If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?
This week, Dr Laliv Clenman, lecturer in rabbinic literature at Leo Baeck College, selects the Mikraot Gedolot
How could I possibly choose which text to bring to a desert island? I may as well consider which toe I’d prefer, or which arm. After much pondering, I realise that my most beloved text is in fact a physical set of books, the fabled seforim (holy books) of my great-grandfather, Yaakov Yisroel Steinberg, z”l.
I grew up hearing from my grandmother, Jeanne, that he always had his head in his seforim. One day she showed me his will, handwritten in Yiddish requesting these seforim be held in safe keeping until someone in the family wished to study them. I deeply loved Jewish text and couldn’t bear the thought of them languishing in obscurity.
Where were these volumes? On one visit she would say they’d been burned in a fire, on another that they’d been donated to a Chabad Lubavitch library, on another that they were lost. Each negative answer brought fresh heartbreak, but eventually his beloved Mikraot Gedolot were found in a relative’s basement.
Printed in Vilna in 1891, they are a set of Tanakh with commentaries that he brought across to Montreal, a choice possession for a journey to a different sort of desert island. He rebound each volume himself by hand, and on every spine the title has been reapplied by one of his daughters, using letters cut out from the Yiddish newspaper of the day.
Inside one cover, in his hand, you will find the Yiddish names and birthdates of each of the nine children he had with my great-grandmother, Sarah Mirel, and in another, one of these children’s stark notations of both of their yahrzeits. The day I first opened Bereishit (Genesis) to begin study from these fragile books was the very same day of my great grandmother’s yahrzeit, inscribed on the first page. That was a moment, a text in a text within a text, to cherish above all others and to take with me to any desert island.