that exist here. But his immersion in Christianity not as — in any way as his own belief system, but as something that he felt culturally connected to and interested in is very apparent.
Ms. Percy: So, just so I understand, Zvi, the collection came to the library after he passed away or before he died?
Dr. Leshem: Yeah, after he passed away. The agreement to transfer the library was signed in 1965. He died in 1982. He lived, until his death, in a small apartment in the Rehavia section of Jerusalem, where he had wall to ceiling books, as can be seen in many pictures. In every single room, almost, just mention that (inaudible), he had one shelf that was always empty. And there are various theories about why it was empty. One theory is that when his wife would complain and say there's not room for a single other book in our house, he would say what are you talking about? Here is another empty shelf. So there is always room for another book. But the agreement stipulates that ownership is being transferred to the National Library already in 1965. But that the books will remain in his apartment either until he dies or if he decides for some reason that he wants to transfer them sooner. And they actually were transferred only after his death in 1982.
Before that time, people from the library had gone to his house to help start numbering the books. In the arrangement of the books in his library is more or less followed in Scholem collection today, which in itself is a statement of how he organized things. Because the books basically begin with the primary texts, arranged in chronological order of the development of the Kabbalah as Scholem saw it, with some weird exceptions, which I suspect were due to misplaced windows in his apartment or things like that, so you have to change the order of things sometimes. And then after that is the order of the — is the research materials, all the secondary literature in the same order that previously you have the primary sources.
So when you — just by looking in the library today and how things are set up, you also can, in a sense, read his mind about how he thinks the study of Kabbalah is set up, because his library really was the basis of his academic research. That's part of why he was such an obsessive collector. He felt that he needed to have all of the editions and all of the commentaries in order to be able to do his historical, philological studies.
So, when you see how he set things up, you realize that that's how he studied Kabbalah, according to those categories that he decided on as the person who basically made up the discipline of academic Kabbalah studies. One of his students, Joseph Dan, has written that one has the tendency to think, when you look at his library that he wrote about everything in the library. And that's not true. There are many things that he simply didn't get to. You would have needed two or three lifetimes to cover everything that he collected. So a lot of things that nobody was very interested in and he hardly wrote about it at all. Just to give one example, the Hasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who today is very, very famous and well known, Scholem not only collected all of his works, as much as he could, but he also, in 1928, wrote a bibliography of Breslov works which he gave to Buber as a birthday present. So he obviously was very interested in Rabbi Nachman's writings, but he never really wrote anything of significance about him. Presumably, he just — he didn't get to it as with many other things in the library.
Ms. Percy: He just ran out of time.
Dr. Leshem: Yeah. Despite being incredibly prolific, writing over 600 publications. He couldn't do everything.
Ms. Percy: He was one man.
Dr. Leshem: Yeah.
Ms. Percy: So, you, you know, you described early on when we were talking here that, you know, there’s the archives in the collection. There's two separate kind of things to remember here about Scholem at the National Library. If you were going to pick a favorite, you know, item in each one of those, in the archives and collections, that's personal to you that you really particularly love, which ones would they be?
Dr. Leshem: Well, that’s of course, very subjective.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, I'm asking you.
Dr. Leshem: Yeah. OK, well, I'll give you a very personal answer from the collection. And this is really actually a book that was not Scholem’s himself. It came to — well, actually it did pass through his hands. I shouldn't say that. In Israel yesterday we marked the Holocaust commemoration day. There is a book from the — from Budapest called Eim Habanim Semeichah, which literally translates — it's based on a verse in the Psalms, the mother of children is happy, which was written by Rabbi Yissachar Teichtal, who was killed in the Holocaust. He was in the Budapest ghetto. And he published this book, which was about Israel and about the importance of the Jews coming to live in Israel in 1943 before the Nazis came in, but under the Hungarian persecution. And he was — the book was published in 1943 in Budapest, and then he was killed shortly afterwards. This book is significant to me not only because of its — the book itself is quite interesting, but my father was also in the Budapest ghetto at the same time. So for me, there is a personal connection.
Now, when I came — and I have at home this book. I don't have the first edition, but I was quite familiar with the book. When I came to the library, I saw there were older editions, and I noticed that one of them, which was with the rare books, was the first edition. So I opened it up and it said, you know, Budapest, 1943. And I was very emotional to see that. And then, I turned the page and I saw that there is actually a handwritten dedication from the author that he gave this particular copy to a friend of his, another Rabbi, who was apparently hoping to leave Hungary and get the Israel. And he wrote this poetic waxing letter to his friend in 1943 in during his — as part of his dedication, his also praying for the salvation of the Jewish people who are, of course, in great — in times of the greatest tribulation, et cetera. And that was a very, very emotional for me to see that. Apparently this Rabbi that received the book also didn't make it out, or the book didn't make it out, because we know the book was in Budapest until after the war, and only later was given to Rivka Schatz, who was one of Scholem’s closest students. And she gave it to him. And he added it to the collection. So for me that was a very, very powerful thing for me to see. When I first came in noticed it in the collection.
