Exemplary Hebrew Printed Books:

The Library of Joseph Gradenwitz

Kestenbaum & Company

12 West 27th Street, New York

Auction to be held on Tuesday, September 12, 2006




Book collectors are often pack-rats that are obsessed with the printed word in all of its manifestations. If Jews are the People of the Book, Jewish book collectors can be satirically characterized as bookaholics who would sell their kitchen table for added shelf space. It is thus somewhat surprising to discover a book collector who not only managed to focus his collection on ancient Jewish manuscripts, but who also conceived of his books as art objects, more than simply as carrying cases for texts.


Where many collectors seek texts that are interesting for the significance of the words, Joseph Gradenwitz, whose collection is up for auction at Kestenbaum and Company, approached collecting with the eye of an artist. As Daniel Kestenbaum – who founded the auction house 10 years ago – described it, “Gradenwitz took the humdrum books and made them into this,” pointing at a book bound in red and gold, with silk on the inside cover. “You seldom see interesting binding like this.


Gradenwitz was born in 1917 in Berlin. He attended school at the Realgymnasium of the Adath Yisroel Community in Berlin. His father, Raphael Gradenwitz, collected Hebraica, and Raphael supplemented his son’s education by taking him along to his many visits to libraries and bookstores. The Gradenwitz family fled the Nazis and moved to London, where Joseph studied physics, chemistry and mathematics, as they pertained to the textile field.


Though Raphael’s collection was lost during the Holocaust, Joseph began a collection of his own, with quite a few gems. A talented bookbinder, Joseph rebound some of the books in his collection. One book cover he bound contains two long red triangular shapes (one faces north, one south). The triangles are outlined in gold (on a black-blue background), and a halo of gold circles or dots orbits the top of the triangles in an oval path. The abstract design does not seem to respond to the book text in any serious interpretive way, but as design, it proves a very interesting composition. Perhaps it was Gradenwitz’s proficiency with the art of binding books that also influenced his collecting decisions, which skew heavily towards art rather than text.


The most expensive piece in the collection and the most interesting graphically is the mid-18th century miniature manuscript collection of prayers by Jospe Ben Meyer Schmalkalden of Mainz. The book is billed as “Seder Keri’ath Shema al Ha-Mitah” (prayers said before going to sleep at night), though it has additional prayers that are not part of the formal night Shema. Kestenbaum’s pre-auction estimate of the book is $150,000-200,000, which makes sense in light of a variety of peculiar components of the book.


Seder Keri’ath Shema al Ha-Mitah. By Jospe Schmalkalden of Mainz.

All images courtesy of Kestenbaum and Company.



The book is richly illuminated in a remarkable fashion. The page accompanying the prayer “Adon Olam” (master Of The Universe) shows King David (presumably) kneeling before G-d, playing a harp. David wears a gold crown (to match his gold harp), and his robe is a bright pink, color-coded with the pink covering on the table before which he kneels. The artist renders the tiled floor with strong attention to perspective, and the architecture of the hall behind the kneeling king is breathtaking in its attention to detail (though the Book of Psalms on the table is quite disproportionately rendered). The arches and pillars and ornate ceiling are a bluish-gray – “cool” while the fabric and floor are more “warm” reds. The motif evokes Indian miniature paintings (also on vellum), which combine very rich colors and extra-fine detail.


The illustrations in the book are certainly masterful. Another illustration shows a bedroom with a bed, dresser, chair and windows (somewhat evocative of some Van Gogh work of a similar motif), while yet another shows fruit trees, accompanying the blessing over fruit. The book is especially remarkable considering its size: 2 x 2.75 inches. But there are two parts to the book that elevate it to its unique statues and price range. On the page accompanying the blessing for wine (“the Creator Of The Fruit Of The Vine”), the artist shows a man sitting atop a barrel with a crown of foliage on his brow, a wineglass in his right hand, and a bunch of grapes clutched in his other hand. He is flanked on both sides by grapevines. This character – although his chubby face lends him the appearance of a child – is Bacchus (Dionysius in Greek), the Roman god of wine. To see a depiction of a Roman god in a Jewish book is surprising (though Zodiac symbols often appear in synagogues), especially a prayer book.


The book’s origin is also peculiar. It is inscribed “In honor of my wife. I am her husband, Joseph Daern Katz” on the title page by the patron who purchased it. As we addressed earlier in this column (see the March 15, 2006, column in these pages, titled “People Of The Book, People Of The Text: The Harry G. Friedman Society And Jewish Books”) it is unusual for books to be addressed to women. But it is the artist’s signature that is most unusual.


On a page with the blessing to be said over a rainbow “Zocher habris – He who remembers the covenant” (dating back to the rainbow that symbolized Noah’s covenant with G-d), the artist depicts a woman with her hair covered holding a prayer book. She wears an elaborate trendy dress, and behind her, over her right shoulder is a walled city. Upon inspecting the tiny writing in the book that the woman holds, the auction house discovered the artist’s signature – Jospe Schmalkalden of Mainz. The catalog offers an explanation about the placement of the signature: “One wonders aloud why Schmalkalden did not sign his name on the title-page, as is customary? Why was he forced to resort to this subterfuge? Was it that the gentleman who commissioned the artist was so vainglorious that only his own name was to appear on the title page?


Another auction item, Tobias Cohn’s “Ma’aseh Tuviah” (first edition) attends to scientific meditations, amongst other things. Published in Venice in 1707-1708, the book contains information about astronomy, metaphysics, theology and medicine, as well as a pharmacological and botanical lexicon in Hebrew, Latin and Turkish. One page (numbered 106) shows an architectural mapping of the human body. A man on the left has his innards laid bare, and the heart, lungs, kidneys and several other organs are visible, while others parts of the drawing are harder to interpret.


Ma’aseh Tuviah. By Tobias Cohn.



On the right side of the drawing is a house with four floors. The artist labels each organ with a Hebrew letter, which helps match them to the corresponding part of the house, also labeled with the same letter. Thus, the man’s ears become chimneys in the house, his lips become a window, and his kidneys become central rooms, one with an oven. The metaphor of body as house is a peculiar one, though Jewish texts often map bodily organs across ritual objects like the lulav, etrog, hadas and aravah on Sukkos.


One final object will be of particular interest to an Orthodox audience, though it carries less pictorial significance than the other books discussed above. The complete first edition of Joseph Karo’s “Shulchan Aruch” (Prepared Table) printed in 1565 is quite rare. According to the Kestenbaum catalog, no such complete set of the Shulchan Aruch has appeared in decades, in part because two sections of the book – Even ha’Ezer and Choshen Mishpat – are harder to come by because they were less practically useful than Orach Chaim and Yoreh De’ah.

Shulchan Aruch.  By Joseph Karo.


Gradenwitz’s collection is much more extensive than the miniature prayer book, the body-house and the Shulchan Aruch. But the three are quite typical of the collection, and they convey Gradenwitz’s collecting preferences. The show helps explain how Hebrew manuscripts are an evolving process: Rather than being completed and “dying” when the illustrator finished his work, many of the manuscripts in the Kestenbaum show were rebound and reinvented by Gradenwitz, the collector-artist. Many of the texts carry important prayers and truths that transcend their time, and the artistic and collecting decisions to preserve the books ensure that the tangible, book-object also survives.

I graciously acknowledge the input of Amy Stempler in researching this piece. Amy is studying library and information sciences at the Pratt Institute in Manhattan.


Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com