On March 30, the National Library of Israel (NLI) announced the opening of a digital archive of Sephardic and Ladino manuscripts, including haggadot from 14th-century Spain, a manuscript of Jeremiah in Ladino from the 15th century, and a 16th-century Ladino women’s siddur.
The digital collection was funded by a $1 million grant from the Samis Foundation, the Seattle-based organization that supports local Jewish day school education and experiences, as well as select projects in Israel.
“Some of these archives were sitting in boxes in the national archive for a long time,” says Rachel Grunbaum, Samis’s Israel consultant. “They didn’t have the resources to copy and scan and upload it on the website. If not for the Samis funding, this would not be happening. If you think about the Sephardic treasures—it literally gives me the chills.”
Grunbaum initially didn’t think this was a project Samis would be interested in. It’s outside the scope of Israeli projects Samis normally considers around immigration, women and children, young scholars, and the environment.
But after visiting the NLI, which recently relocated from the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus to premium real estate between the Knesset and the Israel Museum, Grunbaum was blown away. She walked out and called Samis executive director Connie Kanter and said, “This is it. This is going to have so much impact on Israeli society.”
The state-of-the-art library contains some of the most precious manuscripts from Jewish history and will also serve as a cultural space. The NLI managed to avoid conflict and form a deal with the new Israeli government, which had threatened to control its board of directors. “The new NLI is the most unbelievable piece of real estate you can possibly imagine,” says Samis board president Eli Genauer. “Everyone’s going to go by it. It’s already won awards for its design and architecture, and hopefully it will stay apolitical.”
The archives unearthed and digitized with the Samis funding will not only be of critical importance to scholars, but Samis is also planning to engage local Jewish day schools and tour groups. They are also funding cultural events around the archives.
Kanter first encountered the archives in physical form last winter on a Samis trip to Israel. “They literally brought out these books and put them out under glass,” she says. “These are their greatest treasures. We’re looking at a book written by Rambam in his hand. I was speechless. It was unbelievable.”
Samis grants funds based on the wishes of the late Sam Israel, who moved to Seattle in the early 20th century from Rhodes and lived a life of extreme austerity while he earned millions from downtown Seattle real estate investments. When he died, he willed his estate to the Seattle Jewish community for Jewish education and areas of need in Israel. Given Sam Israel’s own Sephardic heritage and Seattle’s spot on the map as a centre of Sephardic life, funding the archives was a natural fit.
“Even though all our projects have to do with environment and archaeology and absorption and women and orphans and scholars, overriding all that is that Sam Israel was Sephardic through and through,” says Genauer. When the library approached Samis with a Sephardic archives project, Genauer, who has been accessing NLI manuscripts for his personal research for years, was “all ears.”
“For whatever it’s worth, people will know there’s a man who came from Rhodes to Seattle, Washington, with little money, and all he was obsessed with was how [to help] the Jewish people,” Genauer says. “He only had up to a bar mitzvah education, and he wanted people to have intensive education.”
Among the most interesting pieces in the collection, according to Dr. Aliza Moreno, NLI’s Judaica specialist librarian and manager of Latin America outreach, is a 17th-century Venetian haggadah. “[It] is unusual in that the publisher issued three different versions—Hebrew and Ladino, Hebrew and Yiddish, and Hebrew and Judeo-Italian—to serve the different Jewish communities residing or coming through in the port city of Venice.” Moreno also notes a 1565 “Seder Nashim,” which is “one of the earliest examples of a printed Ladino text, intended for women who could not read Hebrew, and is revolutionary in that it includes instructions for women on how to carry out the rites.”
The Israeli archive joins another Sephardic/Ladino archive right here at the University of Washington. That archive, which came together with books and manuscripts both sacred and secular found in attics and basements around Greater Seattle, has been in the process of digitization for several years. Though, Samis was not involved with that initiative.
Kanter and Grunbaum are pleased with how quickly the NLI is working to digitize the archives and organize cultural events. They’re looking forward to connecting the Seattle community with them, and Samis just announced a grant to incentivize more PJ Library Jewish children’s books around Sephardic themes.
“We’re trying to make links between the NLI and the education programs going on here in Seattle,” says Genauer. “And we feel Sam deserves recognition for what he did. He donated every last penny to charity.”
An earlier version of this piece was published in Emily Alhadeff’s newsletter The Cholent.
Head image design by Orly Zebak. Photograph used of 16th-century Ladino women’s siddur used is featured in the piece on The Cholent.