For the Rosenbach Museum and Library, there could be no better time to open an exhibition called “In the Beginning” than during the Jewish holiday season that includes Rosh Hashanah and Simchat Torah, the festival that falls this week when we begin anew the annual cyclical reading of the Torah, starting with Bereshit, which translates to the exhibit’s name.
The new show, which opened on Sept. 18, draws upon three of its most prominent collections: the first printed books in Hebrew; the first books by and about Jewish Americans; and artifacts from one of the earliest and most influential Jewish families in Philadelphia, the Gratzes.
“We thought this would be a good time to open the exhibition because it relates to the beginning of the Jewish New Year,” Judith M. Guston said. Guston, the Rosenbach’s curator and director of collections, added that the timing was ideal to highlight the Judaica collection of museum founder, Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, a Philadelphia native who was the pre-eminent collector and dealer in rare books in the United States during the first half of the 20th century.
In addition to building the collection that eventually turned his Rittenhouse Square residence into the eponymous museum after his death in 1952, Rosenbach helped assemble standout collections like the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
Guston wants the exhibition to help visitors better understand Rosenbach’s commitment to the Jewish community and its history. “Dr. Rosenberg was the nation’s first bibliographer of early American Judaica, and he was a mainstay of the Jewish philanthropic community,” she explained. “I wanted to be able to synopsize for our visitors what his intellectual interest in collecting books looked like.”
To that end, she has used the three separate collections to construct a rough timeline of different phases of the Diaspora, going back 500 years to Hebrew incunabula — books and pamphlets published before 1501 — in Northern Italy and Portugal, some of which chronicle the Inquisition. Rosenbach’s British and Colonial American books from the 17th and 18th centuries, she said, demonstrate in detail “what it’s like to be the only Jew in areas like England and early America, where people had no previous experience with Jews,” their only exposure coming from less than scholarly sources.
Finally, “In the Beginning” turns to the experience of the Gratzes, which Guston said was the direct opposite of what their European ancestors experienced. The family’s American experience began when Michael Gratz immigrated from Silesia in 1759. Guston said that the family “went from being oppressed and not allowed to work to being able to own land, to become wealthy, to politically join their non-Jewish neighbors and partake in the experience.”
Two of Guston’s favorite items in the exhibition actually fall far outside its established timeline. “One object dates back to the First Diaspora, in 586 BCE,” she said. “ It is an amulet dedicated by Nebuchadnezzar in Mesopotamia around that time.” The other item isn’t an artifact at all, but definitely belongs in a museum: It is a computer program to help teach non-Hebrew speakers to read the Ten Commandments — in Hebrew, in just a few minutes.
IF YOU GO
“In the Beginning”
On display until Jan. 12, 2014
The Rosenbach Museum
2008-2010 Delancey Place, Philadelphia