Hebrew manuscript exhibition showcases beauty of Jewish texts

New Hebrew manuscript exhibition showcases beauty of Jewish texts

Priceless manuscripts from the British Library are the centrepiece of Luminous, an exhibition of Hebrew texts opening this week in Melbourne.  Curator DEBORAH RECHTER gives readers a sneak preview.

On the first day of Sukkot and AFL Grand Final Day, as many gathered to celebrate those cultural milestones, another event of significance for the Jewish community quietly unfolded at the State Library Victoria.

In preparation for display, 37 priceless and rare manuscripts produced from the 10th century onward arrived from the British Library, without the same ceremony but with great care.

Calendrical and astronomical tables, Southern France or Spain, 15th century, British Library (Christian Capurro)

Luminous: A thousand years of Hebrew manuscripts, which opens on October 17, displays manuscripts that are the remnants and evidence of Jewish practice and culture worldwide for a millennium. They trace the journeys of Jews from 10th century Egypt, through Europe, to India, China and Australia. They are extraordinary treasures, intriguing not just to Jewish scholars and historians but to anyone curious about books and writing, art, science, music, and magic.

Among the treasures are a 1000-year-old Torah, the answer to a question of religious law by the great sage Moses Maimonides bearing his signature, a play written in India in Judeo-Urdu, a legal document from England just before the expulsion in 1290 signed by a woman, Miriam, permitting the sale of her home, Jewish spells from the Middle Ages. Some are of exquisite beauty, others humble, but all have weighty significance.

Torah, Kaifeng China, 17th century, British Library (Christian Capurro)

Each intricately, gloriously illuminated manuscript has a history and significance beyond its aesthetic value. The exhibition helps visitors understand the context, purpose and importance of each object on display. It includes local material to explain Jewish practice and highlights Australian Jewish experience.

The exhibition includes objects on loan from the Jewish Museum of Australia that help the visitor understand that the ancient manuscripts form the foundation for an ongoing and lively tradition. These include items of contemporary Judaica, such as artist David Ray’s seder plate and Iris Saar Isaac’s mezuzot. Jewish Museum objects also showcase Jewish culture in Australia and explain how Jewish life and practice have responded to the local environment and conditions since the first Jewish convicts were transported in 1788.

Many manuscripts, such as the richly illustrated Sloane Haggadah — completed in Hamburg in 1740 — and a ketubah signed in Morocco in 1886, were central at times of joy when a community came together in celebration. To help visitors appreciate the colour and movement of Jewish life, an immersive audio has been created by producer Jaye Kranz. Her audio includes interviews with local people engaged with Jewish text, soundscapes capturing the hubbub of Jewish festivals and events, and locally produced music from artists including Lior, YID! and Alma Zygier.

Seder plate by artist David Ray, Jewish Museum of Australia collection.

The exhibition also includes People of the Book: Hebrew manuscripts in modern times, a series of video portraits of local Jews engaging with Jewish texts. Those interviewed include Joel Lazar, of the Jewish Climate Network, Alice Chipkin, of Kehilat Kolenu, and Rabbi Ya’akov Glasman of St Kilda Hebrew Congregation. They describe how ancient texts fundamentally inform their work. These portraits allow visitors to engage with contemporary individuals who find meaning in manuscripts. For some visitors to the library, these portraits might be their first introduction to Jews, providing a broad audience with moments for empathy, recognition, and relatability. Hopefully, this will promote understanding and harmony across communities.

Visitors can also sit in the reading nook and look at a range of books offering opportunities for deeper study and enjoyment for all ages, like chevruta partners poring over religious texts to find meaning. Sammy Spider’s First Passover sits here alongside Ilana Tahan’s Hebrew Manuscripts: The Power of Script and Image.

A section of the exhibition (Christian Capurro)

The design of Luminous was informed by the format of a Talmud, with a central section on the Torah and Halacha, and a pathway around the perimeter of the room displaying other material in themes: Living together, Living apart; Power of Letters and Words; Science and Scholarship; Written word as a living tradition. The text panels include annotations such as those found in the Talmud, which explain some of the basic concepts of Judaism and Hebrew texts

There are sections on Jewish Law and Jewish magic with material from State Library Victoria’s David Hailperin Collection. Hailperin was an eccentric medical doctor and rabbi with a chequered past who migrated to Australia in the mid-1800s and was briefly the darling of the local community. He brought a collection of mostly Jewish mystical texts when he travelled from Europe. He is believed to have sold these rare treasures to pay debts near the end of his life, and they ended up at the library. They are featured here for the first time. 

The exhibition is designed to appeal to many kinds of visitors, from learned Hebrew scholars to the 17-old school student who wanders into the gallery from the library’s great Domed Reading Room on a study break.

Luminous: A thousand years of Hebrew manuscripts
Keith Murdoch Gallery, State Library Victoria
October 23- April 2024
Free admission

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Top image: Harley Catalan Bible, Spain, 14th century, British Library (Christian Capurro)