Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Rabbi Dr Shlomo Sprecher 1953-2017: Rabbi, Scholar, Doctor, Bibliophile and Patron of the Jewish book world

It is with a deep sense of pain and sorrow that we inform of the untimely passing of Dr Shlomo Sprecher, leaving the Jewish world with an irreplaceable void. He passed away on March 15, 2017, aged 64. No words can do justice to the endless acts of kindness that people from all walks of life have benefited from his actions. I merited to know him only the last few years of his life, perhaps by recalling a few of my experiences with him, I can convey just an idea of the man and his life.

In my role as a bookseller, Dr Sprecher would for several years, visit me in the store nearly daily, en route or on the way home from his work, where he practiced as a radiologist. His visits were unlike any other, aside from his pursuit of titles of interest to him, his love and respect for books would transform many of his visits into an act of perpetual kindness. If he chanced upon a young budding scholar in the store, he would encourage any work or studying the person may be contemplating, and offer his library and his time as assistance. Dr Sprecher had a genuine, natural ability to compliment, and his respect and encouragement would leave anyone in conversation with him with a renewed commitment to pursuing his academic or rabbinic interests.

Dr Sprecher's rare combination of excellence in the academic as well as rabbinic field, placed him in a unique position to be a positive influence and a mentor for the many people who would seek his guidance. There are individuals that I know, that continued their studies due to his influence, and many a scholar who found himself in financial troubles, found an open hand in Dr Sprecher. There are people of which I am aware, and I am certain there are many that I am unaware of, that received a monthly stipend from Dr Sprecher, all in a discreet and honorable way.

His love of books was such, that he cherished them and treated them with the utmost respect. At times, when new acquisitions arrived in the store, I would find him hauling boxes in, despite my many objections. When there was a very unfortunate sewer backup in the store several years ago, I found him nearly knee deep in water, assisting in raising the books to higher ground. No begging or pleading would talk him out of such actions, he placed his love for sefarim and insistence on helping in any way possible above all else.

Aside from the literary output of his own, in his position as an editor of the journals, Hakirah and Yeshurun, I have witnessed him spend much time and energy in assisting the various contributors. He would often delve in to a subject all new to him, in order to benefit and aid the writer in his research.

His store visits would generally be interspersed with ongoing incoming phone calls from friends and strangers alike, who would tap in to his encyclopedic medical knowledge. His advice would be often be followed by his continued interest in the patients' condition, and a genuine care, all without any monetary compensation.

For many who had an interest in books and Torah scholarships, the lectures he hosted in his home, were events looked forward to. It was a place where all were welcome, where people from all walks of life were able to feel at home. Many a lasting friendship, developed from these meetings.

The Sprecher Library was the dream of many Rabbis and scholars alike. The books were meticulously collected and well used, and encompassed all areas of Jewish interest. No book was an ornament for him, the books were made to be read and then read again. Pulling off a book from one his shelves, would often result in finding many pages of his notes falling out of the title. His books were never viewed by him as his private collection, as it was open to anyone who would be able to put it to use. During the period of his illness, when he would at times be unable to accommodate such guests, he would at times request and pay for a copy of a book that he would then give to the individual so as not to let him go away empty-handed.

No mention of Dr Sprecher would be complete without a mention of his devoted wife, and his partner in his studies. Mrs Sprecher was always supportive of his book-buying habits and when in doubt about making a purchase, she would regularly be consulted. All guests in their home, even someone stopping by just to borrow a tome, regardless of the time of day, would feel welcome and invited by her. Their marriage extended to their shared יראת שמים, combined with a respect for any type of person who crossed their path and their patronizing of scholarship.

Though Dr Shlomo Sprecher will no longer be with us, his influence will be here to stay. May his life serve as a manual and guide for the generations to come.

From Left to right, Dr Shlomo Sprecher, Prof. Hershey Eidlisz, Prof. Shnayer Leiman and Rabbi Eliezer Brodt during a visit at Mizrahi Bookstore

Non-politically Correct Children book by David Faians TEN LITTLE NIGGERS עשרה כושים קטנים / דוד פאר

As part of an excellent Jewish Children book collection I acquired, I came across one title that was shockingly Non-'Politically Correct'. Titled עשרה כושים קטנים arguably translated as Ten Little Niggers, it was authored by דוד פאיאנס (David Faians) and published c1950s. The book would probably make an excellent gift to Mordechai Ben David, given his recent remarks. To be fair, when the book was written, segregation was still the norm in much of the USA and Jim Crow laws made it perfectly legal.

