Infinite riches in a little room

The Jewish Theological Seminary is closing its rare book collection for at least a few years, and restricting access to its general collection, as it rebuilds for a future that seems to include less traditional formal education and more conference space.

Whether it’s building for the future or simply trying to figure out how to monetize its space is not my concern. (As a lifelong Conservative Jew, I hope that the institution figures it out correctly; as a lifelong Conservative Jew, I have no particular reason to think it will.)

My concern is hidden treasures, and the human instinct to add beauty.

New York City, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s home — and mine — is full of obvious treasures, great towering building and monuments and sculptures that loom and impress, jutting out at you, filling public spaces, unmistakable from street level, where the city’s shared life happens.

But when you are in an apartment in a neighborhood of prewar buildings — like, say, the Upper West Side, where I live, or Morningside Heights, just north of me, where JTS is — and you look out the window, you are likely to see elaborate, intricate stonework in the building across the street, handcrafted art barely visible from the sidewalk.

Sometimes it’s gargoyles, sometimes it’s rosettes, sometimes it’s arabesques, sometimes it’s art deco coils. Sometimes it’s even more fanciful — there’s a building nearby whose stone theme is Aztec, or at least Aztec as seen through the lens of early 20th century North American stonemasons, all sharp edges, glaring suns, and lolling tongues.

Builders hired masons to do this work. I don’t know why — I’m sure the work didn’t cost much then, but it wouldn’t have been necessary to spend anything on it at all. I have to assume they did it because they could, because we human beings like decoration. I assume they did it out of love.

Many years ago, when I took a summer course at JTS, or perhaps when I was waiting for one of my daughters to finish at Prozdor, the after-school Hebrew high school there, I wandered into the library. I was drawn to a card catalogue — and yes, I know I date myself by that. At least in my memory, the box was made of warm brown wood, with dozens and dozens of little drawers, and each one of the gleaming bronze handles on each one of the drawers murmured “Pull me!” to me.

So I picked one at random, and opened it.

It was filled with cards, each, at least as I remember it, typed in a different typeface on a different typewriter. Most of the type seemed faded. You could run your fingers over each card and feel the indents made by the letters; you could feel the periods that pierced the backs of some of them, sharp little points, like Braille.

And then, scattered among those typed cards, there were some written by hand. They were in German, so I couldn’t read them. Many of the titles were long; most of the cards were dense with letters.

They were beautiful.

That drawer — and, I soon discovered, the other drawers as well – held miniature works of art, skewer after skewer of art.

They didn’t have to be beautiful. They could just have been simple, solid, stolid cards, places to store information. But instead, someone who had a need to make art went ahead and did it.

Private art. Hidden art. Art lishmah. Art for art’s sake.

Ironically, perhaps, the character who rhapsodizes about “infinite riches in a little room” is Barabbas, Christopher Marlowe’s “Jew of Malta,” an outright villain, a parody Jew. But at least in that one line he was right.

Those beautiful cards in the lovely box in the lushly book-furnished library in the iconic Jewish Theological Seminary on the art — and monument — and architecture-rich island of Manhattan really were infinite riches.

Look around. We are all surrounded by beauty. The trick is first to find it, and then to see it.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)