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Seven Centuries of Jewish Life, Illuminated

Barbara Bensoussan

When Rene Braginsky came across a rare illustrated bentscher, he couldn’t have foreseen the astounding collection that he’d amass over the next three decades. That first encounter with a historical art form led him to seek out hundreds of manuscripts and books from seven centuries of Jewish life. When Mishpacha viewed the selection of those manuscripts currently on display in the Yeshiva University Museum, we were treated to an experience that went far beyond aesthetics.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

You’re a wealthy Jewish financier from Zurich, and you want to do something special for your son’s upcoming bar mitzvah. What do you get for the boy who presumably has everything?

“Mr. Rene Braginsky was thinking about giving a special bentscher,” says Sharon Mintz, a curator of Jewish art and consultant for renowned auction house Sotheby’s. “Then a good friend introduced him to a dealer in rare Jewish books, who offered him an illustrated one.”

This was over thirty years ago, and the friend was Dutch collector Michael Floerscheim, z”l. Floerscheim’s passion for Judaica was contagious, and since that first purchase, the now sixty-year-old Braginsky has been steadily amassing what has become one of the world’s premier collections of Jewish rare books and manuscripts. Braginsky began collecting by choosing what appealed to him aesthetically, his personal predilection being for colorful, artistically embellished manuscripts. Today, while the collection is still dominated by illuminated manuscripts, it also contains many papers and books of scholarly and historic significance.

Sharon Mintz originally flew to Zurich in 2004 to select items for an exhibit on rare printed Talmuds, having stumbled upon Braginsky’s name and been told he could help. She had no idea that this collector, who was hardly a household name in the world of Judaica, was sitting on a collection of such scope and value — until Braginsky allowed her to sift through his astounding holdings. To her great fortune, and ours as well, after the Talmud exhibit finished its run in 2005, Braginsky decided to share the wealth of his collection by offering to display it for the public.

A team of experts, including Menachem Schmelzer, an Israeli scholar and distant relative of Braginsky, as well as Mintz and other experts, cataloged the collection and produced a state-of-the-art website that displays photos of every item (one can click through every page of every book on the site, as well as move a cursor to “unroll” each megillah scroll to see its entirety). After that, surely feeling like kids in a candy store, the team members were forced to narrow their selections for an exhibition, culling about 130 items out of an inventory of over 600.

The fruits of their efforts were first displayed in the Amsterdam University Library, under the curatorship of Emile Schrivjer. Since March 21, however, they have been on display at the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan (the exhibit runs through August 1, at 15 West Sixteenth St; call 212-294-8301 for hours). Two and a half large rooms of the museum are filled with glass-encased seforim, siddurim, Haggados, ketubos, and other manuscripts both printed and handwritten. Entitled “A Journey Through Jewish Worlds,” the exhibit testifies to the movement of Am Yisrael through diverse lands and historical periods, allowing the documents to tell the story of our wanderings and cultural achievements.

Mishpacha was determined to take a look at this exceptional exhibit, and the Yeshiva University Museum graciously offered to provide us guides in the persons of Mr. Gabriel Goldstein, the associate director for exhibitions and programs, and Mrs. Ilana Benson, a museum educator. Between the two of them, we were treated to a private tour of some of the collection’s most interesting items. 


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