Words Like Sapphires: 100 Years of Hebraica at the Library of Congress, 1912–2012

Hebrew and the Land of Israel—the holy tongue and the holy land—have been intimately bound together in Jewish sources since the earliest times. The bond was forged in the Bible by prophets and lawgivers, kings and scribes, and it created a single, insoluble entity. “If I forget thee O Jerusalem” (Psalm 137: 5) is a phrase that has accompanied the Jewish people throughout their history, and the Hebraic collections in the Library of Congress amply reflect this connection. Images of Jerusalem—its walls, towers, and Temple—decorate many of the items in the Library’s collections, giving a visual dimension to the bond between language and land. They appear on wall plaques and posters and in illuminated manuscripts and Passover Haggadot from all parts of the Jewish Diaspora. Many of the oldest Hebrew books on the Library’s shelves, printed by Jewish and Christian printers alike, bear images of the Temple in Jerusalem on their frontispieces. The first book printed in the Land of Israel, in the city of Safed in 1577, which was a commentary on the Scroll of Esther by Yom-Tov Tsahalon, was written in Hebrew. In modern times, media such as posters and newspapers printed in Israel are both a graphic reminder of the resurgence of Hebrew as a spoken language and the latest embodiment of the ancient bond between language and land..

Guide for Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A sort of “Baedeker,” or travel guide, for pilgrims in the Holy Land seeking the graves of biblical patriarchs and venerated rabbinic leaders, this book contains a mixture of advice, prayers, and tales of wonder-working rabbis. It also has three woodcut illustrations: one of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, one of the famous walls of Jericho (before they tumbled down), and the one opened here to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

Judah Poliestri. ןורכז םילשוריב (Memory of Jerusalem). Constantinople: Jonah ben Jacob Ashkenazi, 1743. First Deinard Collection, Gift of Jacob H. Schiff, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (028.00.00)

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Map of the Holy Land in the Amsterdam Haggadah

This pull-out Hebrew map was created by Abraham bar Jacob, a Christian pastor from the Rhineland who converted to Judaism and moved to Amsterdam where he became a copper engraver. The map was created for a haggadah printed in 1695; the many reprints of the map that appeared in later editions attest to its popularity. The Mediterranean Sea is depicted in the lower portion of the map, Egypt is placed to the right, and the Promised Land appears at the top of the page. The framed chart lists the forty-one posts where the Israelites stopped on their journey through the desert. At the bottom of the map, the prophet Jonah is about to be swallowed by the whale. He emerges from the mouth of the whale and lands on dry land. Directly under the drawing, Abraham bar Jacob has written his name in Hebrew letters.

Haggadah shel Pesah (The Passover Haggadah). Amsterdam, 1695. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (027.00.00)

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The First Book Printed in the Holy Land

This commentary on the Book of Esther has the honor of being the first book printed in the Holy Land. It was published during the author’s own lifetime in Safed, a small town in the northern Galilee that witnessed a cultural renaissance in the sixteenth century after becoming home to some of the most eminent Jewish scholars and mystics in the world, many of them exiles from Spain and Portugal, or their descendants. The printer, Eliezer ben Isaac Ashkenazi of Prague, came to Safed via the print shops of Lublin and Constantinople. Despite his best efforts—including the use of a famous old printer’s mark from Venice depicting the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem—Ashkenazi only printed nine books before his press closed down.

Yom-Tov Zahalon. חקל בוט (A Good Lesson). Safed: Eliezer ben Isaac Ashkenazi of Prague, Israel, 1577. First Deinard Collection, Gift of Jacob H. Schiff, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (026.00.01)

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A Second Printing Press in Safed

Safed, home to the first printing press in the Land of Israel (see previous item), was also home to the second attempt at printing almost two and a half centuries later. In 1832, Israel Bak, an immigrant from Berdichev in the Ukraine, opened a Hebrew press in Safed, printing first a prayer book and then the Book of Leviticus exhibited here. Since Leviticus was traditionally used to teach children to read, perhaps this book was intended for the school-room. Bak’s printing press was as short-lived as his predecessor’s. In January 1837, an earthquake destroyed Safed, sending Bak first to a small mountain town further north and then, in 1841, to Jerusalem, where he printed more than 100 books over the next three decades.

