New podcast! Check out our latest episode, “Mr. Lowy’s Room of Wonder

Vignette of a highly decorative manuscript keyOur latest podcast episode is now available. Check out “Mr. Lowy’s Room of Wonder.

Down an obscure hallway at our downtown Ottawa location, there is a mysterious room overflowing with majestic tomes and ancient wisdom. “The Lowy Room,” as it is affectionately called by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) staff, is a self-contained museum housing over 3,000 rare, often unique items dating back to the 15th century. In 1977, Jacob M. Lowy donated this collection of Hebraica and Judaica to LAC on the condition that it be kept together as a distinct collection and with its own dedicated curator.

In this episode, we pay a visit to the current curator of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection, Michael Kent, who gives us a guided tour of some of the incredible items in the collection and shares the stories surrounding their journey.

To view images associated with this podcast, here’s a direct link to our Flickr album.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS, iTunes or Google Play, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

For more information, please contact us at bac.balados-podcasts.lac@canada.ca.

From the Lowy Room: commemorating a centennial gift

By Michael Kent

So far, 2017 has been quite the year in Canada. In addition to countless public conversations, gatherings and events, 2017 has seen many significant legacy projects undertaken to commemorate our country’s sesquicentennial, such as the opening of the Global Centre for Pluralism, or the reopening of the Canadian Science and Technology Museum. Watching the realization of these new legacy projects, it is worth remembering that 2017 is also the fiftieth anniversary of thousands of similar projects from Canada’s centennial year of 1967.

A black-and-white photo of a large room with glass displays showing off books.

Books from the Canadian Jewish Congress gift on display at the National Library in 1967. Source: Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives.

We, at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), can appreciate first-hand the importance of 1967 legacy projects. Our own building at 395 Wellington Street, along a corridor which includes Parliament and the Supreme Court, was opened in 1967 as a centennial legacy project. We have had the pleasure this year of celebrating this Jubilee and reflecting upon how this space has allowed us to collect, preserve, and tell the story of Canada. While our building was certainly a significant legacy project to Library and Archives Canada, it was not the only legacy project our institution was a part of.

A legacy gift from Canada’s Jewish community

As the curator of the Jacob M. Lowy collection of rare Judaica, the centennial legacy project I experience regularly is the Judaica collection gifted to the then National Library by the then Canadian Jewish Congress on behalf of the Canadian Jewish community. A gift I am reminded of constantly as I open reference works I use to see the blue, white, and red bookplate indicating that the volume in my hand was part of the gift.

Reading archival documents from the Canadian Jewish Congress, held in the Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives, it was clear that it was extremely important to the Canadian Jewish community to contribute to the centennial year and give back to Canadians. Dr. W. Kaye Lamb, the first National Librarian, was very appreciative of this gift, feeling it met a long identified need at the National Library, noting that many other national libraries had similar collections.

Content of the gift

This gift of approximately 7,000 volumes, in a mix of English, French, Yiddish, and Hebrew, encompassed all areas of Jewish scholarship, such as rabbinic literature, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history, Yiddish classics, Hebrew literature, selections representing Jewish contributions to the arts and science, and important encyclopaedias and reference works. Highlights include a general encyclopedia in Yiddish, the Encyclopedia Talmudit, and Cecil Roth’s Jewish Art. All the books were selected, catalogued, and delivered in time for the new building’s opening. To this day, this donation forms the foundation of our Judaica holdings and serves as an important reference tool used constantly by LAC staff and clients. Users can request and consult these and other items from Library and Archives Canada holdings on site in the main building at 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa.

Legacy of the gift

While many of the centennial legacy projects focused on physical buildings, it is very appropriate that Canada’s Jewish community chose to dedicate their resources to building the Judaica collection at the National Library. The Jewish people have long been referred to as the people of the book and their history, culture, and religious practices have been inseparable from the written word for thousands of years. Beyond a gift of physical items, this gift allowed for an expansion of the Judaic information and content available to all Canadians and an immeasurable legacy of knowledge. While many of the physical structures built in 1967 will eventually disappear from our country’s landscape, the knowledge that developed as a result of this donation of books has the potential to continue for centuries to come.

