I’m pleased to be offering this in-depth interview with author Joshua Teplitsky, who has been showered with enthusiastic reviews for his recently-published book about David Oppenheim — PRINCE OF THE PRESS; HOW ONE COLLECTOR BUILT HISTORY’S MOST ENDURING AND REMARKABLE JEWISH LIBRARY.
David Oppenheim (1664 – 1736) was among the most influential Jewish intellectuals of his day. Born in Worms, Germany, he became the Chief Rabbi of Prague. Intriguingly, he had communications with the Jewish population of Jerusalem. Oppenheim is most famous for his far-ranging collection of Jewish literature, which includes about 7,000 printed works and 1,000 manuscripts, now housed in the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University.
Q: How much time passed between your first learning of the existence of David Oppenheim’s book collection, and your first contact with the collection in the Bodleian Library? And, please describe for us the circumstances of your first contact with item(s) from the collection, and how you felt, being there and having that contact.
A: A good question. I was a graduate student at New York University in the department of Hebrew & Judaic Studies when I first considered studying the life of David Oppenheim. At that time, I actually was quite convinced that his library would not take center stage in my research. I “met” David Oppenheim as a historical figure after seeing him mentioned in a variety of histories of the eighteenth-century and thought it might be interesting to explore his life in the spotlight, rather than on the periphery. And so I was expecting to explore his activities as a political, social, and intellectual broker—a mediator between his wealthy uncles and father-in-law who had positions of great prestige in noble courts and, therefore of influence to Jewish society—without necessarily focusing on his collection. I first visited the Bodleian Library not to read his books, but rather to read the letters that were sent to him that are preserved there in the Michael Collection of the library. Those sorts of research questions shaped my dissertation (about Oppenheim), and it was only with the passage of time, with more reading of studies about book history, and then finally by immersing myself in the materiality of the collection during two wonderful years as a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford that I pivoted to make the library the central hub of the study. In the process I realized that books were an invaluable element of the political story I wanted to tell—because Oppenheim made them so—and they actually offered a new set of sources and a different vantage point to think about political, communal, and social questions.
Q: Please tell us something about the practical side of how David Oppenheim communicated with the Jews of Jerusalem of his day. (For example – How were the communications transmitted, how long did it typically take for a letter or some other form of communication to get from the Holy Roman Empire to Jerusalem, etc.?)
A: I’m so glad you asked this. The history of communication is a fascinating one that often gets taken for granted but is so important. It is also something of an offshoot of “the history of the book” since it is concerned with media, communication, and dissemination of knowledge. Messages between Oppenheim and the Jews of Jerusalem appear to have traveled in the hands of private couriers. A postal system was well-developed in Central Europe by this time, but contact between Prague and Jerusalem was more complicated, as it entailed crossing a military border between the Christian Habsburg monarchy and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Numerous exchanges took place across these frontiers, but the two, as great power rivals for territory, were still hostile towards each other.
Oppenheim’s communication with the Jews of Jerusalem appear to have taken place in the hands of private individuals that acted as couriers of sorts. These couriers were not necessarily always Jews. In fact, one letter from Jerusalem to Prague clearly indicates that the Jerusalem correspondent sent materials in the hands of a priest, who also brought letters back from Prague to Jerusalem in return. In following postal routes and private couriers, we can also learn something about collaborations between rabbis and priests in the simple act of moving objects around the map.
Q: Were it possible for you to go back in time and pose three questions to David Oppenheim, which three questions would you most like to pose to him, and why?
I would love to ask Oppenheim three questions, all of which I’ve only been able to offer conjecture about in a book dedicated to understanding him:
- What motivated him to collect? What was his ultimate goal?
- Why didn’t he ever publish the bulk of his own writings?
- Are there any books he wishes he could have added to his collection but simply could not get his hands upon?
In the course of my research, I developed answers to these questions, answers I wonder if he might agree with or even disagree with (and I cover them in the book), but I think they are the three puzzles I’d most like to hear him reflect on as well.
Q: Would you be open to serving as a consultant for the creation of a script for a movie based on the life of David Oppenheim? And, do you think the making of such a movie would have potential to show people a richer tapestry of Jewish life in Europe beyond the ways they typically conceive of it? If so, please describe that richer tapestry for us, however briefly.
