Just over a year ago the Jewish Museum’s special exhibition entitled “The whole truth… everything you always wanted to know about Jews” ended. The only remnants – aside from the animated discussions and empty display cases – were thousands of pink post-it notes, which we kept and read through painstakingly. In the upcoming months we want to respond to some of the questions, comments, and impressions that visitors left behind. Thus to the question above.
in Conversation with Emile Schrijver, Curator of the Braginsky Collection
What made you decide to be curator of a manuscript collection?
When I studied Hebrew in Amsterdam, a lecturer took us to see the University of Leiden’s collection of medieval manuscripts. In the impressive vaults, I saw ancient manuscripts for the first time: the only manuscript of the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi), for instance, and one of the earliest Rashi manuscripts. Seeing these ancient sources, and gaining first-hand experience of living history, was overwhelming. Historical books had a strong effect on me. I subsequently studied at the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, the Jewish library at the University of Amsterdam, where I later began to work. A few years ago, Mr. Braginsky was looking for a curator for his first exhibition in Europe. Mutual acquaintances from the international circle of manuscript specialists put us in touch with one another. We got along well and were soon able to establish a good, trusting working relationship
What do you do as a curator of the Braginsky Collection?
I take care of the collection. I am responsible for Mr. Braginsky’s new acquisitions and for his existing objects. Most new acquisitions are delivered with a short description. Others we describe and photograph, before adding them to our inventory. I carefully examine the books’ condition and, if necessary, commission their restoration. I’m also responsible for monitoring the climate in the storerooms. Inquiries concerning exhibitions and reproductions are a lot of work for us. The process of digitizing our stock is ongoing. Occasionally, scholars wish to view specific works at length. We also organize presentations on our own premises, on behalf of the European Association of Jewish Museums, for example. Public relations for events such as the Jewish Book Week in London in 2013 likewise require a great deal of preparation.
Miriam Goldmann: How do you train a Torah scribe, a sofer?
Reuven Yaacobov: A sofer must first spend a few years studying at an Orthodox school, a yeshiva, where it is established whether or not he is devout enough for this role. Then he learns how to write a Torah. First, he studies the theory. There are rules ordaining who is allowed to write the five books of Moses, the Sefer Torah. For example, only men, not women, are permitted to write the Torah. Furthermore, the person in question must be an Orthodox Jew and lead an Orthodox life. Then there are rules determining which support a Sefer Torah should be written on, and precisely how it should be written.
You can watch a short video with Torah scribe Reuven Yaacobov here.
Once the sofer knows the theory, he begins to learn the letters that are used to write the Torah. A certain sequence of strokes must be followed to write each letter correctly. After learning this calligraphy the sofer starts on a Megillat Esther (Hebrew: Scroll of Esther) because this is the easiest of all the holy texts to write. After completing the Megillat he writes the texts of mezuzah and tefillin. If by then his calligraphy has become highly accomplished, he begins to write a Sefer Torah. According to Jewish tradition, a Sefer Torah must be written in the most beautiful calligraphy possible and in the best and most aesthetic way. → continue reading