An Ode to the National Library of Israel, the Love of My Youth

“I fear any attempt to harm the love of my youth. The imposition of any sort of political oversight or involvement regarding the life of the Library, may indelibly tarnish it, causing it and those who enter its doors irreparable damage.” Professor Aviad Hacohen pleads: Do not harm the love of my youth—the National Library of Israel

Aviad Hacohen
Opening day of the new building of the Jewish National and University Library, November 1, 1960 – the Circulation Desk, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

 “I was an unhappy boy during the nights, wandering alone, never letting anyone know, you were the love of my youth.”

-From Ahavat Neurai (“The Love of My Youth”) by Shalom Hanoch

The first time I saw you, I was on my way to the Gymnasia high school. Back then, I would sometimes skip the boring classes and run to you instead, if only to inhale your scent. You are not a great beauty, I know, but you always welcomed me with love and a warm embrace.

At sixteen, a first love can seem like that, all roses and sunshine. But forty-five years on, that first love is still going strong. It cannot and must not be stopped.

You stood there, your pale, white facade hidden among the trees and grassy lawns of Givat Ram, your body upright, confident in yourself, radiating an aura of dignity.

On the ground floor one would see the heavy wooden card cabinets, their old hinges worn with use, the drawers filled to bursting with thousands of cards covered in dense handwriting.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram. Reference Hall and Card Catalogue, 1992. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Every day, for years, at 9:00 a.m. sharp, the regulars would show up at your door to be let in and then move quickly to their regular corners. (There was a running joke back then that these scholars were so much a part of the Library, that if movers were ever called in for a relocation, they would move them right along with the rest of the “furniture”.)

Among these regulars were some of the world’s greatest scholars of Jewish studies: Jacob Katz, Gershom Scholem, Menachem Brinker, Shmuel Safrai, Shmuel Werses, Hava Lazarus-Yaffe, David Weiss Halivni and Meir Benayahu, to name but a few.

After a few hours, the prophet of rage would arrive. Somewhat grim-faced, he would stride briskly through the Library’s doors to the “press room”. There, seventy-five-year-old Yeshayahu Leibowitz would begin to go one by one through the journals—hundreds of scientific periodicals that were arranged like soldiers on shelves along the walls. He would start with the journals that dealt with the Bible and Talmud, then move to the medical journals, followed by the chemistry and microbiology section, and finish up with the daily newspapers stored between two giant wooden boards and that smelled intoxicatingly of the past

His younger sister, the great biblical scholar and teacher Nechama Leibowitz, also well on in years, would sometimes stroll into the adjacent hall, the Judaica Reading Room, her signature beret pushed down low on her head, her students hurrying to offer her help in locating a book.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram: Judaica Reading Room. Early 1960s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Inside the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, located on floor -1, scholars and yeshiva students would sit side by side, each one hunched over a creaking microfilm machine, working tirelessly in order to rescue centuries-old Hebrew manuscripts from oblivion. Next to them would be a literary researcher asking to look at the notes and early drafts of the great Hebrew author, literary genius and Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon, in order to try to grasp the hidden meanings contained his works. Peering out above them would be the bright bald head of the gifted writer Yossel Birstein, who worked in the Hebrew Manuscripts department alongside cultural figures such as Rafi Weiser and Shlomo Zucker, from whom no secrets were hidden.

On the second floor, among the dusty piles of old audio tapes, Ephraim Yaakov would be trying once again to convince a one hundred-year-old newly arrived immigrant from Georgia to sing her community’s lullabies and lamentations, so that they would be preserved for generations in the Library’s Sound Archive.

Only in the rarest cases were we permitted to enter the “underworld”: floor -2. That was where the real treasures were kept. The manuscripts of Maimonides and Albert Einstein, genizah fragments and ancient Qurans.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram: General Reading Room. early 1960s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Full disclosure: Over the years, I have had the pleasure of her favor, but I have also had the privilege of giving something in return to my great love.  During its renewal, I had the privilege of participating as a representative of the Library’s readers, the “users,” in meetings of its board of directors and even to represent the Library in court in order to protect its rights.

I also drafted the “National Library Charter”, which was signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the then-President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres, as well as by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, and the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Rut Arnon, alongside dozens of other renowned public figures from Israel and around the world.

The charter reflects the unique spirit of the Library, whose doors are open to all, regardless of religion, race, gender, political outlook or orientation:

“The physical and virtual doors of the Library will be open to people of all nations and religions, to draw an increasing number of users from among the general public and from among the research community in Israel and the world, and to serve them in the best way possible.”

The charter emphasizes the National Library of Israel’s status as a “national and Zionist cultural and educational center”, meant to serve as an “inspirational space, which will be both an optimal learning environment and a meeting place drawing researchers, intellectuals, artists and seekers of knowledge from Israel and around the world, as well as a site of vibrant cultural creation that is based on its treasures and collections.”

Days and years have gone by and the love of my youth has matured and long since passed one hundred and twenty. The guards who used to zealously rummage through our briefcases and backpacks by hand are now aided by technological devices. The old-fashioned, awkward hand-written paper slips once used for ordering books were replaced by a simple computerized system, accessible from anywhere in the world, even by mobile phone. The old creaking elevators were replaced with new ones; even the official name was changed from the “Jewish National and University Library” to the “The National Library of Israel.” The Library began hosting an array of inspiring cultural events, wonderful concerts ranging from classical music to Israeli song, and the entrance hall was filled with groups of Jewish and Arab elementary school students coming to see and experience this great hall of culture for the first time, maybe even falling in love with it, as I did so many years before.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram: Reference Hall, 1992. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The National Library of Israel was and remains a unique nature reserve in the Israeli landscape. A fascinating human and cultural microcosm unlike any other. Perhaps the last place, apart from the hospitals, where a university professor conducting research for a new book or article might sit beside a regular Joe who took a four-hour bus ride to come explore his family’s roots; a place where a young Torah scholar from Mea Shearim might sit surfing the internet and its “forbidden fruit” next to a young bare-shouldered university student leafing through rare books for a seminar paper she is writing.

Indeed, like many others, I fear any attempt to harm the love of my youth. The imposition of any sort of political involvement in the life of the Library may indelibly tarnish it, and cause irreparable damage to the Library and those who enter its doors. And we haven’t even talked about donors—whether of money or of rare and irreplaceable archival materials— who might be discouraged from supporting a body that is guided by politics, and not professionalism. Many of them may avoid donating to the Library or perhaps even choose to rescind donations of funds or collections they have already made.

If this plan to impose political involvement in the Library goes forward, the National Library of Israel will become one more political estate among many. A pointless institution, devoted only to the powers that be.

As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke—don’t fix it.” The National Library of Israel is not broken and is not in need of a fix, certainly not of a political nature.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram: A view from the South-East, 1970. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, The National Library of Israel


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