UF’s Price Library of Judaica houses priceless pieces of local and international artifacts
BY MATT FRANZBLAU
Nestled in between Criser and Anderson Halls on the Campus of the University Florida in Gainesville is a complex and vast look into the history of the Jewish people. The books, artifacts and information found in this place known as the Isser and Rae Price Library of Judaica, can be found past the reading room on the second floor of Smathers Library (commonly referred to as ‘Library East’). With holdings of more than 120,000 volumes, and digital collections comprising more than 180,000 pages of content, the Judaica Suite is considered the foremost Jewish studies research collection in the southeastern United States. In terms of many of its scarce late 19th to early 20th century imprints, it ranks among the top 20 academic libraries in the world. Furthermore, many thousands of its titles in Hebrew and Yiddish are held by less than 10 libraries in the United States.
“Those who come here get a real taste of Jewish history because the library is visually and intellectually inspiring as well as informative,” said Dr. Rebecca Jefferson, who is the head of the library and its collection. “You go on a sort of journey through time, seeing Jewish history starting in the 16th century and then coming into the 19th century when there was a massive output of Jewish publication before the period of destruction.”
The Library was built on the core collection of Rabbi Leonard C. Mishkin of Chicago which, at the time of its acquisition in 1977, was the largest personal library of Judaica and Hebraica in the United States. The range and depth of Mishkin's collection was described by Harvard Bibliographer Charles Berlin as ‘superb’. Formally dedicated in March 1981, the Library was named for Isser and Rae Price, whose sons, Jack and Samuel Price of Jacksonville, Florida, established a fund to support sustained development of its collections. The Price family gift was the largest single gift ever made to the libraries at that time, and it was the first time that a special collection in the University Library had been endowed.
Today library patrons will find a Jewish studies collection of notable depth, scope and singularity. Its diversified holdings in English, Hebrew, and other languages support scholarship in virtually every aspect of the Jewish experience. Materials relevant to the ancient, medieval and modern periods are available to students and researchers alike, as they are to any reader who possesses a curiosity about the Jewish People, whose cultures, societies, and influences span more than 3,000 years of recorded history.
“You get a sense when you walk into these rooms of the vibrancy of Jewish life and culture from the pre-war period,” Jefferson explained. “We try to recapture that feeling from our books, in addition to the artwork and collections reflecting rebuilding of post Holocaust life.”
The city of Jacksonville has a prominent presence inside the library as a number of artifacts including a torah can be found from Temple Beth Shalom, a conservative synagogue in Mandarin, which folded in 2011. In addition to more recent artifacts, the collection also boasts texts that were published but ultimately censored by Christian leadership in places like Spain, where Jews were living underneath Gentile rule.
“People aren’t always aware that these books are survivors, as they have come through many countries and passed through many hands to get here,” Jefferson said. “Some of our books have been smuggled out of places and we have one that was even buried so it could be hidden from the Nazis.”
It isn’t just the books and artifacts themselves that people come to see as the room and building itself is quite literally a work of art, thanks to University of Florida alum Kenneth Treister.
“Our library is very unique. It has become a piece of art because the whole room was designed by Treister who is a renowned architect and artist,” Jefferson explained of the library’s look. “He applied to it a theory of an interior design that incorporates art into interior design, creating this harmonious space which is quite a marvelous experience.”
Thanks to the Library's reputation for both aesthetics and historic collections, it was awarded a second prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Challenge Grant. This grant will enable the library to build a new endowment fund to support the acquisition and digitization of hidden and endangered Jewish materials from Florida, Latin America, and the Caribbean and thus support vital research in this area.
“We are collecting the histories of the Jewish people of Florida and that’s not just the people who have lived here forever, this is also the immigrant experience of the state,” Jefferson described of the library’s current efforts. “We want to capture that history through preserving materials that people have in their home, so we’ve already acquired a good slice of Jacksonville Jewish life.”
The library is home to the Safer Collection which documents early Jewish life in Jacksonville in addition to more current items such as synagogue publications and even the Jacksonville Jewish News. People in Jacksonville and around Northeast Florida are encouraged to contact the library if they have items of historical value from their own personal collection that they might be interested in donating.
The Library is used for a multitude of purposes, including study, lecture and research, but Mondays are open to the public. To schedule an appointment for a tour or for more information, call Jefferson at 352-273-2865 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.