Judaic Incunabula: An Evening’s Encounter With Survivors From My Distant Past

Judy Guston with the Lisbon Pentateuch
Judy Guston with the Lisbon Pentateuch, a box-bound book from the 15th century

I recently spent an evening of wonder and reflection in the company of several Judaic incunabula (printed books in Hebrew from the 15th century) at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library. Each was a personality and story, bound by hand and laden with transmitted memory. My guide through their histories, typography and quirks was Judy Guston, the Rosenbach’s curator and senior director of collections, who also happens to be a fascinating storyteller. I was entranced, and the time went by far too quickly.

When Gutenberg developed the printing press and introduced moveable type to Europe in the mid-15th century, he created the world we live in where the stories and knowledge that books preserve and impart were no longer available to only privileged scholars and the fabulously wealthy, but to all of us. Well, maybe not “all” – at least not immediately. Those first printed books were still pricey and far beyond the reach of the illiterate masses who wouldn’t have known what to do with them…

Please read this personal essay on the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent’s website.

Thanksgiving: The Family Joys, The Pain-Filled National Myth and The Dream

"Shawnee Homelife" Painting by Ernest Spybuck
“Shawnee Home Life about 1890,” painted by Earnest L. Spybuck in 1910. Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma (from the Smithsonian Institute)

Today, as I sit in isolation, just me and my dog Shayna, I’m remembering the joy of Thanksgivings past. Of family and friends. Smiles and hugs. Fascinating, respectful conversations and silly gossip, both of which have helped me learn, grow and become. 

That was the reality of my family’s Thanksgivings. But the celebration of that specific day — Thanksgiving — was based on a myth of America’s origin. The myth was/is hurtful, erasing from our collective consciousness the pain and destruction of Native Americans that was at the root of our country’s origin. As such, it’s a bloody stain on our souls as Americans.

But it’s also a dream of peace and the sharing of bounty among people of different backgrounds.

This Thanksgiving and in the days and years to come, I hope we can acknowledge the pain of Native Americans, respecting and honoring their culture, trying to heal the inequities that continue to hurt and kill. But I also hope that we can build on the dream of peace, of bounty shared, and of conversations that can lead to understanding.