Jerusalem: City of the Book

Mer­av Mack and Ben­jamin Balint

  • Review
By – December 23, 2019

If a library is a rich, resource-laden repos­i­to­ry of infor­ma­tion, lit­er­a­ture, and his­tor­i­cal res­o­nance, then per­haps Jerusalem is the most vibrant library of all time. This live­ly, mod­ern city con­tin­ues to retain echoes of its unique past which reside in mem­o­ry, phys­i­cal sites, and caches of ancient paper upon which have been inscribed its his­to­ry, soci­ol­o­gy, and cul­ture. Ancient scrolls, man­u­scripts, codices, and ear­ly books have been secret­ed in nooks and hid­ing places which have grad­u­al­ly come out into the light. Mer­av Mack and Ben­jamin Balint accom­pa­ny the read­er on an intri­cate guid­ed tour through Jerusalem’s writ­ten trea­sures and the jour­ney is both enlight­en­ing and fascinating.

As ancient man­u­scripts of Judaism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and Islam are explored, their his­to­ries and care­tak­ers are inves­ti­gat­ed care­ful­ly by the authors. Parts of their jour­ney read like a sus­pense­ful mys­tery or a chal­leng­ing puz­zle as note is tak­en of the inter­play between his­tor­i­cal eras and mod­ern times. Many of the book repos­i­to­ries dis­cussed are not what we think of as libraries in the mod­ern sense. Hi-tech infor­ma­tion retrieval, instant world-wide con­nec­tion, and an empha­sis on the shar­ing of infor­ma­tion, are all the hall­marks and pri­or­i­ties of today’s libraries, and thus can­not be found among these shrines; nev­er­the­less, a sense of the time­less­ness of the writ­ten word is pal­pa­ble. Trea­sures in all states of preser­va­tion are uncov­ered in ancient syn­a­gogues, mosques, and church­es, and the process of each search with its obsta­cles and chal­lenges is a grip­ping piece of the sto­ry. The read­er feels the pres­ence of Jerusalem as a par­tic­i­pant in the grand adventure.

The nuances of trans­la­tion play into the com­plex­i­ty of under­stand­ing recent­ly sur­faced mate­ri­als, and pro­vid­ing a new take on old­er mate­ri­als. Addi­tion­al­ly, the real­i­ties of mod­ern libraries — includ­ing dig­i­ti­za­tion, authen­ti­ca­tion, archival issues, and archi­tec­ture — are addressed in this rich­ly detailed account­ing of the his­to­ry of the book in Jerusalem.

The many pho­tographs includ­ed help to bring the sub­ject alive. Some are pho­tos of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures but many are of illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts and dec­o­rat­ed works, evok­ing a Jerusalem tapes­try of beau­ty and depth. This schol­ar­ly yet acces­si­ble book will pro­vide Jerusalem enthu­si­asts with a dif­fer­ent side of the city; it makes acces­si­ble pre­vi­ous­ly hid­den gems and show­cas­es a deep respect for the preser­va­tion of the writ­ten word.

Mack and Balint have teased out some of Jerusalem’s close­ly guard­ed secrets and have arrayed its oth­er resources in a man­ner which will sharp­en his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, deep­en under­stand­ing, and delight the eye.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions