I was introduced to the world of Judaica collecting in 1990 by the late Abraham Karp, who’d moved to my New York City neighborhood of Riverdale for his retirement years. I knew his name even before he came to Riverdale, due to my familiarity with his works on American Jewish history and his past presidency of the American Jewish Historical Society.
Previously I had defined myself as an observant Jew with a rather limited academic interest in the Jewish historical experience. The aesthetic element in this Jewish journey was something very foreign to me.
But walking into the Karp living room opened up a new world of culture and beauty. Thousands of books and manuscripts, some decorated in gilt pages and held together by clasps that were hundreds of years old, lined the shelves. Some books were miniatures meant to be carried in a pocket on the way to synagogue or study class. Others, with their heavy leather binding and thick pagination, had to be taken with both hands.
Many of these works were first editions or early editions of biblical and talmudic commentaries. I imagined the hands that held these books, the gas-lit lights by which they were studied, the sacrifices made to preserve them, and the limited numbers in (and great expense with) which they were originally printed centuries back.
When Abraham Karp was in his early teens growing up in the Bronx, he traveled by subway on shopping trips to the Jewish book dealers on the Lower East Side with his father, Aaron, a furrier who never had much money. The elder Karp, who in his youth had tackled intricate talmudic passages at Lithuania’s famed Slobodka Yeshiva, wanted to transmit to his son his love of Jewish books. These were the depression years of the 1930’s, when for the Karps a dollar or two spent on an eighteenth century Hebrew book represented a major purchase.
By the time he died in 2003 at age 82, Abraham Karp had amassed two of the great Judaica collections in modern times. The more distinguished of these collections, consisting of some 3,500 items of Americana Judaica, he gave to the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1990. Professor Arthur Kiron, curator of Judaica Collections at the University of Pennsylvania Library, called Karp’s Americana material “perhaps the finest private collection of its kind ever assembled.” In addition to books and manuscripts, the collection included ritual and ceremonial objects, paintings, synagogue records, newspapers and diaries.
Highlights from his other great collection were auctioned off earlier this month at the gallery of Kestenbaum and Company. The sale featured Bibles, liturgical works, rabbinics, Latin-Hebrew grammars, and books on chassidism and the Holy Land.
What made Karp’s career as a Judaica bibliophile unique was not his success in accumulating items of rarity and beauty. Any collector with time and money (plus at least a minimal aesthetic sense) could put together a library of value. But Karp ranks as the greatest grassroots collector of Judaica in modern history.
“Grassroots” in this collecting context means that Karp’s acquisitions were not made in the venerable oak-paneled halls of Sotheby’s or Christie’s under the tutelage of high-priced consultants. “What fun would there be if you had to pay a lot of money?” Karp would ask, dismissing the uncreative auction house approach to amassing collections. In 1980, after nearly a half century of collecting, Karp boasted that he rarely paid more than five dollars for any one volume.
Instead, Karp, though a courtly and impeccably dressed figure himself, excelled in off-the-beaten-path ways in his detective-like searches for literary treasures. Flea markets, dank basements, garbage dumps, theological seminary downsizing sales, dust-filled shelves in out-of-the-way antiquarian shops, neglected, unopened and unsorted boxes of books – these were the sites where Karp discovered the rarities which sold for thousands and tens of thousands of dollars at the Kestenbaum sale.