The David Neiman Library Colection
Temple Valley Beth Shalom
“He had the gift to make history come alive with his inspired interpretations, dramatic presentations and the ability to answer almost all the questions his students asked. His research into history and archeology provided them with the bigger picture, as well as the fine details. He was like a weaver who knew where each thread came from, and how it fit into the pattern.”
– Tobie Gurewitz, Student
Dr. Neiman had an extensive library of some 2500 volumes on Jewish literature, history, and religion, as well as collections focusing on the science, geography and language. In 2003 Dr. Neiman donated this unique and important collection to the Sporn Library at Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. The remainder of his library was donated to Saint John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California.
To make a donation, please contact Temple Valley Beth Shalom and specify the Dr. David Neiman Library Collection. Donations can be made on-line at www.vbs.org.
In this essay, Dr. Neiman wrote about his love of books and the make-up of his library.
My Search for Me’Am Lo’ez
by Dr. David Neiman
When I consider the collections in my library, I am reminded of two quotations. One, from Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes [12:12] states that “There is no end to the making of books.” That was written some 1700 years before the invention of printing. What can one say today about the flood of publications, which are the products of the ceaseless repetitive motions of printing presses? The other quotation is from the Pirké Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, [2:8] where Hillel said “He who increases his possessions increases his worries.” Yet we who are devoted to books and who are afflicted with the desire to acquire them as well as read and study them, do not have the strength of character to resist the temptation to add another volume or another set of volumes to our excessive collections.
I wanted to buy a set of Me’Am Lo’ez, to own at least two or three volumes of that great classic of Jewish literature. Why did I want to acquire this particular set of books ? I believe that as I explain, you will begin to see the logic that impelled me to search for it.
In my library at home and in my study at the synagogue I have significant collections of Jewish literature. There is, of course, the Bible and its many commentaries; both the Mikra’ot Gedolot, the great set of the Tanakh with its Rabbinic interpretations and the sets of modern studies and commentaries in Hebrew and in other languages as well. I have several sets of the Mishnah, some with Rabbinic commentaries and others with the comments of modern interpreters; one set with a Yiddish translation and another with English. There are three sets of the complete Talmud (as well as several extra volumes of specific tractates). Why three ? Well, no one should be without a complete set of the twenty volumes of the large folio edition of the Shas published in Vilna by “The Widow and the Brothers Romm” with all its multitudinous commentaries. You need at least two sets in case someone |comes to visit and you have to study a few folios. And of |course, being as fortunate as we are, living in our time, who could deprive himself of the magnificent Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud?
must have a set of the sacred Zohar, the “Bible” of the Kabbalah in the bilingual Aramaic-Hebrew edition. And the sets of Medieval Hebrew Poetry which I bought when I was a student at the Herzliah Hebrew Academy and which thrilled me so much when first studied; how could I not keep and cherish them and look into their contents from time to time ? No Jewish home should be without a set of the collected poems of Hayyim Nachman Bialik and at least one volume of the inspired poetry of Shaul Tchemikhovsky. (Which reminds me. I have neglected to get a collection of the poems of Zalman Shneur and will eventually have to fill in that lacuna .) Three or four sets of the works of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides) should be about enough. His Yad Hakhazakah, the Code of Jewish Law with Rabbinic commentaries is essential and the new edition put out by the Mosad Ha-Rav Kook in Jerusalem in twenty volumes is a must. There are many others that I need not burden you with. Suffice it to say, I have listed only a portion of the traditional and modern Jewish literature that I can take down from my shelves. But what I have mentioned thus far includes works in Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic. I also have a few important books in Judeo-Arabic, one being Saadyah Gaon’s Kitab al-Amanat wa-al-Itaqadat with the Hebrew translation called Emunot Ve Deot (“Faith and Reason”).
As for Yiddish, I shall not list the titles and numbers. Let’s just say that I have more than I can devote my time to and have already given many of them to those who will pay them the honor due. My mother used to read Yiddish novels. She would ask me to go to the offices of the Yiddisher Morgun Zhoumal at 77 The Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to buy the latest novel just published by Shaul Sapir. I would go into the author’s cramped office and give him the two or three dollars and he would hand me a copy of his latest novel, hot off the press, with a smile and a hearty “Ikh dank dir zeher. Du bist a guter Idisher bokher.” When my mother went to her eternal rest my brother and I divided that small portion of |her inheritance and we kept these books as a treasure. I will confess that I don’t read Yiddish novels. I do read other genres of Yiddish literature, more in my own field of interest and closely related to biblical and liturgical studies, and I do on occasion look into the last remaining Yiddish newspaper, Der Forverts, half of which is now in English, as The Forward.
