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National Library News
July 1998
Vol. 30, no. 7-8

From Vilna to Mountain Sights Avenue: A Sketch of David Rome's Library

by Cheryl Jaffee,
Curator, Jacob M. Lowy Collection

David Rome was a prominent figure in the cultural circles of Jewish Montreal and non-Jewish francophone Quebec. A founder of the bridge-building Cercle juif de langue française in the 1950s, he also was involved for decades with the Canadian Jewish Congress, especially its extensive archives. Mr. Rome authored numerous historical studies and bibliographies, and when he died in Montreal in January 1996, one room of his small Mountain Sights duplex was overflowing with books reflecting his intellectual and geographic journeys. David Rome was born in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1910 and raised in nearby Zoslya, and the intellectual flavour of Vilna itself permeated the room. The acquisition of works from David Rome's library has immeasurably enriched the National Library of Canada's collections, especially the Jacob M. Lowy Collection of rare Hebraica and Judaica.

Vilna's greatness as a Jewish intellectual centre reached its peak under the rabbinical authority of one of Eastern European Jewry's greatest figures, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797), the Vilna Gaon (the honorific title accorded a great academic leader). Rigorous intellectual discipline characterized his scholarship, and this paradigm was widely emulated. A work on ethics, Nefesh ha-hayim (Vilna, 1837), was authored by Hayim ben Isaac Volozhiner, a leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon. A rabbi and masterful educator, Hayim ben Isaac established the prototype of the European Yeshiva, the Jewish institution of higher learning.

In the 18th century Hasidism was flowering, spreading from southeastern Poland to the north and west. Easily accessible to the many Jews who were looking for spiritual leadership, Hasidism began to pose a challenge to the status quo. The centre of opposition to Hasidism was located in Vilna, and its adversaries were called Mitnagdim, opponents. Sefer Matsref ha-avodah (Königsberg, 1858) is a discussion of the "Great Debate" engaging the disciples of the Vilna Gaon and the Hassidic leader Levi Isaac of Berditchev. This work has been attributed to Jacob ben Moses Bachrach (1824-1896), a rabbi who was learned in traditional and secular subjects, and an early advocate of the Jewish return to the land of Israel. Among other nascent Zionist writings from David Rome's library is Sefer Tsevi le-khol ha-aratsot (Vilna, 1893), with a dedication that is finely inscribed in the hand of author Kalman Schulman.

In the late 18th and throughout the 19th century, the voices of a third group were heard as the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) spread from Germany into eastern Europe. This group did not continue the long and heated debate between Hasidim and their opponents, but rather sought to lead the vast majority of Jews into the world of secular European culture through cultural and educational reform. Vilna was one of the great centres of the Eastern Enlightenment. Because of the brilliant and multifaceted Jewish culture that flourished there, the city was known as the "the Jerusalem of Lithuania".

Illustration: A telegraph machine
David ben Shalom Shakhna ha-Levi
Horvits, 1858-1914. Sefer Kaveret
. Warsaw: Me'ir Yehi'el
Halter, 1888. A book devoted to
natural phenomena and scientific
inventions. Shown here: a telegraph

Among the fruits of the Enlightenment is the bio-bibliographic Toldot Rabenu Zerahyah ha-Levi (Prague, 1853) by Jacob Reifmann. The work reflects this scholar's efforts to merge traditional learning with Western thought. These early efforts to transform the nature of Jewish scholarship isolated Reifmann from his co-religionists. Among later books that endeavoured to reveal the mysteries of the modern, secular world to readers are Nahum Sokolov's translation into Hebrew of a work on natural sciences, Metsuke erets (Warsaw, 1878), and a fascinating volume on natural science that introduces recent inventions, Sefer Kaveret Davshash (Warsaw, 1888). Dispersed throughout the Rome library were many volumes from the renowned press of Vilna's Romm family (to which David Rome sought an elusive genealogical link until the end of his life). A profusion of research by later scholars crammed all other available space, along with piles of journals and boxes of documents.

Among the volumes selected for the Lowy Collection, two treasures from Amsterdam stand out: the first printed editions of the Bible in Yiddish. Torah Nevi'im u-Khetuvim bi-leshon Ashkenaz was printed by Uri Phoebus in 1676-1678, and a rival edition was produced shortly after by the Athias firm in 1679-1687. These Bibles are two of 20 Yiddish volumes from the Rome library, and two of six imprints from 17th- and 18th-century Amsterdam.

Photo: Oval Stamp
Talmud (Nedarim). Shanghai:
be-Hotsa'at Menadvim, 1942 or
1943. The oval stamp reads in
English: "‘Ezrat Torah' the Library
of the Mir Yeshiva at present in

Many books from the Rome library show signs of this century's barbarity. There are books confiscated from libraries and individuals by the special task forces of Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg. These books were shipped to Frankfurt to form the vast library with which to research "the Jewish question", and in the aftermath of the Second World War, were transferred by the American occupying forces to a warehouse in nearby Offenbach. They bear the stamp "ARCHIVAL DEPOT OFFENBACH A.M." In the words of historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, "The smell of death emanated from these hundreds and thousands of books and religious objects -- ... mute survivors of their murdered owners." 1

By contrast, the tractates of the Shanghai Talmud, printed in China between 1942 and 1946 for refugee Yeshiva students and teachers, exemplify the eternally adapting and enduring human spirit. Twenty-three tractates of this Talmud, crudely sewn into wartime bindings, have been moved from the Rome library to the Lowy Collection.

The Rome library held some great surprises. Among the Hebraica and Judaica lay a superb copy of Lactantius' works in its burnished vellum binding. Printed at the Venetian press of Aldus in 1515, it seems almost untouched by the centuries. The old saying inevitably comes to mind: like people, books have their destinies.

Photo: Hebrew Bible
Bible (Yiddish). Torah Nevi'im
u-Khetuvim bi-leshon Ashkenaz.
Amsterdam: Uri Phoebus Ha-Levi,
1676-1678. First Yiddish translation
of the Hebrew Bible.

Mr. Rome was a complex man. He never lost sight of Vilna, and in his library we see that he cherished both the jewels and the brittle remnants of Yiddish-speaking Europe. Yet he made abundant space in a densely packed room for the New World that had captured his heart. For decades a bibliographer of Jewish Canadiana, Mr. Rome was also a pioneering explorer of the culture of French Canada, and this interest was also manifest on his library shelves. The English, French, Yiddish and Hebrew-language Canadiana holdings of the National Library have been enriched through the efforts and achievements of David Rome's life, as has the Jacob M. Lowy Collection of rare Hebraica and Judaica.

For more information about the Lowy Collection, contact:

Cheryl Jaffee
Curator, Lowy Collection
National Library of Canada
395 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0N4
E-mail: lowy@lac-bac.gc.ca


1 Lucy S. Dawidowicz, From That Time and Place: A Memoir 1938-1947 (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1989), p. 316. In this book, Dawidowicz relates her experiences at the YIVO Institute in Vilna, and the astonishing stories of its renowned library, which was plundered, dispersed, transplanted and reconstructed.