A Valuable Book Disappeared from a Library...or Did It? A Sign of the Times

- by Michael Stillman


The 200-year-old ledger (Genazym auction photo).

A valuable book disappeared from the collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Was it stolen, maybe lost? A rabbi set about to unravel this mystery. The answer turned out not to be what he expected.


This story comes from the Jewish Telegraph Agency and was written by investigative reporter Asaf Shalev. The investigative rabbi was Rabbi Elli Fischer. The story begins when Rabbi Fischer noticed a 200-year-old handwritten ledger by a Tiberias rabbi offered at auction with a $100,000 opening bid. The auction image showed a stamp with a faded number Fischer recognized as being that of a collection, likely a public institution. How did it get from an institutional collection to an anonymous owner now offering it for sale? He saw that as unusual, possibly suspicious.


Rabbi Fischer decided to check the number against the collection at the National Library of Israel. He got a match, but the document was only available at the library on microfilm. What he discovered was the original came from the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The seminary is the main academic institution of Conservative Judaism and its library houses one of the most important collections of Jewish learning in the world.


However, Fischer had another surprise when he looked at the JTS catalogue. The document was not listed. Had someone removed both the document and its listing? Was it stolen? Did the library remove it intentionally? The latter was concerning as this was not a known practice of the library. Sometimes, it sold off duplicate material or items of lesser importance, but this was a one-of-a-kind significant, unique manuscript.


When Fischer spread word of his findings many, including JTS librarians, were alarmed. The library had shut down in 2016 as part of a redevelopment project and their books had been transferred to a warehouse. Theft was a major possibility, but some people became concerned that the seminary was using the redevelopment project as an opportunity to quietly sell some of its collection.


The seminary was formed at the turn of the last century and contributions at that time gave it almost unlimited funds to build one of the world's finest collections of Judaica. However, with the turn to the current century, funds became tighter. In 2015, the seminary's original library building was sold off for a large sum and demolished for a luxury residence tower. The new library will be smaller, with much of its collection housed off-site. Some people saw this as a move away from being a custodian of Jewish books to focus on its mission of training rabbis.


It turned out that selling pieces of the collection was the explanation for this item showing up at auction. It had been sold to a private collector in 2017 who had put it up for auction. According to the chief librarian, he had been told by higher officials to raise a certain amount of money, and to do so by selling pieces of the collection without significantly harming the seminary's mission. With the ledger having been digitized and thus still available for research, it was felt this was an item that could be spared.


This was not the first time the library has sold material to raise funds. The lack of publicity of the sale was explained as unnecessary because it was a private sale, though one imagines this was a way of avoiding the controversy that likely would result. The JTS library is hardly the only one to face financial issues that result in hard decisions. We are not here to judge the right or wrong of these actions. There are strong opinions on both sides. This is simply the telling of a tale that is becoming increasingly common in the library world, as long-standing missions come into conflict with present-day financial realities. There are no good answers, only unpleasant ones.


The complete story can be found on the website of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency