By Shulamith Berger
Curator of Special Collections and Hebraica-Judaica
Mendel Gottesman Library
The exhibit, “Judah David Eisenstein, Encyclopedist par Excellence,” is now on the fourth floor of the Mendel Gottesman Library. J.D. [Judah David] Eisenstein was known as the Ba’al Ha-Otsarot, Master of the treasuries, for his compendia of Jewish law, lore, and literature.
Eisenstein was born in Mezhirech [Poland/Ukraine] in 1854, emigrated to the United States in 1872 and died in New York in 1956. In Mezhirech, he learned traditional Jewish texts and commentaries with his grandfather. As a young teenager, he and a group of friends studied the Bible and maskilic [enlightenment] works written in Hebrew; he and his friends also corresponded in Hebrew. He also studied Russian, Polish and German along with elementary math and science with a Christian teacher. He drew on this educational background in his literary work, though he was primarily self-educated.
Once in the United States, Eisenstein managed a clothing store on the Lower East Side. He eventually lost a great deal of money in the business and decided to follow his intellectual and literary interests instead. In his memoirs, he reflected that his financial troubles were providential since they spurred him to change his path in life and engage in scholarly pursuits.
Eisenstein’s magnum opus was the ten-volume encyclopedia Otsar Yisra’el, the first Hebrew encyclopedia, published in New York between 1907 and 1913. Otsar Yisra’el was a response to the publication of the Jewish Encyclopedia in New York by Funk and Wagnalls between 1901 and 1906. Eisenstein contributed about 150 articles to the Jewish Encyclopedia but thought its presentation of a traditional Jewish viewpoint in some fields was weak and that it was geared, in part, for a non-Jewish audience.
Eisenstein was the sole editor of Otsar Yisra’el, an astonishing feat for an encyclopedic work. He commissioned articles from scholars all over the world and ensured that the encyclopedia was aesthetically pleasing, with a title page and illustrations by Ephraim Grover (Grauer) under Eisenstein’s guidance. He offered a choice of assorted styles of covers for buyers. It is noteworthy that the Jewish Encyclopedia includes illustrations by Eisenstein, but none were featured in Otsar Yisra’el; perhaps copyright issues were an impediment to their use.
In his introductory material to the encyclopedia, Eisenstein graphically portrayed the encyclopedia as a gift from American Jewry to European Jewry, an early example of a transfer of Jewish centers of learning and study from the Old World to the New.
Although the encyclopedia was viewed as a religiously traditional expansion and clarification of the Jewish Encyclopedia, Eisenstein touted his encyclopedia as a means to bring different types of Jews together. An illustration in some of the volumes depicts an interlinking chain; within each link is a sketch of Jews with differing styles of dress. The text near the illustration reads “Endless chain of students: the extremes meet here.”
Indeed, Otsar Yisra’el was a unique contribution to Jewish and Hebrew scholarship; it was the only comprehensive encyclopedia in Hebrew devoted specifically to Jewish content to be published to date. The Hebrew was primarily traditional rabbinic Hebrew. Nonetheless, its use in a modern encyclopedia made it part of the revival of Hebrew as a contemporary language.
Eisenstein was a pioneer in American Jewish Hebraist and scholarly circles. In addition to his writings, he was one of the founders of the Agudat Ohole Shem Society, The Society for the Advancement of Hebrew Literature in America, an organization of like-minded individuals. The members were primarily lay people deeply steeped in Jewish tradition and culture, who were interested in traditional Jewish texts and commentaries, Jewish history, Jewish literature, and Hebrew and Semitic languages. At the monthly meetings of the society, members would lecture on these topics.
Between 1895 and 1897, the society published Ner Ha’Maaravi, “The Western Light,” a Hebrew periodical designed to shed light on the lives of the Jews, Judaism, and Jewish literature. The periodical was revived briefly in 1904 under the title Yalkut Ma’aravi. Eisenstein published a number of anthologies of traditional Jewish literature, among them Otsar Dinim u-Minhagim [Treasury of Jewish laws and customs], Otsar Derushim Nivharim [Treasury of sermons], Otsar Vikuhim [Treasury of disputations], Otsar Ma’amare Hazal [Treasury of Midrashic literature], Otsar Ma’amare Tanakh [Concordance of Biblical words and phrases], and Otsar Musar u-Midot [Treasury of morals and ethics]. An unpublished Otsar, Otsar Hilkhot Shabat, is in the Mendel Gottesman Library’s rare book room.
Perhaps the best known and enduring of Eisenstein’s Otsarot are the Otsar Perushim ve-Tsiyurim shel Hagadah shel Pesaḥ, a Passover Haggadah with commentaries and illustrations by the artist Lola (Leon Israel), and Otsar Masa’ot, a collection of itineraries by Jewish travelers to Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and other countries. The title page of this work was drawn by Ze’ev Raban, a famous member of the Bezalel school. Otsar Masa’ot included a description of Eisenstein’s trip to Palestine, illustrated with photographs Eisenstein took during his trip.
Eisenstein’s interest in and sensitivity to American Jewish history is evident in his Otsar Zikhronatai, probably his most important Otsar, a chronicle of personal, historic, and communal events from his arrival in America until its publication in 1929. It also includes a retrospective account of Jews in the New World harking back to their arrival in 1654.
J.D. Eisenstein’s intellectual and scholarly endeavors and accomplishments tried to popularize and make Jewish knowledge available to all who knew Hebrew. His activities shed light on a small group in New York in the late 19th and early 20th century: the Jewish maskil, usually an autodidact, a knowledgeable, enlightened, yet traditional Jew with wide-ranging interests in the treasure trove of Jewish topics.