UT Harry Ransom Center Houses Impressive Judaica Collection

UT Harry Ransom Center Houses Impressive Judaica Collection

By Rebecca S. Cohen 

The Harry Ransom Center hides in plain sight on the University of Texas campus, turning its back on busy Guadalupe Street and hinting at its presence on 21st Street through etched-glass panels depicting objects from the collection and the signatures of famous authors. Its entry doors face toward the campus rather than toward the community at large, but anyone willing to trek from Dobie Parking Garage or the rare on-street parking space to the building’s entrance can access a treasure trove of Judaica as well as the original manuscripts prints and once prized possessions of prominent Jewish writers and photographers. From incunables—books that date from the birth of printing from 1452 to 1500—to original drafts of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech and the medal itself, there are copious rewards for persistence.

When asked how the Ransom Center Collection of Judaica stacks up against research facilities across the country, Robert Abzug, Founding Director of UT’s Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, says, “In certain areas we have unique holdings. Anyone who is interested in, for instance, Yiddish American literature, must come here if only to see the Singer papers. There are places like YIVO and Yeshiva University in New York that have much more depth across the board in terms of papers and rare books, and that’s understandable. There are lots of Jews there.” But, he adds, “You couldn’t do a book on Jews in photography and not spend a lot of time in the Ransom Center with the Gernsheim and Magnum Collections.” Their theater and motion picture arts archives are also significant. The Ransom Center is easily the largest repository of Judaica on campus, but not the only one. The Schusterman Center’s “Guide to the Collections” lists the Fine Arts, Architecture, Perry-Castenada and Tarlton Law libraries as well as the Benson Latin American Collection and the Dolph Brisco Center for American History.

The guide is available online at www.utexas.edu/cola/scjs/_files/pdf/researchguide.pdf

Of course you can always stay home and read Singer’s moving acceptance speech on the internet if you prefer. But the impact of leafing through fragile sheets of paper, works in progress that the diminutive author himself must have handled as he sipped tea, diligently scratching out one word and scrawling another in the margin, conveys an intimacy with Singer that the computer screen cannot deliver. Visitors to the collection gain insight into the writer’s creative process. Likewise there is nothing quite like a guided tour of Singer’s numerous manual typewriters— Universals and Royals with their platens, ribbon spools and worn keys etched with still distinct Hebrew letters—and other memorabilia. 

When the Singer archive became available for purchase in the 1990s, Ransom Center Director Tom Staley was determined to bring it to Austin. Staley writes, “We got nine people in Texas and one friend of mine in Oklahoma and we formed a minion (sic) and got this collection. Nobody could believe how we ever got it out of New York…” The archives of Leon Uris, Bernard Malamud, Jay Neugeboren and Norman Mailer. 

Megan Barnard, Associate Director for Acquisitions and Administration, explains that for the most part families or writers themselves part with these very personal materials to assure that they are cared for properly and accessible to researchers, scholars, teachers, and students who can learn from and be inspired by these items. “At the core of the Ransom Center’s mission,” she writes, “is our commitment to preserving and sharing our collections.” 

Whether you are a research fellow (the Center offers financial support to some 80 a year), an undergraduate writing a term paper, an author researching a book or simply a seeker of knowledge for its own sake, the process required to access the various archives is straightforward. Research Associate Elizabeth Garver, says, “It’s basically what we’re set up to do.” Visitors can establish a research account by bringing a photo ID to the information desk on the second floor and watching a short video on how to handle materials. Additionally there is a manuscript orientation, which shows how the collection is organized. The same-day process takes only half an hour. 

Monday through Saturday from nine to five, researchers come and go, thousands every year. Research associates such as Garver are available to help locate materials as some are more difficult to access than others, and some items are stored off site. “It reminds you why you work in this place when you see peoples’ excitement,” says Garver of the moment she presents the requested items to researchers. She suggests that visitors peruse the Ransom Center web site in advance of arriving, so they have some idea about what they want to see. Prior to my own recent visit, she directed me to the summary on the Center’s Jewish Studies page: www.hrc.utexas.edu/collections/ guide/jewish/. I was overwhelmed with the possibilities. Finally I requested Singer material and the archive of Fania Kruger, a local poet. From the Gottesman Collection, I asked to see an illustrated haggadah (book used during Passover) or two. Garver obliged, providing a fascinating “show and tell.” 

She ushered me into the Feldman Seminar Room where archival boxes and fabric covered book supports awaited. Handling the Singer papers and seeing two small framed photo booth images of the author as well as his manuscript, typed in Yiddish for “Enemies, A Love Story” came first followed by a look at Kruger’s typed notes. As young girls, Kruger and her sister became partisans in the political underground in Crimea during the revolution of 1905. To keep them safe the family came to the United States in 1908 and in 1952 Kruger moved to Austin where her descendants still reside. Kruger’s unpublished autobiographical prose is poetic. Her three published collections of poetry won national recognition and yet, pen in hand, she was still making changes in the margins of a printed book. “She reworked things and reworked things and just wouldn’t let go,” says Garver. 

Next I was shown the exquisite, limited edition Haggadah of Arthur Szyk published in Poland during the rise of Hitler. Szyck’s intensely colored watercolor and gouache paintings reproduced in the book are mesmerizing. The pristine volume, prompted Garver to observe that it had clearly not been used during anyone’s seder. There are no wine stains on the pages. In contrast the black and white haggadah from Offenbach, Germany printed in 1721 shows familiar signs of wear. Its pages are brown with age, ragged around the edges, and stained with wine and, perhaps, with tears. The book was published by Israel ben Moses (who was also the printer), at the press of a gentile, Bonaventura de la Naye. Jews were not permitted to own print shops. Its illustrations are woodcuts referencing the engravings in the Amerstam Hagaddah of 1695. The seder instructions are in Hebrew, and the commentary in Judeo-German or Yiddish. 

I could, I suppose, have asked to see the “decommissioned” Torah that the Center bought for an exhibition in the first floor galleries called the “Techniques of Writing.” While the galleries have yet to host an exhibit dedicated only to its Judaica collection, certain items have been featured and Jewish authors and photographers’ works have been presented. In the mean time there are Bibles, Mishnas, Talmuds and prayer books from the 16th through the 18th centuries still waiting for their turn in the spotlight, whether a curated exhibition in the gallery or a private “show and tell.”

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