My Aunt Z called me (she’s actually my mom’s first cousin but Jews also roll with cousin-aunties) and told me that there were books on offer for me and Sky. That’s a bit like telling a balding Elvis that a chest freezer filled with fried-peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches had just been discovered. That’s how we found ourselves on the floor of my great-uncle’s empty flat, poring over books written in Hebrew, Yiddish and German.
After some back and forth between me (the packrat hoarder) and Sky (the pragmatist and declutterer) we took about half the books. Most of them are religious texts (Old Testament, Bible version 1.0) with Hebrew and Yiddish commentary. There are one or two works of fiction, in Yiddish, and a religious encyclopaedia. The books belonged to my great-grandfather (my mother’s mother’s father and Aunt Z’s grandfather) who was quite the religious scholar.
We left my aunt to do some shopping and popped into the Kollel bookshop, the leading shop in Johannesburg for Jewish books. I thought I would bend the ear of David, the owner, and show him some of the volumes for a quick appraisal.
Two of the books I showed him were reviewed without much comment. They were printed either side of the turn of the twentieth century. The third book, a volume of Tehillim (Psalms) and Mishlei (Proverbs) with Hebrew and Yiddish commentary, got him a bit excited.
“This one was printed in 1853″, he said. “Anything printed before 1870 is already in a different class, value-wise.”
I’ve taken a photograph of the title page, printed in Hebrew and Russian, with the printing date clearly shown at the bottom of the page. We’re going to look at the page in more detail in order to understand David’s growing excitement:
“It’s not just the publishing date that’s important”, David told me, his voice rising with excitement. “It’s also who published it. This is published by the Romm publishing house.”
I didn’t know anything at that point about the Romm publishing house. My knowledge of collectibles pretty much begins and ends with comics (although because of the acculturating influence of my parents, brother and Sky, I can pretend to know what I’m talking about when it comes to art and single-malt whisky). I’ve since found this Wikipedia link which reveals that the Romms benefitted from an monopoly on the printing press and scandalised much of East European Jewry by publishing an edition of the Talmud that challenged the incumbent monopolists. Also, some of their books are very, very valuable.
“You’ll need to have this set valued overseas, by an auction house that specialises in Judaica, to know what it’s really worth” said David. “Look at this stamp in the bottom corner – you’d also need to find out who exactly verified this edition.”
“Would it be like finding Chippendale’s invoice in one of his old chests of drawers?” I asked, thinking of the Roald Dahl story about the travelling con-man who buys valuable antiques for nothing from unsuspecting farmers. “Exactly”, said David.
I’ve reproduced the bottom half of the page with some English annotations and translations:
We left the bookshop feeling a bit giddy. I phoned Aunt Z to tell her the news and suggest that we hold off on disposing of the rest of the books, just to be safe.
I’m feeling a number of different emotions at the moment. There’s excitement at the possibility of an unexpected windfall (although we still need to appraise the books and make a decision as a family on what we will do). There’s pride and a sense of connection to a great-grandfather that I don’t know much about, apart from his reputation as a brilliant scholar and the fact that I am named for his wife, my great-grandmother.
There’s a curiosity to learn more about his life. He might have even been born in South Africa; I had always assumed that I was a fourth-generation South African and that most of my great-grandparents had moved to South Africa at some point in their lives. My Aunt Z told me today that his mother (my great-great-grandmother) lived in Yeoville with him, so there have been at least five generations of Berkowitzes (nee Solomon, nee Uistev) living in South Africa.
But this wasn’t the post I wanted to write for today. I started writing this morning about a different group of immigrants in South Africa whose story is more violent and less happy than my family’s. I was going to (I will) make reference to the experience of other immigrant communities, including Jews, and what makes them successful.
I hope to finish that post by tomorrow and still publish it this week, but I’m struck by the timing of today’s events. Today’s blog could be seen as a great segue from my previous post on languages and culture through to my next post on immigrants and prosperity. I can’t help but feel that the link is a bit forced and a bit jarring; there’s a clear contrast between the legacy bequeathed to me by my immigrant forebears and the outlook for traders that have been chased out of Soweto.
Let’s see what tomorrow’s post brings. For now I’m still processing the gift that’s landed in my lap, this big chunk of history I never knew about, these cherished tools to till the soil around my family tree.