A: I would. I often find in my discussion with non-academic specialists (and sometimes academics as well) that their early reaction to the material is “sounds like a detective story!” or “that could be a movie!” In all honesty, I think many stories could be adapted for film or even children’s books—it’s all about finding the human, the universal within the particular, and stories that resonant, entertain, and edify.
It was important to me in the book to try to capture a sense that I got from Oppenheim and his correspondents of a basic “normalcy” of Jewish life. Oppenheim’s writings (and those of his correspondents) were almost entirely devoid of reference to persecution, anti-Judaism, or a crushing weight of conflict. Assuredly there were points of tension and even high drama: clashes between Oppenheim and rabbinic rivals, and a fairly sensational moment in court between Oppenheim and a Catholic convert named Georgio Diodato (who ran Prague’s first coffee house), and, of course, the fact that Oppenheim lived apart from his beloved library on account of very legitimate fears of Church scrutiny of Jewish books, a process which had intensified in the late seventeenth century and even culminated in large scale confiscation and burning. Yet his writings and those of his contemporaries offer a sense of the richness of Jewish life in this period, one that is by no means solely or even primarily defined by persecution, and which allows us to understand Jews in a variety of terms. Their lives were not exclusively defined by subordinate status in the eyes of the law but also by their own dynamics and interactions on different scales. As such, a richer tapestry that is more than just persecution and scholarship opens before the eyes of the viewer.
Q: What does David Oppenheim’s book collection tell us about the music Jews of his day performed and/or enjoyed listening to?
A: Ah, that’s a difficult one. I do not have deep training in music history and theory, and so I did not delve overly deeply into this question. But it is worth noting that the Oppenheim collection has served scholars as a valuable resource in reconstructing aspects of Jewish musical culture. One detail that emerges from some of the Yiddish books printed in the collection is the way that Jews were familiar with the tunes of popular music that was sung around them. These small books, perhaps better described as pamphlets, were printed in a relatively inexpensive fashion. They may have been distributed widely, but because they were often not bound in hard covers that would protect them, such works often survive into the twenty-first century in no more than a single copy. As scholars of Yiddish literature and Jewish music have noted, a number of these works, written in verse, were clearly meant to be recited or read with accompaniment by a melody, a melody which guided the way the authors composed them by imagining their meter. These melodies were generally tunes that were part of the shared cultural ambience of Jews and Christians. They were re-purposed for specifically Yiddish writings, but clear evidence exists that people must have been humming and singing these tunes across religious lines. Moreover, once these tunes were matched with Yiddish writings, they could take on new associations of their own. The literary scholar Chava Turniansky has noted the path of a melody in the late seventeenth century through Yiddish songs held in the Oppenheim collection (in an article called “Yiddish Song as Historical Source Material”) as follows: in 1684 a Yiddish historical song was printed that offered its readers two alternate tunes as accompaniment, either a tune of “the Akeydah” or “the Brauneslid.” In 1713, when a different Yiddish pamphlet was printed about the outbreak of the plague in Prague, its publishers suggested to its readers that it was “to the tune of the martyrs of Prostajev,” ie, to the tune of the book printed in 1684, which was in turn using an earlier melody. It thus seems that within just over a generation readers were more familiar with the ”Yiddishized song” which was in fact derived from other songs. More recently, Diana Matut has explored the content of a Yiddish song that exists in only two known copies—one in the Bodleian Library and the other in Amsterdam’s Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana—whose title translates to “What happened in Hamburg” and whose publishers similarly instructed their readers that the work should be recited to the melody of “Einstmals, da ich Lust bekam,” a seventeenth-century German song (readers can follow the link to see images of the book and read it in both the original Yiddish and a lovely English translation). These examples, which could be multiplied, show how Jewish folk song and non-Jewish melodic associations circulated, evolved, and were re-purposed in the intentions of authors and printers and in the public and performative reading habits of their audiences.
Q: Have you visited David Oppenheim’s grave in Prague, and if so, what did you think and feel while there?
A: I have indeed visited Oppenheim’s grave in Prague. I found the experience to be at once intimate and powerful, on the one hand, and strange and removed on the other. I attempted to capture some of the emotions of the experience in the opening pages of the book, in which I invite the reader to think about the stone monument that marks his final resting spot and the “living” moment of the library, which has an enduring character of its own. In some ways, the experience of holding his beloved objects in my hands was more moving, even emotional, than standing before his tombstone. One marks the end of his life, while the library is a living legacy.
Joshua Teplitsky is on the faculty of Stony Brook University.