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Penn Libraries Receive $8.5 Million Judaica Collection

December 4, 2012 By:
JE Staff
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This hand-colored lithograph from the Arnold and Deanne Kaplan Collection of Early American Judaica was printed in Philadelphia in 1856. On the left side of the main building, a sign displays the name “J. Levy & Co. 134 [Chestnut Street]” — a Jewish-owned business. The building to the far right is the Old City Hall, where the U.S. Supreme Court met from 1791-1800. The Kaplans donated their collection to the University of Pennsylvania in fall 2012.

The University of Pennsylvania library system has received a private donation of more than 11,000 items of Judaica documenting the social and economic development of early Jewish life in the Western Hemisphere.

The majority of the Arnold and Deanne Kaplan Collection of Early American Judaica, valued at $8.5 million, consists of manuscripts and other printed materials. The collection also includes a diverse array of oil paintings, presentation silver and other three-dimensional objects from the colonial period through the era of mass Jewish migration in the late 1880s.

Professor Beth S. Wenger, Chair of the Department of History and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, called the collection a "treasure trove" of primary sources. 

“Its unique and wide-ranging materials bring to life the details and vitality of an evolving Jewish community," Wenger said in a news release. "The depth and breadth of this collection are truly extraordinary and
will be an unparalleled source for researchers for years to come.”

Staff have already begun the lengthy project of unpacking, cataloging and digitizing each item so that scholars can access the entire collection online, said Arthur Kiron, Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections at Penn Libraries and Adjunct Assistant Professor of History. A major exhibit featuring the collection will be on display at the Penn Libraries' new Special Collections Center in January 2014, Kiron said.

In the meantime, the library has already loaned some highlights from the collection to the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) on Independence Mall, a new alliance first envisioned by donor Arnold Kaplan.

Jonathan Sarna, chief historian at the museum and a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, noted that the Kaplans began collecting before most people paid much attention to American Judaica and specialized in what many neglected, such as items related to the economic life of nineteenth-century American Jews. Adding this collection to Penn brings it to "the front ranks among libraries of American Judaica."

In addition to many items related to the development of Jewish mercantile, social and religious activity in the 19th century, the collection includes some of the first 17th and 18th century engraved maps documenting Jewish settlement in the New World as well as a late 16th-century codex of the proceedings of the Mexican Inquisition against a Christian accused of "Judaizing."

In a statement, Kiron said the collection will provide scholars "with a unique opportunity to rethink many assumptions that we have about American Jewish history, assumptions we’ve been unable to test because sources like these have been in private hands and yet to be examined."

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