A colour photograph of a bookplate illustrated with a flame and a burning bush. The bilingual text describes that the book was donated by the Canadian Jewish Congress on behalf of Jewish communities across Canada. Beside the illustration is a passage from Exodus.3-2: …the bush burned with fire, but the bush was not consumed.

The custom bookplate for the Judaica books donated from the Canadian Jewish Congress to the National Library of Canada to commemorate the centennial of the Canadian confederation.

In 1965, at the laying of the corner stone for the new building, Governor General Georges Vanier stated that “…this building will become the repository of the very heart and spirit of our country.” How fitting that in time for the opening of this new building, the Canadian Jewish community was able to deposit in this structure a part of their own heart and spirit, in book form, to be shared with all Canadians.


Michael Kent is curator of the Jacob M. Lowy collection at Library and Archives Canada

From the Lowy Room: remnants of Spanish Jewry

By Michael Kent

As a librarian, people often question me about the value of the print book in the digital age. After all, many of the books in the collections I serve can be found in digital formats online. While it is true that even the oldest works in Library and Archives Canada’s collections are now accessible in a range of formats online, I maintain that the power of the physical items—and the stories behind them—go far beyond the mere content of the page.

One of the items that evokes this sentiment in a powerful way is the fragment of the 1491 Pentateuch, the Jewish canonical scriptures, from Spain.

This Bible, printed by Eliezer ibn Alantansi in Hijar, Spain, was the last dated Hebrew book printed in Spain before the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492. While the age, the print quality, or the level of scholarship necessary to produce this book alone make it an important work in early printing, it is the story it tells about the expulsion of Spain’s Jews that makes it a powerful item to behold.

Sadly, refugee crises are not new. Currently, our world is in the midst of a global refugee crisis, a crisis we are able to observe almost first-hand due to the rise of social media. The modern world has allowed us to gain an important and humbling glimpse into the struggles of those living in refugee camps.

The breadth of media content, blogs, pictures and personal accounts will allow future generations of scholars to understand the struggles of contemporary refugees in a way previous generations of scholars could never have imagined. But what about past refugees—how do we try to understand the struggles of medieval refugees, their expectations, their former lives, their hopes for the future, and the devastation caused by their upheavals?

These questions represent a tremendous challenge for historians who wish to uncover the experiences of those in the past. History needs to be more than dates and the stories of the elites; the stories of the masses and the collective experiences we need to learn from are the important episodes that should be investigated.

This is where I return to the biblical fragment found in the Lowy collection. From a content-on-the-page perspective, does the Pentateuch represent anything more than a standard Rabbinic Bible, the type that could be downloaded for free? The simple answer is no. Looking outside the text, does this item provide insights into the lives of Spanish Jewry on the eve of expulsion? I believe the answer is a resounding yes.

A colour photograph of a yellowed, printed page written in Hebrew.

A leaf of the 1490 Hebrew Bible printed by Eliezer ben Avraham Alantansi (AMICUS 32329787)

I look at this page and see a community that saw itself as stable and with a future in Spain. In the early days of printing, a Bible like this would have been a major undertaking. The establishment of communal infrastructure in the form of a printing press, the investment in scholarship, and a major economic undertaking are, to me, evidence that Spain’s Jews saw themselves as secure and with a long and stable future in the Iberian Peninsula. I look at this page and see people who did not imagine the major upheaval and communal devastation that was less than two years away. In short, I see firsthand evidence of one of Medieval Europe’s largest refugee experiences.

As a librarian and curator, I strongly believe in the power of the physical book, a power that goes far beyond the content of the work. While e-books and websites ensure global access to a range of intellectual content, the humbling experience and historic evidence offered by the physical book are irreplaceable.


