Life & Culture

The frum woman heading Jerusalem's Islamic library

In 1924 a JC article envisaged a collection of Islamic manuscripts in Jerusalem as a meeting place for Arab and Jewish scholars. In 2020, under the leadership of Dr Raquel Ukeles, that dream has come true


Perhaps the last place you might think to look for a world-class collection of Islamic manuscripts and treasures of the Arabic-speaking world, would be Jerusalem. You might also be surprised by the part the JC— surely a bastion of Ashkenazi diaspora life — had to play in helping to establish such a collection.

Yet, as the irrepressibly enthusiastic Dr Raquel Ukeles revealed during a flying visit to London for Jewish Book Week, both things are true. And Dr Ukeles, New York-born but living in Israel for the past 11 years, is curator of the National Library of Israel’s Islamic and Middle East collection, and is spearheading NLI’s work in attracting the Arabic-speaking public in Israel and internationally.

Dr Ukeles, who cheerfully describes herself as “100 per cent Ashkenazi”, might on the surface be an unusual person to work in an Islamic milieu — until you dig a little. She comes from an observant background and studied Talmud and Jewish Law before embarking on further education.

“I grew up in a modern Orthodox community”, she says. “But the only thing that was different about my background is that my mother is the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, and [nevertheless] was an artist, the most radical public feminist, doing avant-garde funky stuff, performance work in Greenwich Village, all that kind of thing. In my family, there was no contradiction between being observant Jewish and being out in the world. My father, who also came from an Orthodox family, spent a year in India after graduate school. So we were rooted in our community and engaged with the outside world at the same time. It was not a problem”.

The turning-point for Dr Ukeles came during a gap year in Israel, before she was due to study Greek at Princeton University. It was 1988, the time of the first intifada, and the young Raquel was at the crossroads of anger which she did not understand — angry young Palestinians, and a furious politician, Geula Cohen, speaking at the funeral of a Charedi bus-bombing victim “and turning it into an extreme right-wing polemic”.

Instead of going ahead with Greek, Dr Ukeles decided to learn Arabic — still, at that point, as a “way of finding out what the enemy says.” And she was fortunate to find a wonderful teacher. “When I started learning Arabic 30 years ago it was taught like Latin. [My teacher] taught it as a living language — and very quickly I found that learning Arabic opened the way to an entire culture and history that was not about hating Jews”.

Learning Arabic for Raquel was the beginning of a long academic process which led her to study Islam. Though she was used to the study of Jewish Law, she found a wealth of fascinating material in the Koran, and the “nuance and texture” of Islamic scholarly commentary.

“When you look at the Koran, you see choices: a very intelligent system of theology and morality and history. There’s a common language [with Jewish thought] but with distinct values and ideas. I found, and still find, that fascinating. That shaped my trajectory”.

She spent a year studying in Cairo, facing the twin obstacles of being both a woman and Jewish, and learning about the diversity of the Arab world. After receiving her MA and then doctorate from Harvard, she became a professor in the US, and spent time advising Jewish community groups about Muslims, and vice versa.

Nine years ago, after moving to Israel with her family, Dr Ukeles took up her position as curator of the Middle East and Islamic collection at the NLI. “The collection goes back over 90 years — and the impetus — some of the catalyst comes from the Jewish Chronicle. There was a fascinating man, Avraham Shalom Yahuda, born in Jerusalem in 1877. He came from one of these intellectual families — in fact, President Reuven Rivlin’s father was his brother-in-law.

“Yahuda came to Europe and ended up studying with a Hungarian Jew, Yitzhak Goldziher, who was one of the leading scholars of Arabic and Islam. They were kindred spirits and crossed many academic and intellectual boundaries together, and when Goldziher died, in 1921, he had one of the most important collections of Islam and Arabic books, and also Semitics.

“An international competition to house the collection began — one of the contenders was the University of Tokyo, because the Japanese government wanted to buy the collection to set up a department of Oriental studies.

“But Avraham Yahuda was very close to Goldziher’s family and he introduced them to Chaim Weizman, who was then in London, heading the World Zionist Organisation. And Yahuda began an international campaign to emphasise the importance of the purchase of the collection and, in 1924, he wrote a three-page article in the Jewish Chronicle, explaining who Goldziher was — and why it was critical for the proposed National Library of the Jewish people to have a fabulous Islamic collection”.

