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Is Jozefów Close to Chelm?

Simply stated, the answer is no.

Jozefów was a hamlet south of Warsaw in the 19th century that has all but been swallowed up by today’s metropolitan Warsaw. (It is only about 15 km. from downtown Warsaw.)

Chelm, on the other hand, is quite a distance to the east and situated today within the borders of Ukraine.

Chelm is famous, of course, in Jewish folklore for its “wise men,” whose solutions to problems challenge logic except when viewed through the lens of “pilpul.”

Why raise such a question?

Before giving an answer, I need to back up a bit. It was not uncommon in Eastern Europe for a Hebrew book to have its title also given in a transcription into the “vernacular” of the majority culture, i.e. Russian (Cyrillic) or Polish (Latin). (This generally was a requirement of local censors.)  Moreover, such transliterations often preserved the Hebrew pronunciation peculiar to the locale.

For example, in Lemberg (present-day L’viv, Ukraine), in 1892 a work on Talmudic hermeneutics by Joseph Engel was published whose title was אתוון דאורייתא that we today transliterate as: Atvan de-Oraita. Yet clearly on the page in Latin characters we read: Aswon deorajsu.

Another example: In Jozefów in 1826, an edition of Moses Chaim Luzzatto’s La-yesharim tehilah appeared, and on the title-page it also stated in Latin characters: Laieszurym tehyłu. As bizarre as it may look to (some of) us today, this fairly replicated the Ashkenazic Hebrew pronunciation of central Poland in the 19th century.

In Jozefów in 1835, however, another book by Moses Chaim Luzzatto was published, Mesilat Yesharim. And on the title-page one finds the following gibberish:  MYRUZSJ SEŁYSM.

Or is it gibberish? Or perhaps the type-setter was from Chelm? Or was he ignorant of the fact that Polish is written left-to-right- rather than right-to-left?

For if one reverses the letters, one finds: MSYŁES JSZURYM a perfectly rendering of M’siles yeshorim, as Hebrew was pronounced at that time and in that place.

Such “slip-ups” appear not to have happened often, so when I came across this, it took moment to figure it out.

Fishing for favorite podcasts

In honor of my new (and first) iPod, I thought I would highlight some of the podcasts that I’ve been downloading and enjoying.

First off is the Book of Life.  Created and hosted by fellow librarian Heidi Estrin.  This podcast focuses on “the Jewish people and the books we read.” Heidi does a great job interviewing authors, illustrators, and any one else involved in Jewish literature.

Have you ever been to a convention and wished that you could be in 3 places at once?  The Association of Jewish Libraries podcasts many of the sessions from their convention.  Since I tend to go to the presentations that are applicable to academic libraries, I really enjoy listening to the sessions I missed on Jewish kid-lit, history, and Jewish culture from around the world.

Next on my list of podcasts to check out is at Vox Tablet – the podcast of Tablet Magazine (a project of Nextbook Press) Their very diverse offerings cover Jewish art and culture.

Book lovers will enjoy Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust

While straying much further from Jewish books, I love the many varied talks at TEDtalks.  These are short (5-20 minute) lectures by brilliant people of the subjects that they are passionate about.

I would love to hear more suggestion of great Jewish and/or literary podcasts!

Audio Tanach

The Jewish Publication Society is publishing the Tanach on mp3 files.  You can hear the portion of the week here.

Banned Books Week 2009


Banned Books Week has come and is almost gone, but it presents an opportunity to discuss an issue that constantly engages us as Jewish and academic librarians: should we practice a limited form of self-censorship when it comes to publications that make us or our readers uncomfortable? Why should we buy and make accessible books that defame, deny, question and offend what we hold to be true and enduring?

Are there shared and value-driven guidelines that enable us to allow certain books an honorable re-entry into the Jewish cultural matrix?
Jewish books and books written by Jewish authors have been subjected to censorship by Christianity and Islam throughout their shared history, mostly on religious grounds. Books were burned, lines and paragraphs were erased, and public debates (also known as disputations) were initiated by the Church to denounce Biblical and Talmudic texts as heretical and blasphemous, and therefore unworthy of print. The result, more often than not, was not only “edited” editions of the Talmud, but also strong affirmations of Jewish beliefs by authors who responded by publishing and distributing their own arguments, or “apologetics”.

A lesser publicized practice however, is that of Jewish self-censorship. Rabbinic restrictions of reading are documented from the times of the “External Books” (ספרים חיצונים). These books, such as the Apocrypha, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, and the Aramaic translation of Job, and “books of the Minim” (probably referring to the books of the early Christians) were considered objectionable (Tosef., Shab. 13 (14):5).

In 1554, a rabbinic ordinance was adopted by a synod in Ferrara, Italy, establishing a system of internal control over the printing of Hebrew books. Fourteen rabbis representing the Italian Jews resolved that no Hebrew book be printed without the authorization of three recognized rabbis and the lay leaders of the nearest large community. The action in Ferrara was repeated in Padua in 1585; similar steps were taken by the Council of the Four Lands in Poland and the Jewish community of Frankfurt in 1603 and by the Sephardi community in Amsterdam in 1639.

In the past 400 years there have been a number of reasons for censorship within the Jewish community. Classic examples of a distinct prohibition were salacious and trivial publications such as Immanuel of Rome’s erotic מחברות , books that contained what were considered incorrect halakhic decisions and explications; books written or published by apostates such as Uriel Acosta and Baruch Spinoza; commentaries written by rabbis suspected of following false Messiahs; books printed on the Sabbath; and prayer books in which changes opposed by the rabbis were made by the editor or publisher were banned.

The banning of books was used as a weapon in ideological struggles in the Jewish community as well. There were objections to the study of philosophy for fear of misleading the masses and to the study of Kabbalah; books were banned in the fight against the Shabbateans, the Frankists, Ḥasidism, Haskalah, and the Reform movement. There were political considerations against political and cultural emancipation – the fear that assimilation and apostasy would come in their wake; Zionism, viewed by some rabbis as a dangerous ideology because of its secular aspects, resulted in efforts to control its publications.

In the past sixty years Jewish libraries were faced with decisions about including in their collections books written by Holocaust deniers, proponents of conspiracy theories such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and The International Jew, and vocal anti-Zionists. Publications considered “heretical” by mainstream Jewish denominations such as books questioning the origins of Judaism and the scientific explications of Genesis have been added to the mix more recently.

The books displayed in our new exhibit come from our collection. They represent censored Jewish books that made Jewish readers uncomfortable throughout history – would YOU banish them from our library?

(with thanks to: and