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Thousands of Rare Books on Display at Jewish Center

By Mathew Katz | October 8, 2013 8:29am
  The Center for Jewish History's new rare book room includes volumes by Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein.
Rare Book Room at the Center for Jewish History
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CHELSEA — New Yorkers don't have to go far to experience 700 years of Jewish literary history firsthand.

Rare and original editions of dozens of important books, including Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," are now on display for the public at the Center for Jewish History.

The David Berg Rare Book Room, inside the center at 15 W. 16th St., opened on Monday, with 3,700 books, manuscripts and letters by luminaries such as Kafka and Albert Einstein.

The state-of-the-art space was designed by Beyer Blinder Belle to keep the centuries-old books in pristine condition, with low humidity and high security so that the volumes last for another few hundred years.

"We are an institution that presents 700 years of history at once," said Michael Glickman, the center's CEO. "It gives the public — and researchers — the ability to cross continents and centuries."

Members of the public will be able to see the books but not touch them — though visitors will be able to virtually flip through digital versions of the books on computers.

Admission to the new 1,000-square-foot library is $8 for adults and $6 for students and seniors.

The library was two years in the making, and the center hopes to add another 1,000 volumes over the next few years.

In the collection is "The Trial of The Jews of Trent," a 1478 collection of false "confessions" by 17 Jews accused of murdering a German Christian baby in 1475; a first edition of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" from 1916 and a 1768 translation of Plato's "Phaedo" by Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

The collection also has a handwritten copy of Emma Lazarus' 1883 sonnet "The New Colossus" — the poem that contains the verse "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses," which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

"We've got materials from the late 1400s to the most significant materials of the 20th century — it's a really diverse and unique experience," Glickman said.

The rare book room will have ongoing exhibits highlighting aspects of Jewish literary history, starting with a collection of records from the Metz Rabbinic Court from 1771 to 1789, highlighting issues in the French city's Jewish community.

In February 2014, the center will also look at literature by Revolutionary-era Jewish Americans, and in June, it will put on an exhibition of Jewish children's books, folk stories and fairy tales.