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England, Custodian of the Jewish Past

Full Day Lecture/Seminar

Saturday, July 17, 2021 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2141
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$80 - Member
$90 - Non-Member
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British Museum

The Duke of Sussex—no, not Harry, but rather Prince Augustus Frederick, son of King George III— collected Hebrew Bibles. An 18th-century Oxford don traveled to Italy to purchase a lavishly illuminated Hebrew Bible manuscript. John Selden, whom John Milton called “the chief of learned men reputed in this land,” collected manuscripts of the Code of Jewish Law written by Moses Maimonides. Charles Taylor, master of St. John’s College, Cambridge, expended the funds to bring 200,000 Jewish documents found in a Cairo synagogue’s attic storeroom back to Cambridge.

Why were these venerable English personages so fascinated by Jewish history? Join historian and self-styled Anglophile Gary A. Rendsburg as he draws on many summers and sabbaticals spent conducting research in English museums and libraries to find the answers to that question. Follow him through the centuries, commencing with the Middle Ages and then continuing the narrative from the Tudors to the Victorians.

9:30–10:45 a.m.  Setting the Stage:  Oxford and Cambridge

The two great centers of learning date to the 12th and 13th centuries, and thus they are deeply rooted in English history. Rendsburg provides a virtual exploration of the two universities, focusing on how they, their constituent colleges and their libraries are organized. Interestingly, there is a Jewish connection to Merton, one of the oldest colleges in Oxford. 

11:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.  The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Thomas Bodley, fellow of Merton College, scholar of Greek and Hebrew, member of the House of Commons, gentleman-usher to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, and founder of the library that bears his name, donated his personal collection of 58 Hebrew books and manuscripts at the founding of the library. The flow of such collections continued unabated for the next few centuries, with scholars such as John Selden, Edward Pococke, Robert Huntington, and Benjamin Kennicott donating their exceptional collections, amassed over their lifetimes, to the Bodleian Library. Each of the manuscripts tells a singular story, from the time of its production to its presence in Oxford today.

12:15 – 1:15 p.m.  Break

1:15 – 2:30 p.m.  The Cairo Geniza:  Discovery and Documents

Starting in the 1880s, medieval documents from an old synagogue in Cairo started finding their way to scholars in England, unimpeded by laws governing the transfer of antiquities from one country to another.  But the great turning point came in 1896, when two extraordinary Victorian women, the twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, brought back from Cairo about 1,000 such documents and shared them with Solomon Schechter, the great Jewish scholar and Reader of Hebrew in Cambridge. He Immediately traveled to Cairo, learned that the documents were from the Geniza (or storeroom) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue (built ca. 850), and brought back to Cambridge the remaining documents. The study of these documents has revolutionized Jewish history, with revelations including the conversion of an Italian monk to Judaism in the year 1102, who wrote a memoir in Hebrew and composed Jewish prayers set to Gregorian chant.

2:45–4 p.m.  The British Library, the British Museum, and the John Rylands Library

The British Library in London has its own superb collection of Hebrew manuscripts, while the British Museum has antiquities from the ancient Near East that inform the story of ancient Israel as revealed in the Bible. The John Rylands Library in Manchester holds the oldest fragments of the Septuagint (the Jewish translation of the Bible into Greek) and the oldest fragments of the New Testament. Each of these documents and artifacts has a unique story about how they wound up in English libraries and museums—with the enthusiastic support of the British public and the British government.

Rendsburg serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at Rutgers University.

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