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.

My Five Minutes of Bloomsday Fame, or Meet My New Raucous Friend, James Joyce

James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in 1922, and for its 100th anniversary, Last week, on June 16th, Philadelphia’s Bloomsday celebration returned to 2000 block of Delancey Street after a two year pandemic hiatus. And I was thrilled and honored to be invited to read a portion of Joyce’s masterpiece as part of the celebration.

Why Delancey Street? Because the Rosenbach Museum & Library is there, and part of its incredible collection of rare books and related artifacts is the original Ulysses manuscript. So for more than 20 years, the Rosenbach has closed off the 2200 block of Delancey Street for a day of music, readings from the novel, plus a Beer Garden, free admission to the museum, and general Joycean merriment.

The portion I was asked to read was from Chapter 16, Eumaeus pages 540-541, lines 1770-1806. The program was that specific because aficionados bring their own copies of the book to follow along with the readings. Before my reading, I met a man sitting in front of me in the audience, who had dug out a copy from his college days (which had to have been a couple of decades ago). He said he had struggled with the book then, but never got rid of it. And now, listening to the readings, he was finally understanding its beauty and humor.

It had been quite a few years since I had read James Joyce’s Ulysses, too. But tackling just that one small piece, gave me insights I don’t remember having way back when. But then, it could also be attributed to the years I’ve lived between then and now. When I was a callow youth, I might have respected the exquisite craft of the book, and how innovative it was, but I’d also found it a dense book, that fought my attempts to love it as I had been told I should.

In the weeks leading up to my Bloomsday reading, I discovered not only insights into the characters and story, but also a sense of pure delight that had been missing all those years ago. Mostly, I realized that the rhythms and lilt of Joyce’s language, and especially his dialog, demands to be read aloud. It’s a book that’s more suited for an urban beer garden or an Irish pub than a hushed college library. It’s raucous and rich, like a June day in Dublin.

I plan to read the entire book again before next year’s Bloomsday, hopefully with friends over a series of good hearty meals and a few bottles of wine, definitely aloud.

The Recording below of last week’s Bloomsday celebrations of readings and music is bookmarked to start when I took the stage, but I recommend listening to other portions too.