Book Review | The Life of a Library

By | Jan 25, 2019
Arts & Culture, Winter Issue 2019

Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History’s Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library
by Joshua Teplitsky
Yale University Press
2019, 336 pp, $35

In the opening scene of Ghostbusters—the 1984 hit film starring Bill Murray as leader of a small, armed anti-ghoul fighting force—the camera moves from the exterior of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, past its guardian lions, through the stately, cavernous reading room and into dark, densely packed stacks, where a librarian reshelving books grows ever more terrified as drawers of the card catalog fling open and cards and books begin to fly. A ghost has struck at the very heart of the most prestigious of American public libraries, leaving a trail of repulsive slime. The chaos gives the scene its humor, but it also conjures up the power of the library as a democratic institution: The massive card catalog, with its ordering of information, is a bridge between elite knowledge and the public at large.

That relationship was even more important, but expressed very differently, in the Jewish community of 17th- and 18th-century Prague. The not-at-all-public library collected by the Central European rabbi David Oppenheim (1664-1736)—comprising thousands of printed books, manuscripts, ephemera, communal records and more—was as invaluable to its individually approved users as the NYPL is to today’s readers. In his beautifully illustrated Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History’s Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library, Joshua Teplitsky brings us deep inside that library—though without the trail of chaos—to explore the manifold ways this collection both reflected and shaped the intellectual heritage of Central European Jewry.

It was an era of private libraries, collected by princes and nobles, and Oppenheim was Jewish nobility. He was born to a wealthy, learned merchant family in Worms, Germany, the heart of Central Europe’s Jewish settlement from medieval times. He chose to pursue the rabbinate, a career that culminated in Prague, where he presided as chief rabbi during the last 20 years of his life. His close family circles included leading “court Jews,” financiers whose proximity to the rulers of German principalities propelled them to great influence in their own communities as well.

Oppenheim was the nephew of one of the most famous of this class, Samuel Oppenheimer (1630-1703), who served at the Habsburg court in Vienna. Later, he arranged the marriage of his son to the daughter of Samson Wertheimer, his uncle’s successor in the same exalted position. This combination of Judaic erudition, wealth and extensive social and rabbinic networks perfectly positioned Oppenheim to buy expensive books, an activity he had already begun in earnest by his late teens. He purchased from local sellers, bought up small collections, had books sent to him, received them as gifts and commissioned manuscript copies. As he gained influence, his contemporaries would offer him books in return for contacts or favors.

From 1703 on, Oppenheim housed his collection in Hanover, Germany, far from Prague, where censorship and Talmud-burnings threatened and where his son Joseph served as its primary caretaker. Among the thought-provoking gems of Prince of the Press is Teplitsky’s observation that, while away from his collection, Oppenheim carried a codex catalog with him, a list that functioned in some sense as a virtual replication of its contents. It’s an oddly resonant touch for the contemporary reader, since today’s virtual remote access to library collections has more in common—at least conceptually—with such mobile codex catalogs than with the now-obsolete weighty card catalogs, highly efficient but fixed in place, that had replaced them by the 20th century.

Teplitsky, an assistant professor of history at New York’s Stony Brook University, is interested not so much in the static objects comprising Oppenheim’s collection as in their movements and relationships. “When taken together,” he writes, these books and manuscripts “do not simply provide an aggregate of individual items; rather, the whole advances a map that traces economies of exchange and communities of regard as books traveled along various pathways to reach the shelves of the collector.” Once collected, books and their contents also traveled outwards—scholars visited to consult them in situ, used them as sources of legal precedent and interpretation for rabbinic courts, or discussed them in correspondence. Printing houses published some of the manuscripts, distributing them ever more widely. Acquired through Oppenheim’s networks of family wealth and courtly influence, the library was used, Teplitsky writes, “by both Oppenheim and a constituency of rabbinic and communal leaders to shape the legal, ritual and daily lives of an even wider array of ordinary Jews in early modern Europe.”

Teplitsky places these phenomena in the context of princely libraries of the time, and his project likewise joins scholarly engagement of recent decades with both readership and the materiality of books—their paper, bindings, printers, fonts, hand-written marginalia—elements that aid in tracing how these objects were used in everyday life. Prince of the Press also complements astounding recent bibliographic work on early Hebrew-font printing in Prague undertaken by Olga Sixtová, much of it, unfortunately, as yet untranslated from Czech.

With tantalizing brevity, Teplitsky touches on the significance of the collection for understanding women of its era as readers, writers and publishers. Oppenheim’s daughter Sarah copied a Megillat Esther for liturgical use. Hayala, widow of a Berlin Jew known as Joseph “Darshan” (the preacher), who had arranged the 1705 printing from a manuscript of the medieval Torah commentary by Rashi’s grandson Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (known as Rashbam), took over her late husband’s role in that enterprise. More essentially, the collection contains the sole surviving copies of hundreds of early Yiddish titles, the daily reading material of Europe’s Jews—women and men—everything from stories and songs to guidebooks of law and customs. Much remains to be done using Teplitsky’s methodology to reconstruct the intellectual and spiritual life of a broader swath of Jewish society in Oppenheim’s time.

After Oppenheim’s death, and his son Joseph’s just three years later, Joseph’s sister Gnendel fell on hard times and tried to sell the collection. Attempted appraisals by Moses Mendelssohn, the “father” of the Jewish Enlightenment movement, and by Christian biblical scholar Johann David Michaelis failed to bring Gnendel its full value, but an Oppenheim relative acquired it in return for relieving some of her debt. Despite repeated inventories and new catalogs in Hebrew, German and Latin, the volumes languished in crates until they piqued the interest of Rev. Dr. Alexander Nicoll of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, who, with great effort, arranged for their eventual acquisition by Oxford in 1829, a year after his own death. There the collection remains to this day, despite complaints—ironic in hindsight—by early-20th-century scholars who bitterly decried its displacement from the then-centers of Judaica scholarship in Germany and Central Europe.

Today, Oppenheim’s collection affords those privileged few who have the opportunity to sit in the Bodleian’s rarefied reading rooms, poring over volumes of its Hebraica, an opportunity to experience the spirit of David Oppenheim—not as terrifying poltergeist, but as learned bibliophile of a time gone by. Teplitsky’s book provides the rest of us entrance as well.

Rachel L. Greenblatt is a lecturer in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and the author of To Tell Their Children: Jewish Communal Memory in Early Modern Prague.

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