This was a period in history when Israel was going out of their way to keep on good terms with it's newly found friends in Africa, and it is rather suprising that such a book would be published. In this same period, the children song כושי כלב קט Kushi Kelev Kat, was censored from Israeli Radio.

The book contains a blatant mathematical error. It illustrates in pictures and verse the story of ten little niggers who went for a stroll, one was lost, and nine remained, one was blown by the wind, eight remained.... and at the end it states : "כושי אחד נשאר אז/ עצוב היה נורא/ שמע דפיקה בדלת/ חזרו העשרה"! One nigger remained, it was terribly sad, he then heard a knock on the door, and all ten returned! We somehow ended with 11, when we started with just 10.

1942 Budapest Ikvuta Demeshicha on Mashiach's immenent arrival, a copy of Jew murdered in Auschwitz

A small book I recently catalogued contained a fascinating piece of a history, a light in to the dark chapter of human history, the war years for Jews in Hungary. Printed in 1942, the author, Rabbi David Yaakov Friedman, authored this book to covey that the horrors that befell and were occuring to the Jews in Europe were signs of the imminent coming of the Mashiach. He Writes on the title כי ממש כשל כח הסבל.. לאמץ ידים רפות ולחזק ברכים כושלות שלא להתייאש ח"ו
"Our ability to withstand the pain has literally reinforce our weakening hands and to strengthen our failing knees so we shall not despair heaven forbid"

The book includes as well the work צפית לישועה of the Chofetz Chaim

In the book appears the stamp of Arnold Breuer, of Sopron, Hungary, dated 9, April, 1943. Arnold Breuer was murdered by the nazis shortly after, his arrival in auschwitz was on 27 July, 1944, he was killed on 25 of Oct, 1944.

Article in the Jewish Press about Mizrahi Bookstore

For those who missed it in print, below is a brief article which appeared in the Aug 10, 2016 issue of the Jewish Press about Mizrahi Bookstore:

For some, he evokes a bygone age – when sefarim store owners lived and breathed books and could direct customers to (and discuss) a rare Yiddish work just as easily as the latest ArtScroll title.
Israel Mizrahi, though, is a young man of 29. And, unlike sefarim store owners of yore, he earns half his profits online where patrons can view and buy any one of 36,000 volumes, ranging in price from $2.99 to $3,299.99. (He carries a total of 150,000 works in his Flatbush store.)
The scion of several rabbinic families – he is named after the Baba Sali, his grandfather’s uncle – Mizrahi lives with his wife and three children in Brooklyn.

The Jewish Press: What’s your background?
Mizrahi: I grew up locally in Brooklyn, went to community schools, learned in yeshiva in Chevron for three years, and got married while I was in Israel. Six days later, I was back in the United States and soon found myself with some bills to pay. I owned a lot of books, so I sold a few. But it’s always easier to buy than to sell and before I knew it I had 20,000 books. So I was stuck.
Can you talk a bit about your rabbinic family background?
My mother is part of the Abuhatzeira family, so that sort of speaks for itself, and my father comes from rabbinic families in Syria and Yerushalayim.
It’s a bit of a conflicting background in the sense that my mother’s side was more of the kabbalistic, pious type and my father’s side was more of the rationalist, Maimonidean type. My great great-grandfather, for example, wrote a classic book called Kenesiya L’shem Shamayim, which is a treatise against belief in superstition, magic, sheidim – things like that. Jews in Syria at the time were following Muslim practices and basically makrivim to avoda zara, so the book is a very strong attack against any such beliefs.
Your store carries books in how many languages, would you say?
Probably around 50, but I try to focus on about 10 of them: Hebrew, English, Yiddish, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic.
I also have a very large collection of books in Judeo-Marathi, which is the language of the Bnei Israel community in India; I have quite a few books in Judeo-Persian; and I even have a book in Judeo-Tatar, which is the language the Jews of Crimea spoke.
What are some of the most interesting books you’ve sold over the years?
Books that interest me the most are ones that tell a story. So, for example, I have an old selichos volume printed in Germany in which somebody handwrote a very long kinah about a pogrom that happened in Poland in the 1620s. He describes in detail how the children were killed, the women raped, etc. If you look in the history books, though, there’s no record of this specific pogrom. The only source we have for it is this sefer, which happened to survive and end up in my hands.
You apparently used to also carry the Koran in Hebrew.
Israeli President Rivlin’s grandfather did the first translation. There are seven of them in total. You also have a fellow, Professor Abraham Katsch, who did a translation. He was a grandson of the Maskil L’Eitan, and his father was Rav Reuven Katz, the rav of Petach Tikva. They both came from rabbinic backgrounds and ended up professors.
What other interesting books do you carry?
When you acquire 100,000 books a year, everything shows up eventually. I just acquired an old yearbook from the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School and found among the students a smiling Sheldon Silver.