So there we have it: Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic and Arabic are all present and available in my library. What about the other languages spoken and Judaized by our people ? What about Judeo-Italian, Yevannic (Judeo-Greek), Judeo-Persian and Judeo-Uzbeq ? And don’t forget Chinese! As a matter of fact I do have most of what remains of Judeo-Chinese, for I did buy a copy of Bishop White’s three-volume work on the Chinese Jews, and there he has recorded most of what remains of the Judeo-Chinese language. Of course, I cannot appreciate his linguistic work, impressive though it is, because I am far from trying to start studying Mandarin.
I don’t know Persian so I will turn all problems in Judeo-Persian over to my friend. Professor Herbert Paper, who is one of the world’s experts on the Jewish dialect of Persian, which has left us a large body of literature. Incidentally, I have deciphered a beautiful and fascinating document, which was written in Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic, to which a paragraph had been added in Judeo-Persian. Judeo-Uzbeq will remain a mystery to me because I know nothing about Turkish and have no plans to start studying that agglutinative language. As for Judeo-Italian, I do plan to start working on that project in the near future. One of my Roman friends, Amedeo Tagliacozzo gave me a copy of a beautiful book containing more than a hundred poems in Judeo-Italian. Dr. Giuseppe Benedetto ‘Sermoneta, Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is the world’s leading authority on Judeo-Italian and has offered to give me photographic copies of medieval Bible commentaries written in Judeo-Italian. As for Yevannic, I know there are Jews in New York who have books written in that Judeo-Greek dialect and I hope to contact them soon to get at least a photocopy of some materials.
But I really wanted to get a copy of Me’Am Lo’ez, and that led me to experience something that was very strange, actually mysterious, and remains a puzzle to this day.
What is Me’Am Lo’ez ? It is one of the great classics of Jewish Literature, an expanded commentary on the Bible in keeping with the rabbinic tradition of biblical interpretation, which contains material drawn from the Talmud, the Midrashim and the Zohar. In explicating the biblical passages, the author incorporates references to Jewish History, Rabbinical Ethics, Philosophy and Folklore.
The author who started this wonderful masterpiece was Rabbi Jacob Culi, who was born in Jerusalem (or Safed) in the Land of Israel in 1685 (same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Handel) and died while quite young in 1732 (when George Washington was born in the American colony of Virginia). He completed his commentary on the Book of Genesis and part of Exodus before he died and the rest of the books of the Bible that followed were done in the same style and spirit as what he had started by his students and successors.
Me’Am Lo’ez was written in Ladino, the Spanish-Jewish dialect spoken by the Jews of the Turkish Empire who were welcomed by the Sultan of Turkey after their IQ expulsion from Spain in 1492. Rabbi Culi, who served as spiritual leader of Jewish communities in the Turkish Empire was determined to bring the knowledge of Jewish religious tradition and its basic message of hope and optimism about the future to the people of his communities who were profoundly depressed by the tragic disillusionment occasioned by the false messianic movement which resulted in the debacle of Shabbetai and the crushing of the illusory hope of redemption which was promised by the failed would-be redeemer and his devoted followers.
To bring this knowledge of Judaism and its traditions to the Jewish laymen, few of whom were could avail themselves of the sources of Jewish learning, who did not know enough Hebrew to study the Bible and its commentaries and knew even less of the Jewish-Aramaic language of the Talmud and the Kabbalah, he decided to write this work in the language of the people, in the vernacular of the Jews of Spanish origin whose spoken Judeo-Spanish dialect they called Djudezmo (“Jewish”) and ™ whose literary form is designated “Ladino.” The Me’Am Lo’ez is the great classic of Ladino literature. It is also the source of a very important dialect of Spanish which has is become a subject of great interest to modern Spanish scholars. I had to acquire a set of the Me’Am Lo’ez. How could I permit my library to be without this treasure house of Jewish literature? Thus I began to look for a set of this classic, even if I could only acquire the first two volumes of Rabbi Culi’s own work on the Book of Genesis.
How does one go about finding a book ? I would go into the bookstores in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem every time I was in Israel and ask if they had a copy of Me’Am Ha Lo’ez. “Sure,” they would tell me and hand me a volume or two of Me’Am Lo’ez. I would open the book and start to read and see that it was in Hebrew, a modern Hebrew translation of the original. “No, No!” I would object. “I want the original, Ha-Makor!” “What do you mean by Ha-Makor. Here is Me’Am Lo’ez; that’s what we have.” They would look at me as if I were an annoyance and turn to the next customer.
