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Nestled in the heart of the University of Florida on West University Avenue is a treasure trove of Judaica. The Isser and Rae Price library of Judaica is a valuable resource for those engaged in serious Jewish studies , as well as the average person who has an interest in Jewish life and theology.
The library is headed by a remarkable young woman and British import, Dr. Rebecca Jefferson. Her background includes studying Hebrew at two kibbutzim in Israel, solid academics in Hebrew and Jewish studies at Cambridge University, as well as a keen interest in genizahs (storage rooms for old Judaica) and old manuscripts. The reputation of the library brought her to the States, where she says she is freer to pursue her Jewish spirituality. When Rebecca offered to give me a guided tour, I certainly could not pass up this opportunity.
Dr. Jefferson’s enthusiasm for her work and dedication to the library was evident all during my tour. In her charming British accent, she related to me the highlights and history of the library, as well as allowing for some hands-on time.
The library was founded in the late 1970s as a resource for the Jewish Studies program started at UF in 1973. Jack and Samuel Price of Jacksonville, who gave the money to support the creation of the library, made the first and largest endowment to libraries at the time. It was named in honor of their parents, Isser and Rae Price. In 1981, a little more than 30 years ago, the library was dedicated as the Isser and Rae Price library of Judaica. Rebecca told me the core of the collection was based on the three “M’s,” that is, the last initial of the three major players in the library’s acquisitions.
Rabbi Leonard Mishkin is the first “M” of the trinity. The Chicago rabbi had the largest collection, some 40,000 volumes, in the 1970s.
Authenticated by scholar and Harvard bibliographer Charles Berlin, who described it as “superb,” the collection was purchased with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the first such award to be granted to a library. The library later received a matching grant from the state of Florida recognizing the cultural and historical value of the collection.
Included in Rabbi Mishkin’s collection were festschriften (papers put together to honor other scholars) and periodicals, which give us a glimpse into the Jewish world at the turn of the last century. The festschriften contained work not widely distributed and told about famous people, places and events.
The second “M” in the library’s history was Shlomo Marenof, a scholar in Hebrew literature from Brandeis University whose collection numbered 10,000 volumes.
The final “M” in the library’s history comes from Morgenstern’s Book Store on the lower East Side of New York City. Under the aegis of its first librarian, Robert Singerman, many Yiddish volumes were purchased to augment the library’s collection.
Today, the Price Library boasts some 95,000 volumes, and is considered one of the top 20 academic libraries in the world and among the top 10 for Judaic collections. There are strong rabbinical , as well as strong Holocaust collections. In addition, there are many volumes that predate the creation of the State of Israel, when the Jewish state was part of Palestine under the British Mandate.
There are also books on all movements in Judaism, as well as texts dealing with the Jews of various American cities and countries in the world.
Much genealogy can be gleaned from the vast records and lists of Jewish residents here and abroad. There were also special sections for children’s selections, and I tried to find some of my old Hebrew school textbooks.
Of special note are the Yiskor memorial books. These volumes, written with much pathos and reminiscence, describe the vanished communities obliteratedby the Nazis during World War II. In many cases, they are the only records left of what were once a flourishing Jewish communities in Europe. The library has 800 of these books, first produced in Argentina in Yiddish, then in Israel in Hebrew and in recent years, in English translation.
Toward the end of my tour, I was treated to some special tomes that Dr. Jefferson had in her office. Many were haggadot, the special ritual books for Passover. One, curiously, was in Marathi script, from Bombay, India, published in 1901 for the Jews of India. Rebecca tells me that when read, the words were Hebrew!
Another haggadah, published in 1918 in the early days of the Soviet Union, was different from the ones we use today, in that it appeared to be more detailed. Of course, this was during a time when traditional Judaism was the norm.
I was also shown a copy of L’IdeaSionista, a rare Zionist journal from the early days of the Zionist movement. It was published in Italy during 1901-04 and Price is the only library to have a copy.
Before I left, I finally had a chance to view and touch the oldest volume in the whole library, a volume from the late 1400s of responsa, that is, letters or correspondence from rabbis to other rabbis on topics of Jewish law. The writers of the day could never imagine that the lands discovered by Columbus would one day house Judaica, and that these lands would become a haven for Jews.
Rae Price said in 1981, “The library is something for everyone to use. It has long been needed and it will live on and on.” May her words be prophetic.
Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Ocala with her husband, Phil. She can be reached at email@example.com.