How a library gained from a billionaire's gift

A philanthropist is helping to spread the word about an historic collection of early Liberal literature


By Jack Shamash, July 21, 2011
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Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros of the London Library with some of the Claude Montefiore collection

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros of the London Library with some of the Claude Montefiore collection

At the back of the London Library, in a locked section of shelving in an area known as level seven, is one of the most unusual collections of modern Jewish literature. The Montefiore collection contains a diverse assortment of almost 4,982 pamphlets, dealing with everything from the condition of women in Judaism to the order of service for Progressive synagogues.

For the last 70 years scholars have paid little attention to the pamphlets. But thanks to a grant from Russian-born US Jewish businessman and philanthropist Leonard Blavatnik, the collection has now been catalogued online. The London Library now hopes that the pamphlets will become an important resource for experts in Judaism.

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros, head of bibliographic services at the library, explained: "Blavatnik gave £50,000 to catalogue our Jewish collection, of which £23,000 has been spent on the Montefiore Collection. We're in the process of putting our entire catalogue online and he was prepared to help. In addition, Mr Blavatnik has given the library a further £50,000 towards the cost of library shelving."

The London Library is regarded as one of the intellectual gems of London. It occupies a building on the corner of St James's Square, has a million books and is run as a charity. It was founded by the Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle and former presidents have included such figures as Tennyson, Kipling and T.S. Eliot. The current president is Tom Stoppard. Because of the haphazard way in which it has grown, the library contains some unusual items, which rarely get to see the light of day.

The Montefiore Pamphlets were collected by Claude Montefiore, one of the founders of Liberal Judaism in this country. When he died in 1938, he bequeathed the collection to the London Library. He had the pamphlets bound into 664 books, some of which are in the original bindings and contain library plates from Montefiore's own library. These pamphlets were organised primarily according to size rather than subject. This has meant that scholars had difficulty finding their way around the various items. The online catalogue has made them far more accessible.

Jewish scholars believe the collection is immensely important. Annette Bockler, librarian at Leo Baeck College, said: "Many of the pamphlets are from Germany and Holland and deal with the liturgy and prayers in the synagogue. This sort of material was mainly destroyed in the Holocaust. Many of these items - particularly from the lesser known authors - could be unique."

This sort of material was mainly destroyed in the Holocaust

Claude Montefiore was interested in the development of the Liberal Synagogue, so the collection contains details of the prayer services. Bockler pointed out that some students of Jewish studies are currently looking at the confirmation services that the Liberal Synagogue used to run for children at the age of 16. "The Montefiore pamphlets contain an order of service for this, so the scholars would be very interested in this," she said.

Many of the pamphlets are relatively common. However, they shed light on the interests of Claude Montefiore and his collaborator Lily Montagu. Montefiore took a degree in Oxford and studied theology in Berlin. He never joined the ministry and instead devoted himself to scholarship. He was particularly interested in gaining a Jewish understanding of Christian theology. Lily Montagu was passionately interested in the role of women.

"Anyone wanting to understand their contribution to the history of Liberal Judaism - in Europe and America -- would find this invaluable,' said Bockler. The pamphlets include items such as the Liberal service of thanksgiving for the 1937 Coronation and works by Claude himself, such as his pamphlet on What a Jew Thinks about Jesus. There are learned pamphlets, discussing prostitution and the condition of working women and some items which are difficult to categorise. For example, there is a Haggadah from Yemen and the proceedings of the Alliance Israelite movement: no one at the library knows whether these are rare or important.

"We hope that as scholars start to look through the collection, we'll discover exactly what is there," Dunia said. "We'd like the London Library to be an international destination for Jewish scholars." She pointed out that until the Montefiore collection started to appear online - around eight months ago - it had literally not been looked at for years. Since then volumes from the library have been requested on at least 20 occasions.

Leonard Blavatnik, who is a major sponsor of the Jewish Museum in London and is on the board of Tel Aviv University, said "The London Library is a fascinating place and I have always taken a close interest in Jewish studies and Jewish literature. I am delighted that with my donation to the collection more people will be able to use it, and it can become a new focus of Jewish scholarship. The Montefiore name is of course known throughout the world, and it is also a great pleasure to be able to make these historic pamphlets more accessible to library users."

And the library is keen to promote other parts of its religious collection. For example the library owns the Allan Collection, which contains rare Jewish books, including works by Maimomides. It is currently having a major fundraising drive so the entire catalogue can be visited online.

    Last updated: 11:36am, August 11 2011