This scene was repeated many times. Seeing that I have a pronounced propensity to procrastination, I let this matter continue for about three years. Then, on one of my more recent trips to Israel I decided to get to the bottom of this. Somewhere, I knew there must be a copy of Me’Am Lo’ez in Ladino, and I would search for it until I found it. After all, the Talmud tells us [Megillah 6b] Yag’ata u matza’ta, “Seek and you shall find.” Thus, I planned a systematic attack in my campaign to find the original of Me’Am Lo’ez.
I went to the library of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus and looked in the catalogue for “Culi Jacob.” The catalogue at the Hebrew University library is now, like many other university libraries on a computer. What is interesting about the H.U. catalog is that in many cases the information comes up on the screen in Hebrew and English. That’s nice. Copying down the call number and the location I went up to the stacks on the third floor and found Me’Am Lo’ez, reached up and took down the first volume, opened it and found the Hebrew translation. No Ladino here. I marched into the office of one of the librarians, a little annoyed and asked, “Doesn’t the library of the Hebrew University have a copy of Me’Am Lo’ez in Ladino? How is that possible?” His answer was that there may be a copy in the rare books division in the National and University Library at Giv’at Ram, the other campus across town. No problem, I thought. The No. 9 bus, which connects the two campuses took me to Givat Ram in a half hour and I appeared at the desk of the rare book room in time to be told that it was too late to see Me’Am Loez today. “Tomorrow at 10:00 A.M.” And so I did appear there the next morning to see the original.
The librarian handed me two giant volumes, which were very impressive. The first volume was Sefer Bereshit, The Book of Genesis, which, the title page explained, was a presentation of La Lei Santa, (The Holy Torah) in Ladino, the language of the people It was also stated that this was the first of the twenty-four books of the Bible. “Printe3d in Cushtandinah (Constantinople) during the reign of our Lord the King, Sultan Mahmud, May his glory Be Exalted, in the year of Basru Miyom el yom Yeshuato (5508=1748).
Now that I had the original in my sight I was more frustrated than ever. I couldn’t acquire these books, they were in the rare book collection. It was then I resolved that I would have to be satisfied with the minimum that was available. First I asked if I could photocopy several pages. The librarian hesitated, until I assured him that no harm would come to the volumes. I took them out to the copying machine, inserted my coins and copied twelve pages from Bereshit and six from Shemot. (Bereshit had more introductory material.) The machine was not in the best of condition, but the copies were legible.
I then called the radio station and asked to speak to the announcer of the Ladino language program. “Do you have a Ladino newspaper in Israel?” I asked. “betakh, of course! It’s called La Luz, and you’ll find it on any newsstand in Jerusalem.” I did as I was told and went to the newsstand on Jaffa Road to buy La Luz and was stunned to see that it was printed in the Latin alphabet and not in the Hebrew Rashi script, which is normal Ladino. Then I realized what had happened. When Kemal Ataturk led his revolution in 1923, he resolved to modernize Turkey, turn it toward the west , and remove all vestiges of the religious authority of the sultan and the Caliphate. One of his was to forbid the use of the Arabic alphabet in the writing of Turkish ( a heritage of Islamic religion) and to use the Latin alphabet instead. The Jews followed suit and stopped using the Hebrew alphabet and starting writing their spoken Ladino in Latin. However, their orthography followed Turkish usage and not Spanish, so while it sounds the same as Spanish, considering its Ladino variations, it looks funny to anyone familiar with Spanish. (A result of that revolutionary change was the fact that the people of modern Turkey, except for those who make a special effort, cannot read anything in Turkish written before 1923.)
I was beginning to build up my store of Ladino materials. I had eighteen pages of Me’Am Lo’ez and two editions of La Luz. (I went to the newsstand twice that week). Now, I decided, I would buy the first two volumes of Me’Am Lo’ez in Hebrew. Thus I would have the contents of the books and some samples of the original from the Photostats I had made of the two volumes in the National Library.
The Hebrew edition was available in most bookstores in Israel, but I happened to be in the vicinity of Meah She’arim, and went into Schreiber’s bookstore, which is just outside the walls of the Ultra Orthodox Jewish Quarter. I entered the bookshop, which is one of the largest in the city, specializing gin most of the materials which would be on interest to Orthodoxy and asked for Me’Am Lo’ex in Hebrew and picked out the first two volumes, Rabbi Culi’s commentary to Bereshit. As I went over to pay for the books, I saw Mr. Schreiber, all five feet of him, ad bright as he was diminutive in stature, and asked him, “Where can I get a copy of the original Ladino?” He gave a short laugh. “The Ladino? The last time it was published was around 1910. If you really want it you’ll have to rummage around in antiquarian bookstores. Maybe you’ll find it, maybe you won’t. But a normal bookstore won’t have it.”
