Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Jonathan Fishburn

Jonathan Fishburn

There is a reference in Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading to the earliest known instance of reading aloud. I wrote to his agent on a whim to say that there is a rabbinic text in the Mishna, giving evidence of an earlier example of the practice. Manguel sent me a charming letter, and an inscribed copy of his booklet, A Visit to the Dream Bookseller, which was published in 1998 by the International Antiquarian Book Fair in Hamburg.

I was introduced to books in the antiquarian sense through my interest in scholarly editions of rabbinic works, which could mostly only be obtained on the secondhand market. I bought them for study, and never had any real idea of becoming a bookseller until much later. My mother’s family came from Belarus, and her grandmother came to England as a child in the 1880s. My father was born in Vienna and brought to London as a one-year old child before the First World War. He grew up in the East End, started work at the age of fourteen, and was later drafted into the British Army as a Gunner Surveyor. My parents were rather elderly when I was born in 1959 – the youngest of five children.  I was quite a reader in my teenage years; I particularly liked George Orwell, Graham Greene and other English novelists of the twentieth century. I was also interested in Jewish history, and was thinking of becoming a rabbi.

After I finished school in London, I went to New York to study at the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn. When I arrived in 1980, most of the Jewish bookshops were in the Lower East side but, by the time I left, the trade had moved to Brooklyn. All the time I was accumulating books for personal use, but still with no thought of bookselling. I didn’t become a rabbi, but went into the technology field, returning to London in 1988 to work for BT.

One day I walked into the London Antiquarian Book Arcade opposite the British Museum. It was a moment of revelation. The arcade was in effect a bookshop of bookshops. There was no need to give up my day job; I could put books on the shelves, and Stephen Poole, who was the manager at the time, would look after the rest. Although I didn’t sell many books, it was an entrée into the trade. The problem with that style of business is that you don’t have much freedom to express your individuality.  When the arcade went out of business, Stephen became the manager of Biblion in Mayfair, where I also had some stock.

Meanwhile I was still working in technology, moving from BT to Midland Bank, which became HSBC, and latterly for a couple of consultancies. In 2001 I took voluntary redundancy with my wife’s encouragement, and issued my first catalogue in March 2002. My wife is Australian and, before I went full time and specialised in Judaica, I was dealing in Australiana, Bibliography and the history of the book, which has always interested me.

Although I love the books themselves, I also enjoy the trading aspect. I work from home in North London, and from time to time I employ an assistant to help with cataloguing. As I deal in material in many different languages and scripts, it’s very helpful to have someone who can catalogue books in Polish, for example, and various Cyrillic languages. I issued my last physical catalogue in 2007, as I find electronic lists so much more efficient and cheaper to produce, especially when you consider that mailing to America is now £10 a piece. Another advantage of an electronic list is that customers can so easily ‘flip’ them, resulting in orders from people I’ve never heard of.

I buy quite a lot from other dealers, and from auctions of Judaica in Israel, Paris and New York. Kestenbaum & Company hold regular sales of Judaica in New York. Daniel Kestenbaum originally worked for Bloomsbury Book Auctions, where I used to buy a lot of books, but nowadays there is very little Judaica auctioned in the UK. I do quite a bit of business with Bernard Shapero, but I can’t think of any other major bookseller in England in the field. This is quite a change from the days when many general antiquarian booksellers sold Hebrew books. During the 1920s, Maggs issued three catalogues of Judaica and Hebraica. Nowadays the field has become very specialised.

Moses Sanders was a bookseller in St Gabriels Road, NW2, whose catalogues are very interesting for showing the shift in taste in collecting Judaica. I have a set of Sanders’ marked-up catalogues, from which you can see that a book that would be almost unsaleable today was much in demand not that long ago. For example, Simon Dubnow’s History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, 1916, had a high price relative to an eighteenth-century collectable. The situation is completely inverted today.

