An Archive of Jewish Life: Mainz Jewish Library
There are many reasons to consider Mainz Jewish Library a rare jewel. Uniquely reflecting centuries of Jewish community life, it can be consulted today as a special reference library at the city’s Johannes Gutenberg University. Its c. 5500 volumes, derived mostly from the libraries of Mainz’s orthodox and liberal Jewish communities, include rare Hebraica and Judaica, valuable prints, and items from rabbinic estates, as well as Hebrew and German manuscripts.
During the 1930s the library was located in a wing of the city’s main synagogue in Hindenburgstrasse. Most of the holdings were confiscated by the Gestapo in the Pogrom Night of November 9–10, 1938. However, under the direction of Rabbi Dr. Sali Levi, some further volumes were salvaged from a cellar below the ruined synagogue in August 1939. The entire holdings were kept in Mainz Municipal Library, where they survived the Second World War relatively unscathed. Soon after the war they were restored to the re-established Jewish community, and since 1955 they have been on permanent loan from that community to the Johannes Gutenberg University.
The history of Mainz Jewish Library has by now been thoroughly researched, but the collection is still not well known, and even now, more than eighty years after its confiscation, it is not fully recognized for what it is: one of the few still extant Jewish community libraries. Many priceless volumes have been digitalized and are available online, as are the library’s more than forty manuscripts. The holdings include rare Hebraica and Judaica from various Jewish and non-Jewish literary backgrounds – mostly books of religious practice like chumashim (Bible editions), siddurim and mahzorim (prayer books for ordinary days and holidays), but also some anti-Semitic literature and books on Israel, Palestine, and Zionism. The oldest volumes, some of them magnificently bound, date from the 16th century. A particularly interesting part of the collection is the Hebrew prints originating from Frankfurt – all the more so as in Frankfurt itself almost all Hebraica were destroyed during the war.
A center of Jewish book art – prints from Frankfurt
From the last decades of the 17th century onward, Frankfurt was one of Germany’s main centers for Hebrew book printing. So it is no surprise that Mainz Jewish Library should possess numerous examples of these early works, some of which are of particular interest for their excellent state of preservation and evidence of prior ownership. Moreover, among these rare books are some held in few other libraries in Germany, for example the so-called Hovot Ya’ir, a well-known collection of halakha and responses ascribed to Yair Hayyim ben Moshe Shimshon Bacharach (1638-1702), whose grave can be found at Heiliger Sand Cemetery in Worms. The book was printed in Frankfurt in 1699 by Johann Wust (son of Balthasar C. Wust), who also printed the ‛Avodat Gershoni in the same year. Founded in Frankfurt in 1690, his printing house soon fell into disrepute with strictly observant Jews because of the unclad Baroque putti with which he decorated his title pages.
The Mainz copy of the ‛Avodat Gershoni (Service of Gershon) from the Lehmann Collection derives from the estate of Rabbi Marcus Meir Lehmann (1831-1890), the leading representative of the orthodox tradition in Mainz. A handwritten entry in the corner of the sheet added to the title page gives the owners of the book as the (otherwise undocumented) vorstehers of the community Rav Yanke and Rav Yosman.
Another remarkable work is the Sefer Reshit Bikkurim (Book of the Origin of First-Fruits), a collection of sermons and exegeses of individual biblical verses by Hanokh ben Avraham (17th century). The book was printed in Frankfurt in 1708 by Matthias Andrae, Johann Wust’s successor in Frankfurt, who worked in close connection with Aharon Shmu’el Kaidanover.
Hanokh ben Avraham, Sefer Reshit Bikkurim, Frankfurt 1708 (© University Library Mainz)
The title page of the Mainz copy bears the stamp of the Niederstetten Rabbi Jacob Stern (1843–1911), a well-known personality who was first an orthodox rabbi, then supported the reform tradition, and finally became an advocate of atheistic socialism. He was held in high esteem by (among others) Clara Zetkin (1857–1933). The visibly restored binding of the book will have been due to Stern himself. How books from his collection came to be in the possession of Mainz Jewish Library once he had ceased living in accordance with Jewish traditions and principles remains to be clarified.
Zvi Hirsch Plato, Quntres havla’at ha-dam (© Jewish Community Mainz)
A book bearing the stamp “Dr. Plato. Isr. Lehrerseminar” underlines the close connection between the Mainz community and the orthodox Jewry of Cologne. The Cologne rabbi Zvi Hirsch Plato (1822-1910) published his Quntres havla’at ha-dam, a defense of shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter), in 1890 with J. Kaufmann of Frankfurt. The work was used by members of the Mainz community in the disputes about shechita that took place at the end of the 19th century.
Many other rare Hebraica in the Mainz collection indicate the close connection with Frankfurt and its Hebrew printers. Further interesting examples that invite more detailed scrutiny can be found in the online pages at Provenienzen / Jüdische Gemeinde Mainz .
Andreas Lehnardt teaches Jewish Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz
Lehnardt, Andreas, Die jüdische Bibliothek an der Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz 1938-2008. Eine Dokumentation, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Universität Mainz – New Series 8, Stuttgart: Steiner 2009.
Lehnardt, Andreas, “Die Bibliotheken in den jüdischen Gemeinden von Mainz,” in: Hedwig Brüchert (ed.), Die Mainzer Synagogen. Ein Überblick über die Mainzer Synagogenbauwerke mit ergänzenden Beiträgen über bedeutende Mainzer Rabbiner, das alte Judenviertel und die Bibliotheken der jüdischen Gemeinden, Mainz 2008.
Lehnardt, Andreas (ed.), “Aus den Bücherregalen. Entdeckungen in der Jüdischen Bibliothek Mainz,” Ma’ayanot 1, Berlin 2018.
Title image: Gershon Ashkenazi, Avodat Gershoni, Frankfurt 1699 (© University Library Mainz)