Other items of interest include Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity in Yiddish; two leaves of a manuscript of Pirke Merkabah written in Spain in the 14th century; and a volume from the Bomberg Talmud. You may recall that a full set of this Talmud recently sold for nine million dollars.
A few weeks ago I also supplied two first editions of the Abarbanel, which were presented by an organization to Benjamin Netanyahu, whose father wrote the definitive work on this famous rabbinic figure.
Where do you find all these works?
Well, I get phone calls if somebody has a library and is moving or if someone who owned a lot of books has passed away. There are also rare book collections that occasionally are sold for one reason or another. And then there are many synagogues in small towns in the United States that are closing. They all had libraries, and somebody has to take care of them, so I’m often the one to do it.
You recently acquired the Toronto Jewish library.
That was quite a sad situation. Toronto had a very fine library of about 50,000 books. It was around since the 1930s but the community, I guess, just didn’t support it. The library of the Central Queens Y, which had about 8,000 books, just closed this month as well. I also picked up the library of the Jewish Center in Fairlawn. Nobody was using it.
It’s a different world today. People don’t go to their little shul anymore to hang out and read books. If they do read, they’re reading at home. It’s just the way things are.
What kind of customers enter your store?
Rabbis, book collectors, people who have family interests. Many people, for example, discover their grandfather wrote a sefer and want a copy. And then there are learned people who have specific interests. I have a few mohelim, for example, who want good libraries on milah. One of them has 500-600 books on milah. I sold him probably half of them.
The general idea is, whatever interest you may have, chances are I can supply you with reading material for a lifetime.
Do you have non-Jewish customers?
Yes. There are quite a few evangelical Christians in the U.S. who are very pro-Israel and pro-Jewish. There’s also some interest in Asia. The Japanese are known to have quite an interest in Jewish studies. In Tokyo, for example, you have Yiddish courses in Tokyo University, and I’ve sold them a lot of Yiddish books. I’ve also sold a complete ArtScroll shas that went to South Korea.
I also have someone from Qatar who has been buying anti-Zionist works from me for a few years already. I generally send him an extra book or two that’s more balanced so hopefully he can read those as well and not end up hating us as much.
Is it true that old chassidic sefarim are often more expensive than regular sefarim?
Yes, because many chassidic groups were small. Take Satmar, for example. Before the war, the Satmar Rebbe just barely had a minyan and 200-300 chassidim at most. Today there are tens of thousands, and everyone wants a piece of that history. There are only so many books published and only so many letters he wrote, so if everybody wants it, there’s going to be a bidding war – and that’s what happens.
Other expensive chassidic sefarim include ones published by the Shapiro family in Slavita and Zhitomir in Europe. They were grandchildren of Rav Pinchas of Koretz, and the Skeverer Rebbe prefers to use only these sefarim. But the Shapiros only published so much and time and the Holocaust did their own too, so the market has risen quite a bit for them.
On your blog you write, “Come and experience an Authentic bookstore before they cease to exist.” Please explain.
Well, Judaica stores will always be here. But if you go back 50 years on the Lower East Side, there were 50 stores just like mine. Today it’s a harder world. People are busy with their lives, they’re reading less, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Maybe it’s the price of a better life. A hundred years ago people were more aware of anti-Semitism. They were more Jewish in many ways, and so they had more of an interest.
Another thing is the price of maintaining a store has risen very fast. Today on the Lower East Side it’s prohibitive to rent a store. Used books sell for only so much, and it’s very hard to make a proper living from it. The story of bookstores in the U.S. in general – not just Jewish bookstores – is a pretty bad one.
How do you survive? Through Internet sales?
There’s no way I could do it without the Internet. Also, it’s sort of two parallel businesses at this point with the rare books paying for the other books.
Many people with your interest in sefarim become rabbis or librarians. What led you to become the owner of an old-style sefarim store?
I don’t know. God leads in funny ways. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision. It just was something I always wanted to do. And once you’re in, it’s hard to leave, because what am I going to do with 150,000 books? So I don’t know if I can ever retire. Maybe they’ll bury me with the books

Nov 26, 1914 Grace After meals - WEDDING OF SADIE (Harry) FISCHEL - DAVID KASS The First American Wedding Bencher

One of the least celebrated chores of sorting out book collections is weeding out the endless benchers that every Jewish home seems to accumulate, but on occasion, it does have it's rewards.
One such find I had recently, was the grace after meals published for one of the most famous weddings of the era. When in 1914, Sadie Fischel, daughter of Harry Fischel, a leading orthodox Jewish philanthropist knows as the Russian Jacob Schiff, married David Kass, her wedding was held at the hotel ASTOR, one of New York's toniest marriage venues. A photograph of the occasion shows hundreds of well dressed couples, the men in tails, an occasional yarmulke among them, and the women in beaded gowns and feathers, celebrating amid the alabaster nymphs and gargoyles of the Astor's main ballroom. In honor of the event, and in keeping with the family's dietary proclivities, the hotel purchased all new equipment. This occasion, Mrs Kass related years later, "gave the impetus to the present day Kosher Hotel arrangements for larger public functions. 