In my own career as a bookseller, the material I trade in today is very different from my first catalogue. I don’t deal in printed books unless they are particularly rare, although I do like what I call solid antiquarian books such as D’Blossiers Tovey’s Anglia Judaica, Oxford, 1738, the first comprehensive history of the Jews in England. Tovey was an English clergyman, and his book is especially useful for its account of the protracted negotiations between Menaseh ben Israel and Oliver Cromwell over the proposed resettlement of the Jews in England.

Specialist libraries already have good collections of traditional Hebrew antiquarian books, but this isn’t the case with ephemeral items, which lack the distribution mechanism of printed books. I didn’t have the capital to go out and buy a £10,000 book, but buying small items of ephemeral material and putting them together in a meaningful collection is something I really enjoy. When I price a collection, I find it easiest to price each item individually and add up the total. It reassures the customer that there is nothing magic about the figure.

Collections can be very attractive to institutional customers, especially when the material has ‘PhD’ potential. There’s an element of creating a bit of intellectual history by the way in which you formulate the material – a sense of putting a subject on the map. Once you assemble a collection, it acquires its own interest. I particularly like quirky subjects such as royalty and the Jews. The Jewish community in the United Kingdom has always taken Rabbi Chanina’s dictum to pray for the welfare of the ruling powers very seriously. Daily prayer books and festival prayer books published in England have printed the prayer for the salvation of the monarch from at least the time of King George III.

I put together a collection of 60 or so Orders of Service, printed in Hebrew and English, with prayers for all kinds of royal occasions dating back to Queen Victoria and earlier. These pamphlets, sometimes nicely produced and tied with gold braid, were published by the Office of the Chief Rabbi to be read in synagogues to mark important national occasions.  They are a very English phenomenon, although Dutch and German examples do exist but not in the same quantity.

To celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, the Service of Prayer and Thanksgiving, consisting of thirteen pages in English and Hebrew, was printed for use in the synagogues of the British Empire on Sunday 20 June, 5657 (1897). There was no printed Order of Service for Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, when the prayers were simply circulated to synagogues by e-mail – to the disappointment of collectors of Anglo-Judaica, and to the British Library, where there is a very good collection of this material.  From the 1840s the Library of the British Museum was very active in acquiring Hebrew books.  Joseph Zedner, a German Jewish bibliographer, prepared the catalogue, which was published in 1867. An Orthodox Jew, Zedner was excused from working on the Sabbath, making up the time by working an extra hour on other days of the week.

Jewish militaria is another subject on which I have put together collections of books, pamphlets and ephemera relating to Jews in the armed services of several countries. At seminal moments during times of conflict, the synagogue was the focal point of the community, where religious leaders and their congregants would pray for Divine intercession on behalf of their Jewish brethren under siege. The Office of the Chief Rabbi issued Form of Praise and Thanksgiving To Almighty God Consequent on the Cessation of Hostilities. To be used Sabbath, November 16, 5679 (1918). There are examples of Jewish militaria going back to the Napoleonic wars, and I’ve come across prayers of thanksgiving at Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London for victory at the Battle of Leipzig, that sealed the fate of Napoleon.

The First and Second World Wars and the establishment of the State of Israel shaped the Jewish experience of the twentieth century. The Vaad Hatzala was an organisation set up to save Jewish people from the Nazis and, in the aftermath of the war, they focused their work on the needs of refugees in the displaced persons camps.  They published religious books for distribution in the DP camps between 1945 and 1948, including The Holy Bible, Chumash with Rashi and Targum (In Hebrew), with a printed dedication to President Truman, and the American flag imposed upon it. The next page has a letter in Hebrew offering this edition of the Torah as a gift to the survivors of the Holocaust.

The Mir Yeshiva was the only rabbinical school from Eastern Europe that survived the Second World War in its entirety, and it did so by an extraordinary loop hole. The invasion of Poland in 1939 forced the Yeshiva to move to Lithuania, where its survival soon came under threat again with the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. In 1940 Dutch Yeshiva students realised that no visa was required to enter the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao. It also became known that Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kovno, the capital of Lithuania, was willing to issue transit visas with the idea that the refugees would be travelling on to Curaçao via the Japanese-occupied Pacific. And so they were allowed to enter Japan, crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway,  and finally settling in Shanghai, where the Mir Yeshiva remained until 1947. Sugihara was punished by the Japanese, but his actions saved the lives of several thousand Jews.

