Jewish enlightenment collection joins Cornell’s rare books

Some 500 works on the Haskalah – the Jewish enlightenment in Europe beginning in the second half of the 18th century – have arrived at Cornell University Library thanks to the generosity of alumnus Steven Chernys ’83.

The books and ephemeral publications on the Haskalah will strengthen the library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) as a growing repository for collections in Jewish intellectual history, joining the papers of historian and legal expert Guido Kisch and the Cornell professor Isaac Rabinowitz, first chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Donation of the Steven M. Glazer Collection of Leopold Zunz Material in 2013 provided significant impetus to acquire the Haskalah collection.

While much of the Haskalah material is in literary Hebrew, there are also many works in German. Rare pamphlets in Hungarian preserve a number of rabbinical sermons from that country. Places of publication range from Amsterdam to Odessa.

Antiquarian bookseller Joseph Goldman said he had “collected and searched for [these books] over many years” and that it “would be impossible to put together a collection such as this one today.”

Patrick J. Stevens, a curator in RMC and librarian for Jewish studies, coordinated acquisition of the collection and is directing a cataloguing initiative during the next two years to make the books available for research.

“Research on the writings of the Haskalah will undoubtedly underscore the dynamism of European Jewish thinkers,” noted Stevens. “What is equally impressive is the literary creativity in poetic Hebrew during the Haskalah period. Steven Chernys’ generosity has made it possible for scholars of European Jewish intellectual history to consider the Haskalah from multiple linguistic and textual perspectives within the holdings of this one collection.” 

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