People of the Books

Posted: 2/28/2009 10:21:00 AM
Author: Editorial: The Jewish Week
Source: This article appeared on The Jewish Week's website on Feb. 25, 2009.

People Of The Books
by The Editors

Even as Amazon launched its latest version of Kindle, the increasingly popular electronic book-reading device, setting off a new round of debate over the future of paper books, thousands of New York Jews reaffirmed their devotion to the printed word by turning out in record numbers to see the most impressive private library of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world.

The scene at Sotheby’s during the 10-day exhibit of the Valmadonna Trust Library, which ended last Thursday, was remarkable on two levels: for the contents themselves, and the sense of pilgrimage among the many who came to see them.

The 10th floor of Sotheby’s on the Upper East Side held floor-to-ceiling shelves of nearly 13,000 volumes in the collection, and many were open, behind glass, including the 16th-century copy of the Daniel Bomberg edition of the Talmud, in seemingly perfect shape. (Bomberg, a Calvinist, received permission to print the Talmud in 1519 in Italy and had rabbis advise him.)

It was the first time the collection was being shown in its entirety, thanks to the man responsible for it, Jack Lunzer, a charming 84-year-old diamond merchant from London who has spent more than six decades on what he calls his “obsession,” acquiring the most rare and meaningful Jewish texts from around the world.

Lunzer, whose family is associated with the Italian town of Valmadonna, is seeking a suitable home for his collection — it has filled his sprawling London house until now. Experts believe the works could fetch $40 million, and the stipulation is that they must be purchased intact and not divided up.

Despite little public notice, record crowds turned out each day to revel in the books themselves, and the rich cultural history they represent. One marveled at the geographic, artistic and scholarly range and depth before one’s eyes, and could imagine youngsters from centuries past poring over the words of the holy books in the room.

Lunzer was a presence at Sotheby’s each day, a celebrity signing autographs and delighting in speaking Yiddish with yeshiva children, encouraging them to sing Yiddish songs.
Perhaps his other children — the thousands of books he collected, one by one, over the years — will soon find a new home.

Lunzer and others were inspired to see so many Jews who cared enough to wait in long lines, over an hour at times, and to feel a part of an extended family that reveres the written word.

Kindles have their place, but as the throngs of visitors surely sensed at Sotheby’s, only books have soul.