רפס ארקיו (Book of Leviticus). Safed: Israel Bak, 1833. First Deinard Collection, Gift of Jacob H. Schiff, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (029.00.00)

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"Torah and Labor"

Labor and religion have long been two dominant themes in Israeli society: sometimes clashing, sometimes independent, and sometimes, as in this poster, converging into a single ideal. Using the motto “Torah and Labor” (הרות הדובעו), the poster skillfully employs visual imagery to proclaim the ideals of socialism and to portray itself as a party of the people—men, women, and children—all united in the desire to build up the new country while yet preserving the tenets of the Jewish religion.

אשנ המרב תא לגדה לש ץרא לארשי (“Raise High the Flag of Israel” ). Poster of Ha-Poel ha-Mizrahi, Israeli political party (fl. 1922–1956). Undated, ca. 1950s. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (031.00.00)

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The Playing Card Art of Arthur Szyk

Cartoonist and manuscript illuminator Arthur Szyk (1894–1951) immigrated to the United States from his native Poland in 1940. Sometimes called a “soldier in art,” Szyk often used his artistic creations as a lance aimed at the oppressive regimes of the day, particularly Nazism. In the 1930s, he created a set of playing cards using historical biblical figures for the twelve Kings, Queens, and Jacks of different suits. Each idealized portrait of a biblical character has his or her Hebrew name incorporated into their clothing and a symbolic element alluding to his or her story. As King of Clubs, David clasps a lyre. As Queen of Diamonds, Deborah the prophetess and judge, holds balanced scales of justice. These playing cards are commercially available for the first time.

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  • Heroes of Ancient Israel: The Playing Card Art of Arthur Szyk. Burlingame, CA: Historicana, 2011. The set consists of a suite of twelve limited edition fine art prints, a collector’s deck, a player’s deck, and Heroes of Ancient Israel: The Playing Card Art of Arthur Szyk, a companion volume by Allison Claire Chang. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (063.00.00)

  • Heroes of Ancient Israel: The Playing Card Art of Arthur Szyk. Burlingame, CA: Historicana, 2011. The set consists of a suite of twelve limited edition fine art prints, a collector’s deck, a player’s deck, and Heroes of Ancient Israel: The Playing Card Art of Arthur Szyk, a companion volume by Allison Claire Chang. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (063.00.01)

  • Heroes of Ancient Israel: The Playing Card Art of Arthur Szyk. Burlingame, CA: Historicana, 2011. The set consists of a suite of twelve limited edition fine art prints, a collector’s deck, a player’s deck, and Heroes of Ancient Israel: The Playing Card Art of Arthur Szyk, a companion volume by Allison Claire Chang. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (063.00.02)

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"We are Here"

This poster captures much of what many consider the best of Israeli aesthetics: modernist, colorful, and simple but powerful lines. The poster shows a beautiful young girl dancing folkdance style; with her large dark eyes and black hair she is the personification of modern Israel. Disturbingly, however, she has no mouth. In the upper right-hand corner is a group of disembodied mouths, symbols, perhaps of the victims of the Holocaust, mute but eloquent witnesses to Israel’s right to exist. Other Holocaust symbols woven into the imagery of this poster, such as the barbed-wire fence symbolic of the Nazi concentration camps, lend support to this reading of the poster’s iconography.

Eva Koigan. ונחנא ןאכ (We are Here). Israel, undated (ca. 1950s). Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (032.00.00)

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Flowers of the Holy Land

At the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, souvenir albums were created for pilgrims and other travelers to the Holy Land. This olive wood album, embossed with the word Jerusalem in English and Hebrew, contains pressed flowers gathered from Jerusalem and other sacred sites as remembrances of a journey to the Holy Land. The sites were identified in Hebrew, German, French, and English. The album is opened to a sprig of red flowers from the Sharon plains along the Mediterranean coast.

Natural Flowers from the Holy Land. Jerusalem, ca. 1900. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (033.00.00)

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