“Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic, and sometimes Latin:”

in conversation with Emile Schrijver, curator of the Braginsky Collection

How does one become a curator of a manuscript collection?

When I was a student—I studied Hebrew in Amsterdam—a lecturer took us to see the University of Leiden’s collection of medieval manuscripts. In the impressive vaults there, I had my first ever opportunity to see really ancient manuscripts: the only manuscript of the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud), for instance, and one of the earliest Rashi manuscripts. To see these ancient sources, to have first-hand experience of this living history was overwhelming—historical books in general had this effect on me at the time . I subsequently studied a great deal at the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, the Jewish library at the University of Amsterdam and later even began working there. Then, a few years ago, Mr. Braginsky was looking for a curator for his first exhibition in Europe. Mutual acquaintances from the international world of manuscripts put us in touch with each other and, as it happened, we got along very well and were soon able to establish a good working relationship based on trust.

What exactly do you do as a curator of the Braginsky Collection?

A man sits at a table and holding an open book in his hands

Emile Schrijver and the Harrison Miscellany © and photo: Darko Todorovic, Dornbirn (A)

I am responsible for the collection: for new acquisitions, whenever Mr. Braginsky buys something, as well as for existing stocks. Most new acquisitions are delivered with a short description. Others we describe and photograph ourselves, then add them to our inventory. I carefully examine the condition books are in and commission their restoration, if necessary. I’m also responsible for monitoring the climate in the storerooms. Inquiries concerning exhibitions and reproductions involve 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, for example, on behalf of the European Association of Jewish Museums. Public relations for events such as the Jewish Book Week in London in 2013 likewise require a great deal of preparation.

What do you think makes the Braginsky Collection so special?  continue reading


From the Theory to the Practice of Writing the Torah

An Interview with Rabbi Reuven Yaacobov

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


Question of the Month:

“Why do some Jews rock back and forth while they pray?”

Our special exhibition “The Whole Truth… everything you always wanted to know about Jews” is based on 30 questions posed to the Jewish Museum Berlin or its staff over the past few years. In the exhibition, visitors have their own opportunity to ask questions or to leave comments on post-it notes. Some of these questions will be answered here in our blog, such as last month’s query: “how does a kippah stay on?” This month, we respond to Boris, who wants to know “why some Jews rock back and forth while they pray?”

A post-it note with the question of the month (in German) and a drawing of a man moving back and forth

“Why do some Jews rock back and forth while they pray? Boris”
© photo: Thomas Valentin Harb, Jewish Museum Berlin

Dear Boris,
Many people have asked why religious Jews sway back and forth while praying. This very old custom is called shuckling in Yiddish and means to rock, shake, or swing. As with many customs, it is easier to describe when and where it was practiced, than to answer definitively, why people shuckle while praying and studying the Torah.  continue reading