For readers unable to view the exhibition FROM THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: JUDAIC TREASURES OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, the catalog of the same name serves as a beautiful and sufficient display of what America’s largest library has to offer in the area of Judaica. Written by the curator of the exhibit, Abraham J. Karp, the catalog itself is a treasure.
In nineteen loaded chapters, Karp explores the essence of Jewish religion, culture, history, and mysticism by examining texts, artistic illustrations, photographs, ketubot (marriage contracts), journals, amulets, musical compositions, and other artifacts spanning four millennia. The exhibition includes rare translations of the Bible, the Talmud, the ZOHAR, the Passover Haggadah, and other sacred texts; incunables (books printed before 1501); a handwritten manuscript of Einstein’s “Unified Field Theory,” presented to the Library of Congress by the Jewish author as a symbol of his appreciation for the safe haven America represented to him after fleeing Nazism; sheet music handwritten by Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin; and the art of Marc Chagall and Ben Shahn.
With the turn of nearly every page, brilliant photographs emerge, along with detailed captions taken almost verbatim from the accompanying text. The repetition can be wasteful for those absorbed readers who tear themselves from the text only to find it repeated in the margin; but for those who prefer to skim the catalog, the chunky captions are highly informative and greatly appreciated.
Karp expects his readers to have some basic knowledge of Judaism. His discussion of the treasures is extremely sophisticated and he demands tedious effort from his readers, who must sift through centuries of names, dates, cities, countries, and continents. What he expresses perhaps most poignantly is the tremendous vitality of Jews through the ages: They never ceased to continue producing these treasures of their civilization though their rights were taken away, their presses were destroyed, the practice of their religion was outlawed, and they were forced time after time to relocate and start everything anew.