Steve Kramer

In this time of strife, Israel’s new National Library partially opens

“Under the shadow of the horrors of October 7, 2023 and the war, the National Library of Israel made the decision to open its new home to readers and researchers as of Sunday, October 29, 2023.” The Library was due to open on October 17, but given the current fraught circumstances, the celebrations were cancelled. Nonetheless, it was decided to open the nearly completed campus to the fullest extent possible.

The new Library is an incredible gem for the citizens of Israel and especially for those residing in greater Jerusalem. Free tours and programming for people evacuated from the northern and southern border are being offered. The Library has also set up a temporary school for displaced teenagers from Israel’s south and north.

I had never visited the former National Library, not realizing what treasures it might contain. My eyes were opened to the Library when I received a beautiful “coffee table” book showcasing “101 Treasures” of the Library’s most intriguing items. We were expecting to join a special pre-opening tour of the new structure but the devastating war we are in the midst of has changed everything. Hence the unexpected early opening of the Library to service both nearby residents and the many internal refugees temporarily (for how long?) living in Jerusalem hotels and some other available housing.

A bit about the Library itself: The nearly half-million square ft. building is situated opposite the Knesset and adjacent to the Israel Museum. The main, centrally located reading halls can accommodate 600 persons for browsing, reading, and studying “the 4+ million books, historical newspapers, photographs, 1,500 personal collections and archives, thousands of antique maps, tens of thousands of manuscripts, posters and other ephemera, records, and tapes, as well as millions of digitized documents, music recordings, and many more treasures.”

The impressive and beautiful building was designed by world-renowned Swiss architecture studio Herzog & de Meuron, well known for the Tate Modern in London, just one of its many famous structures around the world. It was financed by Israel’s government in partnership with Yad Hanadiv – the Rothschild Foundation, the Gottesman Family of New York, and many other donors from Israel and abroad. The construction costs amounted to NIS 845 million, approximately $220,000,000 – 86% of it funded by donors.

So, what exactly is on offer at the Library, other than temporary exhibitions? Answer: an unprecedented assembly of Jewish culture that includes four collections of Judaica and Israeli items; many research collections of Israel, the Middle East, and general humanities; huge digital endeavors providing access to a vast collection of Jewish manuscripts; and many new acquisitions. 

Showing its dynamism in this world of “all information, all the time,” the Library has begun a new project on the October 7 Hamas massacres. Included are hundreds of thousands of photographs, videos, and text messages, making this war one of the first such atrocities to be documented online in real time. This initiative will be Israel’s national database for the events of one of the most infamous days in our history. About 200,000 photographs and videos collected by the Israeli Civil Administration operations room will be preserved for us and for future generations. This is an invaluable resource for us and for future historians.

Right now visitors can enjoy just selected materials. “We hope to restore the galleries as soon as the security situation permits. The Library will then open the gallery spaces, displaying the most important rare heritage treasures of the Jewish people and Israeli society, alongside items from the Library’s Islam & Middle East and Humanities collections.”

The new facility will be a meeting place for sages and scholars, academics, teachers, journalists, artists, and “anyone and everyone who seeks to study their past and expand their horizons.” 

I was able to virtually sample some of the many fabulous items at the Library in the aforementioned, gorgeous book: “101 Treasures from the National Library of Israel,” authored by staff members. This magnificent volume has short essays on a hundred of the Library’s most spectacular items. Some of the nine categories included are Community, Crossing Cultures, Journeys, Marking Time and Space, Technology, and Text & Power. Below is a description of just one fascinating archive, “A Jewish Family on the Silk Road,” from the Community section, written by Samuel Thorpe and Ofir Haim.

The Silk Road, a network of trade routes connecting the Far East with the Middle East and Europe, was the major, fabled conduit between these regions for about 1,600 years. It was established when the Han Dynasty in China officially opened trade with the West in 130 BCE. It remained in use until 1453 CE, when the Ottoman Empire destroyed the trade route. 

The exhibit tells us something of how the family of the Jewish trader Nasr b. Danial, residing in central Afghanistan, went about collecting money (seven silver coins) owed it by Ahmad b. Abi Talha and Abu Nasr b. Mahdi. On exhibit is the actual legal acknowledgment of the debt, written in Persian script on parchment in the year 1011 CE, in the town of Bamiyan where the family lived. 

Think of it, an ancient invoice describing a business transaction that is still a mainstay of commerce today. This find was discovered in the Afghan Genizah which contained letters, account books, legal papers, and literary and religious works in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Arabic, Persian, and Judeo-Persian. (A genizah is a repository for timeworn sacred manuscripts and ritual objects, generally located in the attic or cellar of a synagogue. In the Middle Ages most synagogues had a genizah, the most famous being the Cairo Genizah, discovered by Solomon Schechter in 1896.)

“101 Treasures” is published by Scala Arts Publishers, Inc. and can be purchased at the Library and from Amazon, Target, Barnes and Noble and other book sellers. Best is buying it at the Library after marveling at this new, magnificent cultural and educational center in Jerusalem. Don’t miss out on visiting the Library as soon as the times permit. 

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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