Yahuda wrote: “And behold, such a library as this, which contains a lovely and amazing treasure of the best of Arabic literature and the finest works of Islam, may indeed become a meeting place for Arab and Jewish scholars alike. There they may sit as brothers in wisdom and friends in scholarship, and the inspiration (Shekhina) of enlightenment will impart upon our neighbours, those closest to us both genealogically and in mindset, the same spirit of tolerance, of munificence, kindheartedness, and generosity in which the Arabs excelled in ancient times, during their rule of East and West and during the most sublime generations of their intellectual achievement and culture”.

Six thousand volumes from Goldziher’s collection were duly bought by the World Zionist Organisation in 1924, for what was still then the Jewish National Library. Raquel Ukeles says she had “shivers” when reading Yahuda’s words, because they chime so closely with how the Islamic and Middle East collection works today — not just as a port of call or subject for Jewish scholars, but as a point of outreach to the Arab citizens of Israel. “It’s only in the last decade that the Arab-Muslim community comes into focus. In 2007, the library made a total shift, so that as well as serving the Jewish people it has to serve all Israel’s citizens”. (Yahuda bequeathed his own personal Islamic manuscript collection to the Library, too.)

Today, says Dr Ukeles, “we have one of the most phenomenal research collections in all the Middle East, and that has become the raw material for everything we do. We build our collection. One of my main challenges was to bring Arabs back into the library. When I arrived there was one Arab staffer and today there are almost 30. Once you have Arab colleagues, they have greater entrée into the Arab world — and so it is possible to buy at book fairs”.

There is great respect for the NLI’s work among Arab librarians and scholars, Dr Ukeles says. “The staff of the Al-Aqsa Library came to visit and we have developed ties with them. I think they very much appreciate the high level of professionalism with which we work, and the level of education and outreach to the Arabic-speaking citizens of Israel”.

A lot of what she is doing, she says, is “about creating space for Islamic and Arabic culture in Israel”. And among the joys of Dr Ukeles’s work is the opportunity to take something from the collection and offer it to the public in an unusual form.

For example, she shows me a package of beautiful bookmarks, highly decorative and based on the NLI’s remarkable collection of Ottoman and Mandate-era Palestinian Arabic newspapers, now digitised by the library. During the Mandate there were over 200 Arabic newspapers and journals and the bookmarks are just one small way of alerting people to the treasures held by the NLI.

Another project focuses on Ramadan, for which, for the last six years, the NLI has staged a variety of public events both before and during the month-long festival. “We began a programme for the public and also for our library staff, because things have to go in both directions. Last year the Muslim woman speaking to the staff spoke about a calendar that her father had given her when she was a child, showing the start and end to the fasts during Ramadan. So a Jewish colleague said, why don’t we make a Ramadan calendar?”

With just a week to go before the festival began, four Muslim colleagues and three Jews devised a beautiful Ramadan calendar with the start and end times for every fast day, magnetised on the back so that people could stick the calendar to their fridge and see it daily.

The demand for the calendar was astonishing, reports Dr Ukeles. From an initial print run of just 500, the Library had to print hundreds more, for both Jewish and Muslim schools. “We found that if you create a Muslim cultural artefact, it’s not just Muslims who want it, but it’s an opportunity for Jews to give a gift”.

It was, says Dr Ukeles, an important lesson. “In Israel, the majority is Jewish and there isn’t a lot of space for others. If we can create the space, the structure — well, most people want to do good.” This year, as a consequence of the roaring success of the fridge-magnet calendar, the NLI has established a cultural coalition for Ramadan-related programming, to launch “Ramadan Nights in Jerusalem”, which it’s hoped will become a model for all over Israel. Events are due to run from April 23 to May 24 — and there will also be a 2020 fridge-magnet calendar.

Dr Ukeles is fizzing with ideas — not the least of which is her dream, when asked what she would do next with an infinite budget for her department. She is in no doubt: “I’d create an Arabic Book Week in Israel, modelled on Jewish Book Week in London”. Past evidence suggests she will get her way.


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