For Love of the Catalogs

A conversation with art historian, rabbi, and literature collector Edward van Voolen, drs.

For three and a half years now, the art historian and rabbi Edward van Voolen has supported the DFG project. With his help, our library has developed into a research library for Jewish art, through generous gifts from his private collection. It now includes over 500 publications in the fields of Jewish art and material culture.

Edward van Voolen; photo: private

For 35 years, Mr. van Voolen was a curator at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. He is now a rabbi in Germany. Since 2003, he has taught at the Abraham Geiger College at the University of Potsdam, publishing regularly on topics related to Jewish religion, art, and history.

Lea Weik asked him a few questions about his passion for collecting, and about his considerable donation.

Mr. van Voolen, how did you first learn about the project, and what was it that inspired you to support our library in particular?

When my colleague Inka Bertz told me about the project, it immediately roused my enthusiasm because I value the library’s resources very highly. As a curator, I had regularly received loan items from the collection, and I was impressed with the staff’s friendliness, expertise, and dedication.

When did you begin collecting literature and what are your areas of focus?

My parents possessed a great deal of foreign-language literature. As a teenager, I had already begun collecting books myself: Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth, and Stefan Zweig, who are still among my favorite authors. As a child, I visited museums with my parents, and so art catalogs became a focus early on. Thanks to my acquaintanceship with the graphic designer Pieter Brattinga, I developed a weakness for graphic design. Then as a student, I worked for Max Gans, one of the most significant private collectors of Hebraica and Judaica in the Netherlands.

In your opinion, for whom are the library collections of particular interest?

It’s a real treasure trove; really for anyone who would like to be surprised by the diversity of Jewish art, culture, and history—old and new! I often find books there that aren’t to be found in any other library in Berlin-Brandenburg, or even in Germany.

Today more and more books are being digitized—the library of the Jewish Museum Berlin is also moving in this direction, for example by digitizing the Soncino collection. As a book lover, what do you think of that?

It’s extremely important to digitize rare and unusual books, so that they are accessible to the broader public. For example, I would like to see illustrated Jewish children’s books digitized.

Catalogs picturing Yael Bartana’s work; photo: Jewish Museum Berlin

Do you have a favorite artist?

The Israeli multi-media artist Yael Bartana (1970), who lives in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Tel Aviv. I’m truly struck and impressed by the themes in her art.

Which aspects of Jewish art and visual and material culture do you find particularly relevant?

Again and again, I have the pleasant surprise of discovering Jewish artists who reflect our times: they work with the great themes of identity, travel and migration, and the search for a home in our uncertain world.

The DFG project will be concluded at the end of this year. What do you hope for the future of the library?

Further digitization, cross-linkage with other collections, and a digital database of places and people—but that’s already well underway with the site Jewish Places. And I will continue collecting for the museum!


Lea Weik is eager to see which treasures Edward van Voolen will unearth in future.

Here you can find all the publications that Edward van Voolen donated to our library.

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