This is not to suggest that anyone at the Rosenbach rushes you through the exhibition — far from it. But museum shows, by their nature, can be tiring, and meandering through a book, which, while perhaps not as visceral an experience, has its own distinct pleasures. And another bonus: You can return again and again to the source, simply to gaze at or read or study in as much depth as you need.
The author of the catalogue is David Stern, who also acted as the exhibit's consulting curator, working along with Derick Dreher, the museum's director, and its curator and director of collections, Judith M. Guston.
Stern is the Ruth Meltzer Professor of Classical Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania. As his work on the exhibit and the catalogue demonstrate, he obviously has the patience of a dedicated scholar conjoined with the intrepid nature of an archaeologist, since it was he who tracked down the assorted and varied pieces on display, all of which come from Philadelphia-area collections.
The catalogue, like the show, follows the history of the Jewish book, from its inception in scrolls in ancient Israel to handwritten manuscripts in the Middle Ages, then to printed works once Johannes Gutenberg devised his revolutionary press — and on to the flourishing of Hebrew book-making in the early modern period. Both catalogue and exhibit conclude with a section on the somewhat specialized endeavor — the creation of Megillot.
The latter, along with the numerous examples of illuminated manuscripts, do capture the eye immediately with their deeply faceted hues, despite the fact that many pieces bear significant evidence of age. But the truly captivating items are the miniatures, like the Torah with a dress and crown, dating from 18th-century Europe; and the Torahs housed in special decorated containers, like the one enclosed in a tik, which looks old but is listed as a 20th-century product of Iraq.
As the catalogue notes, "Within [a shul] setting the Torah is treated as a holy artifact, almost like a holy king, and housed in a special ark that serves as the architectural and liturgical focus of the synagogue. In the ancient world, Torah scrolls were kept in containers called 'tiks,' a custom still preserved in North African and some Sephardic communities."
The show and the catalogue fill you with wonder about the myriad forms that Jewish creativity has taken throughout history and what a pliable notion the Jewish book surely was — and continues to be. As Stern notes, "The Jewish book — written in Hebrew script and utilizing one of the Jewish languages — may represent the single, longest-lived, continuously produced tradition of book production among the many cultures of Europe and the Near East."
Chosen pays homage to the munificence of this long and ongoing experiment in inventiveness.
Chosen: Philadelphia's Great Hebraica continues through Aug. 26 at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, 2008-2020 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. Admission is free on Tuesdays, and free on Sundays for children 18 and younger.