“While we’re at it,” I asked, “do you have anything in Ladino?”
“Betakh, Sure,” he said. “We have the Haggadah for Pesach, which is always being reprinted. Go in the next room and climb up the ladder to the top shelf on the left and you’ll find it there.” I did as I was told and sure enough, found a Haggadah for Pesach with Hebrew text and Ladino translation, just like our own Haggadahs with English translation, but this was in Ladino.
After paying for the purchase I felt pretty good. I had two copies of the Haggadah in Ladino, two editions of La Luz, and photocopies of eighteen pages of Me’Am Lo’ez. Now I could read some Ladino and say something intelligent about he language. It wasn’t much, but, as the Rabbis said in the Pirke´ Avoth, “Eizehhu ashir, ha-sameach be-khelko.” “Who is rich , he who is satisfied with what he has.”
Leaving Schreiber’s bookstore. I decided to enter the walled section of Meah She’arim. It’s a strange place. Some may find it depressing and repellant; I find it interesting, even the anti-Israel graffiti scrawled on the walls of the buildings. As one enters the gate on the left, there are a few shops; dusty and unattractive. Turning to the right, there is a fruit and vegetable stand, which always seems to have rotten tomatoes on display. On the left is another fruit stand where I once bought a gigantic pomegranate, which turned out to be thoroughly decayed when opened. Not very appetizing as far as food is concerned. And then there are the residents of the quarter, not especially friendly, and some more bookstores selling only what we might describe as “Holy Books and Religious Articles.” However, this time as I entered the quarter I noticed that there were no people around; perhaps all indoors because of the heat of the summer afternoon. I also saw something that I had never seen there before.
In the center of the open courtyard was an exceptionally long table. It was piled high with books of all kinds; hundreds of volumes, many old, most of them without covers, and all of it covered with a layer of dust. I stood there looking at this pile and looked around me trying to find another person. Rounding the table, I noticed a man sitting on a stone staircase. He was dressed like a native of Kurdistan, with a shabby turban. I decided to ask him the obvious questions, to which he responded with the appropriate answers, all curt, laconic and to the point.
“What is this pile ?,” I asked. “Sefarim, Books.” “Whose are they ?” “Mine.” “What kind of books are they ?” “All kinds. Look.” I began to feel foolish, and looked at the books piled high. I saw one that was well bound, a large volume and picked it out. It was a volume of the Talmud, old but well preserved. I went over to him and asked him the price. The equivalent in Shekels was about three dollars, which I gave him. He took the money and told me to keep looking; I might find something else of interest.
I went back to the pile and looked up. I saw another large volume, but it was without covers, not very appealing. For some reason I reached up and took it down and opened it to the middle. In my hands was the Me’Am Lo’ez of Bereshit in Ladino! I was stunned. I must have looked up to the heavens and said a silent “Thank You.” I went over to my ragged book dealer with the Kurdish turban who hadn’t moved from his seat and asked him if he knew what it was that I had taken off the pile. Without looking, he answered, “It’s the Ladino.” “How much ?,” I asked. “Two dollars (in Shekels).” “Do you have anything else in Ladino ?” I asked.
“The last book at the other end of the table,” he replied without moving. I went to where he had directed me and picked up a book without a cover. But as I looked at the title page I was once again amazed. It was a Humash, Bamidbar (The Book of Numbers), published in Vienna in 1815. That made sense, I thought o myself. Austrian Empire controlled Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and there were many Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews living there. This copy of the Humash had the Hebrew text and the Ladino translation in parallel columns,. What was even nicer about this find was the fact that it had been printed on beautiful rag bond paper, so that the pages were still clear and white. “I went over to my benefactor and asked him the price. It was the equivalent of two dollars in Shekels.
I cannot describe my feeling as I left Meah She’arim with those precious finds under my arms. I believe I floated home about three feet off the ground. I tried to create a little scenario of My Heavenly Father looking down and saying, “Okay David. You really want that book and you have made an effort to find it. Here, I’ll give it to you. This little miracle will cause no harm in the world and will not upset anyone else. So I’m sending down this long table piled with the books you want and a thousand other volumes, and my messenger Eliyahu Ha-Navi, dressed like a Kurdi, will take the little sums of money so that you won’t be able to claim that you got something for nothing. But do something useful for my sake.” I cannot believe this event as anything but a special little miracle created to show that He cares. I also promised that I would do something useful with these treasures.