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Scholars in the Stacks

Sara Lipton, a raven-haired, energetic professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is writing a book titled Dark Mirror: Jews, Vision and Witness, 1000–1500. It will, in her own words, “attempt to bring coherence to the dizzying proliferation of medieval Christian images of Jews.” She said she was surprised at first by the breadth of the NYPL’s collection.

“What I didn’t realize before I came here,” she said, “was how large a collection of medieval manuscripts the New York Public Library has. It’s amazing.”

Hebrew Bible, vol. 1, Joseph ben Kalonymus, scribe, Xanten, Lower Rhineland, AM 5054 (1294 CE), shown recently in the NYPL's Three Faiths exhibit. Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Several of those manuscripts were recently showcased in the library’s Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam exhibition, including a Hebrew Bible written in 1294; the Harkness Gospels, written in Landévennec, Brittany, around the year 900; and the Qur’an completed by Husayn ibn Hasan in Turkey or Persia in 1333. It is in these manuscripts, among other sources—at that moment she was researching the stained glass windows at Chartres—that Lipton has searched for visual depictions of Jews made during the Middle Ages.

“An unexpected and fun find has been a typescript of an unpublished rabbinical thesis dating to 1913 called ‘Sumptuary Laws of the Jews from the Fifteenth to the Eighteen Centuries,’” Lipton said. “I had no idea that this thesis existed. I found it by searching under ‘sumptuary laws’ in the library catalogue. It’s in the Dorot Jewish collection.”

Lipton is convinced that negative visual portrayals of Jews incited people to do harm, as much as negative written and spoken portrayals. She pointed out, for example, that in the early part of the Middle Ages, the Christian Church had no vendetta against the Jews—there was really no “killer of Christ” aspect to the prelates’ sermons or to depictions of Jews in art. “Jews were a living witness to the truth of Jesus’s humanity,” Lipton said. “The men—and it was always men back then—who created those works of art never intended for bad things to happen to Jews.” That did change, and part of the purpose of her book is to show how and when that change took place.

Like other fellows who come to do the research needed to write their books, Lipton has made discoveries here. “I wasn’t exactly sure what would be at the core of my book when I came here, but I have a much better idea now,” she said.

In the office adjacent to Lipton’s works Michael Meyer. He removed a pair of ice skates from a chair and offered me a seat. “I go skating in Bryant Park every day,” he explained with a smile. (In the winter the city floods part of the park to make a skating rink for the public.) His project couldn’t be farther from Lipton’s, physically, temporally, and in just about every other way. His book is tentatively titled In Manchuria: Life on a Rice Farm in China’s Northeast. Meyer, who first went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer, is the author of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. He is thrilled to be working at the NYPL and revealed the astonishing fact that he has been able to find sources here that he couldn’t find in China, even in Beijing.

He described the NYPL as “one big web browser.” What did he mean by that? “For example, in the map room here, I came across a hand-drawn map Henry Kinney did of existing and planned Manchurian railways.” He showed me a Xerox of the map. “Kinney was an American who worked for the South Manchurian Railway as a PR man to the West during the Japanese occupation. This led me to his papers, stored at the Hoover Institute Archives at Stanford.” His basic method of research? “I trolled through the thousand-plus entries that came up on the library’s catalogue when I entered ‘Manchuria’ as a keyword.”

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