During the war there were about 30,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai. To meet the needs of the Yeshiva students and other members of the community, over 80 Hebrew books were published in Shanghai between 1943 and 1946. They were printed on poor paper, and are usually in bad condition due to the humid climate and insect damage, but are nevertheless of  considerable interest to collectors.

There is a feeling amongst Jewish collectors of anti-Semitic material that it needs to be kept in the right hands, properly documented and stored in appropriate institutions as part of the history of mankind. The first English edition of the most notorious work of anti-Semitism, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, was published in 1920. It served as the blue print for all subsequent works of anti-Semitism. If someone asked me for a copy, I would like to know why he or she wanted it, and to reassure myself that it was going to be used positively.

In Hebrew printing, there’s no equivalent of the private press movement, or at least nothing quite in the spirit of the Ashendene Press. Obviously there are a number of typographically interesting books, particularly editions of the Haggadah. For example Otto Geismer’s illustrations for the Haggadah published by B.Cahan, Berlin, 1928, is regarded as a virtuoso display of inventiveness and wit. Four years earlier, the publication of H.Berthold’s Schriftgiessereien und Messinglinien-Fabriken Aktien-Gesellschaft claimed to be the first catalogue of Hebrew and Jewish types. It’s a curiosity of Hebrew printing, with an introduction in seven languages by Joseph Tscherkassky, head of the Oriental Department of the Berthold type foundry in Berlin. The firm was established in 1858, and had become the largest typefoundry in the world by the end of the First World War, with offices in Berlin, Stuttgart, Leipzig, Budapest, Vienna, Riga and St Petersburg.

The study of Jewish books through time and place is the subject of an interesting research project in the States. Entitled ‘Footprints’, researchers from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Columbia University and other institutions are compiling a database, tracking the circulation of Jewish printed books, in Hebrew or other Jewish languages, and books in Latin and non-Jewish vernaculars with Jewish content. Ownership signatures, bookplates and the censorship stamps of Church and State provide some of the best evidence for the movement of books. I’ve handled books that contain a synagogue stamp, which has been cancelled by a Nazi stamp, providing a very vivid provenance.

Over the years I’ve written a number of articles for the Jewish Quarterly on the quirks of Jewish book collecting, and some of the more idiosyncratic aspects of the book trade. I don't find writing particularly easy, and rely enormously on my wife’s help. The Jewish Quarterly was started by Jacob Sonntag in 1953 as a periodical for contemporary writing, politics and culture. When Rachel Lasserson – Miron Grindea’s granddaughter – was the editor, she kindly gave me permission to upload my articles to my website, and to produce a booklet.

I’m surprised at the low prices for the works of early Israeli writers, such as Agnon, Tchernichovsky and Bialik, who are not collected as I would have expected. The Hebrew language is relatively new in terms of its use for literature.  Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the only Hebrew writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, was writing in the early twentieth century when it was still the language of Jewish sacred and intellectual tradition. He was developing a language as well as a literature, and yet his work is not collected as much as I would have expected. An article in The New Yorker to mark the half-century since Agnon won the Nobel Prize commented that his work remained largely the possession of his original audience.

This year marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, in which there is a lot of interest, and not only amongst Jewish collectors.  Some years ago I did a catalogue containing 1000 items  - manuscripts, photos, newspapers, parliamentary papers, maps and so on – documenting the origins of the nascent modern Zionist movement in the 1890s through to the Palestine Mandate in 1922 and the eventual establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. I often find that people are not aware of the range of material that is available. If they were, I’m sure they would be interested in collecting it.

Interviewed for The Book Collector Winter 2017






















Jonathan Fishburn

A Poland & Steery Co-production