In the archives, I think that one of the things that I find the most interesting, I quoted to you before. That's the letter from Hugo Bergman or it’s actually the official form of the mandatory government, which was filled out to request permission for Scholem to be able to enter Palestine by offering him a job in the National Library. Well, I'll give you one more actually. I just thought of it. There is a small piece of paper, it's just one piece of paper, which was from a lecture. A note that Scholem jotted to himself in Hebrew for a lecture that he gave in 1972 when a collection called The Israel Mehlmann Collection was received in the library. And we received a copy — a new collection of books, 1972. And Scholem was asked to speak.
And he jotted down for himself the following notes. And I quote, “The National Library is built upon two factors: One, the speedy work of librarians who place brick upon — one brick upon the next, one book upon another, as they happen to be acquired; Two, the insane labor of the collectors. And I think that he had both of those qualities, the systematic librarian, and the insanity of the book collectors. And that’s what made him such a great book collector and librarian, that he had both of those qualities.
Ms. Percy: Is there anything else that I didn’t ask you that you think is really important, that our listeners know?
Dr. Leshem: Let me look. I made myself a few notes. Let me look quickly.
Ms. Percy: Sure.
Dr. Leshem: I think we got most of it. Yeah, well, I think I’d like to mention that there’s a — in 1977, for Scholem’s 80th birthday, he was presented with a detailed bibliography of his own publications. At that time, there were 579 items listed. And in the copy — his own personal copy that we have here, he wrote not only detailed notes on that, on each of those items, but he also added another 28 items between — in the last three years of his life.
So, and I’d also like to mention, yeah, I would like to mention a couple of other things. One is that Scholem wrote very extensive notes in some of his books. And that’s one of the very important things and reasons that people come here in order to be able to see his own copies. And read his marginal notes in his books. Some of them, for example, both his own copy of the Zohar and the Zohar Chadash, which are two of the most important classic Kabbalistic works, as well as the bibliography of Kabbalistic manuscripts that I mentioned before, he had them rebound with a blank piece of paper next to every page, so that he could write very, very extensive notes.
So, we have these books that are double their original size with tremendous amount of notes that have been added. So that’s — some of them are — have been republished. In fact, similarly, some of them are online on the website of the National Library. But this is a very, very significant factor. Also, that makes the collection very important. I’d last like to mention one thing that we recently did here in terms of digitation from the collection, which is of tremendous significance. Scholem had a — worked his whole life — I don’t have dates, but seemed for many decades, on a kind of a lexicon or a dictionary of the Aramaic of the Zohar. The Zohar’s written in Aramaic, not in Hebrew. And he kept a file card, which is in his desk, a desk drawer. We have his desk sitting in the library. And in one of the drawers, there are about 7,000 cards. And each card is an entry, in alphabetical order, in this dictionary.
And, almost a year ago, we scanned all of his cards, and we put them online on the National Library website. And this has now become — immediately became a tremendously important research tool for Kabbalistic or Zohar scholars in general, and those who deal with the language of the Zohar in particular. Right now, they’re all in his handwriting. Some Hebrew, some Aramaic, some German, but it’s — and it’s not easy to read, always. But this is an example of something that we had sitting for many years in the collection, which has now become a very powerful tool for advancing Kabbalah research. So …
Ms. Percy: So, when you talk about the notes in the books, are they mostly in German, or?
Dr. Leshem: The notes in the books, a lot of them are in German, and a lot of them are in Hebrew. Occasionally, they’re in English. If he’s writing notes in an English book, he’ll sometimes write in English.
Ms. Percy: Oh, that’s interesting. The language kind of dictated the notes.
Dr. Leshem: To some extent.
Ms. Percy: To some extent.
Dr. Leshem: To some extent. He was, obviously, fluent in several languages, and went back and forth very easily between German and Hebrew. And he — that’s also a topic and also, for analysis that I maybe just give you a heads-up, there was a conference in London last summer about Scholem, and there’s — a book will come out of all the lectures from that conference. And some of the lectures dealt with his question of his relationship to language. Not only that he wrote a lot about language, and here often he’s compared to Benjamin. There’s a lot of discussion about him and Benjamin in terms of how they view language and to what extent they were influenced by Kabbalistic theories of language in terms of their own philosophies. Because Scholem himself is also a philosopher, he’s not only a researcher of other texts, he himself is a creator of a literature which is subject to research. So, one of the issues is his whole relationship with language, and with German, also, which is tied up with his whole relationship with Germany before the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, that’s a big topic which deals with his — with political issues and other things, which I don’t think we have time to get into now.
Ms. Percy: Well, great. You know, Zvi, thank you so much for this, and I’ll be in touch, as well as some other producers here as we try to assemble, you know, the website portion of the show. And maybe ask for pictures from the archives, things that aren’t on the website.
Dr. Leshem: OK.
Ms. Percy: Great.
Dr. Leshem: OK, great.
Ms. Percy: Thank you so much, and thank Daniel for me.
Dr. Leshem: Fantastic. All right. Thank you.
Ms. Percy: OK. Bye.
Dr. Leshem: All right. Bye-bye. Have a good day.
Ms. Percy: You, too. Bye.