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Book Exhibition At The Jewish Museum Stuns With History Exchange

OK - I would love to see this.

Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

Crossing Borders A 15th-century book showing the Virgin riding a unicorn in this show at the Jewish Museum.


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What Books Said to One Another

‘Crossing Borders’ Opens at the Jewish Museum



If you listen closely at the subtly startling new exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “Crossing Borders: Manuscripts From the Bodleian Libraries,” you can hear manuscripts murmuring across millenniums.

Enlarge This ImageLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

Books of many eras displayed in vitrines at the exhibition “Crossing Borders: Manuscripts From the Bodleian Libraries,” at the Jewish Museum.

Some defer to others: they are commenting on sacred texts. Some supplant others: sacred texts of one faith argue against those of another. But, as presented here, many also engage in unexpected dialogues, emulations, even dissections. Scripts imitate one another, even if they are in different languages; images and designs recur in manuscripts from different conceptual worlds. Some texts remain unflustered while everything changes around them. And all of this takes place among just 52 works, some of which are astonishingly ancient, many of which are beautifully illuminated, and most of which are written in Hebrew.

It would be a challenge just to give individual items the attention they demand, let alone attend to their interactions: a third-century fragment of papyrus with Philo of Alexandria’s interpretation of scripture; a fifth-century codex of the Four Gospels written in the ancient Aramaic dialect Syriac; a 12th-century autograph manuscript of legal commentary written in Arabic by the Jewish scholar Maimonides using Hebrew letters; a 16th-century Persian Koran with exquisite decoration; a 16th-century Hebrew poem written for Queen Elizabeth I, urging her to support Hebrew scholarship at the University of Oxford, as had her father, King Henry VIII.

It all comes from the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford, which has one of the world’s most important collections of Hebrew manuscripts. These examples were first gathered in 2009 for an exhibition at Oxford called “Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting-Place of Culture.” Its curators, Piet van Boxel and Sabine Arndt (who also edited an informative catalog), suggested that as exiled Jews established communities in vastly different cultures, their manuscripts both reflected the world around them and influenced it in unusual ways. Even when the texts themselves were relatively unchanging, their script and illumination testified to a dynamic, shifting relationship to the dominant cultures and religions of Christianity and Islam.