The Fischer-Kass nuptials had the further distinction of being one of the first weddings at which a pocket sized bencher, or grace after meals booklet, bearing the couple's name and the date of the wedding, was distributed as a commemorative, and if potentially useful wedding token. Subtle and tasteful, it contains the entire Hebrew and English text of the prayer as well as the lyrics to Hatikvah, the Jewish National Anthem. ( From the wonders of America, reinventing Jewish Culture, by Jenna Joselit, pg 27).

Manuscript: Library catalog of Sally Guggenheim, Basel, Switzerland

Among a collection of rare books I acquired, was a Manuscript containing the  Library catalog of Sally Guggenheim, Basel, Switzerland.
Sally Guggenheim
 Solomon "Sally" Gugenheim (deceased 1937), was Consul General of Yugoslavia in Switzerland, prosperous businessman in the wool industry, one of Basel's most prominent community leaders, who additionally played an important role for Agudas Yisrael of Europe.

​On Guggenheim see here and here
​and Oma's Story ​(​Lucie Prenzlau​ pg. 8 ​et passim​)​

Much can be learned about a man and his beliefs or lack of beliefs from such a catalog, below see a few scans of the catalog for such examples.

In section above, Guggenheim goes an aside discussing the forged Yerushalmi on Kodshim of Friedlander

See under Besamim Rosh where he discusses the status of the author

Notice the presence of Mendelssohn's Beur. Of note is the total lack of any Kabbalistic works, even of the basic texts such as the Zohar
hat-tip: J. Djmal

2 versions of Rachmil Bryks' Yiddish book titled אויף קידוש השם published in 1954

For reasons unknown to me, there were 2 different title pages I found on copies of אויף קידוש השם printed by Rachmil Bryks, published in New York in 1954. 

"Kiddush Hashem tells of the hope and desire that fill the minds of those being transported in a crowded train to what they hope will be just a labor camp in Vienna. Instead, the trickery and deceit of the Nazis is revealed to the Jews when they arrive at Auschwitz. Husbands and wives are brutally separated, infants are snatched from their mothers, and Dr. Mengele immediately commences with his selections. Bryks's descriptions of the horrors are explicit and vivid. He does not cut corners in his graphic depictions of the torture inflicted upon the inmates. Hope, however, does not die easily among the inmates of the camp. Engel relates that "they [the Nazis] failed ultimately in the spiritual plane where they hoped to pull down their victims to their depths of depravity."

One version of the title page states that the book's publishing did not receive any funding from the German Government, and one title page omits the claim. Were there perhaps 2 different editions, one with funding and one without?

Title page with the disclaimer

Title page without the disclaimer

hat-tip: Menachem Silber

A variant copy Rosh Lareuveni prnted in 1936 in Dvinsk-Riga, Latvia

On a copy of Rosh LaReuveni I recently came across, I discovered an additional page following the title page unrecorded in any of the bibliographies I referenced and not present on the other copies in my possession.
On the additional page, the publisher gives thanks to his wife for her support and assistance in all matters including the publishing of this book

ספר ראש לראובני : תשובות על ארבעה חלקי שולחן הערוך / אשר חדש והעלה ... מרן ראובן הלוי ; ... הוגה ונסדר כתוספות הערות ... ע"י נכדו ... ר' בצלאל הלוי ... ; ועתה יוצא לאור בפעם הראשונה מתוך כי"ק ע"י נכד ... המחבר יצחק אייזיק הלוי לעווין ...
לוין, ראובן בן אברהם, הלוי, 1816-1887;תרצ"ו

A copy of Shmuel Atlas' 1940 book on Maimonides salvaged from fire

Facing the title page of a copy of  A Section from the Yad Ha-Hazakah of Maimonides printed from a Holograph Manuscript in the Bodleian Library, printed in London in 1940, was placed a label stating : "This is one of the copies salvaged from the debris and rebound, after a fire caused by bombing of London on the 10th October, 1940, had destroyed almost the entire edition.""