Michael Kent is the Curator of the Jacob M. Lowy collection

From the Lowy Room: Canada’s Talmud

By Michael Kent

One of the most common questions I am asked as the curator of the Jacob M. Lowy collection is “which is your favourite book in the collection?” While I am unsure if I will ever be able to pick one, there is a work in the collection which I often highlight. Visitors are not surprised when I mention it is one of our Talmuds, the written compendium of Jewish oral law codified in antiquity and arguably the most important Jewish text after the Torah, after all we have impressive volumes from Soncino from the 1400s and Bomberg from the 1500s. I often get a surprised look when instead of selecting a 500 year old volume, I pick a volume that is not even 100 years old.

The item, and one of my favourite works in the collection, is the 1919 Montreal Talmud, which’s publication was termed “the most important event in the annals of Canadian Jewry,” by Canadian Jewish Congress president Lyon Cohen.

To truly appreciate my admiration for this printing of the Talmud, one needs to understand Canadian Jewish history. While some Jews did arrive in Canada during the 1700s, large scale Jewish immigration to Canada did not begin until 1880s. In the early 1900s, the majority of Canadian Jews were actually born in Eastern Europe.

A colour photograph of an open book showing Hebraic writing.

Frontispiece of the 1919 Montreal Talmud in the Jacob M. Lowy Room at Library and Archives Canada.

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Images of the Altona Haggadah now on Flickr 

The Altona Haggadah, a colourful handwritten and hand-illuminated manuscript on paper, created in 1763, is one of the treasures of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection at Library and Archives Canada (LAC).

The Haggadah, which means “telling” in Hebrew, is an important text in the Jewish tradition that is used during the Passover Seder, a ceremonial meal held in Jewish homes to commemorate the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt. It is a compilation of biblical passages, prayers, hymns and rabbinic literature.

You can also find incunabula (books printed before 1500), Bibles, ancient Jewish manuscripts and about 80 other Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) in LAC’s collection.

From the Lowy Room: the brightly illuminated manuscript of the Altona Haggadah

By Leah Cohen

The Altona Haggadah is one of the treasures of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection. This handwritten, colourfully illuminated manuscript on paper was created in 1763 for the holiday of Passover in Altona, Germany.

A haggadah, which means “telling” in Hebrew, is a text read during the Passover seder (“order” of service), a ceremonial meal that follows ritual steps laden with symbolic meaning. It is held in Jewish homes or public places, to commemorate the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt. The seder takes place on the first night of the holiday in Israel, and on the first two nights of the holiday outside Israel.

The rabbis instituted this “telling” based on the biblical Book of Exodus 13:8: “And thou shalt tell (higadeta) thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”

The idea behind the seder and the haggadah is not a mere recounting of facts. Rather, the goal is to convey the experience of being a slave in Egypt who was liberated suddenly by God’s hand, and who as a free man witnessed God giving the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai.

Examples of seder rituals

The family, or any group gathered together for a seder, carries out specific ritual steps. For example, they eat foods evocative of the slave/liberation experience, such as haroset, a mixture of ground fruit or nuts (the recipe varies), to convey the slaves’ arduous work carrying bricks. Or participants eat bitter herbs such as horseradish to recall the bitterness of slavery. They drink four glasses of wine while leaning to the left, a pose of ease, showing the behaviour of free men. The four cups of wine are intended to echo the four expressions of God’s redemption of the Israelites in the biblical Book of Exodus 6:6–8 (“I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians … I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments”).

Participants are encouraged to ask questions and debate, not just to read the haggadah passively. The seder aims to pique children’s curiosity, so traditionally the children recite a song asking why this night is different than any other night. The haggadah also includes prayers of Hallel, praising God. Fun-loving table songs, though not required, were added over time and are still enjoyed today.

The challenge of transmission or making the evening meaningful is accentuated because of the variety of people living in different times and places. An olive farmer in ancient Galilee would have related to the story of the Exodus from Egypt differently than, say, a 21st-century techie in Silicon Valley.

Therefore a specific haggadah is one source, among others, of popular culture for learning about a particular community. An artifact shows “mind in matter” (to quote Jules Prown), in addition to its textual content.

Why is the Altona Haggadah different from other haggadot?

The Altona Haggadah was part of a trend in Central Europe initiated by the “Court Jews.” These people, who often worked as financiers for noblemen, collected artistically designed Judaica objects for the home, such as handwritten and illuminated manuscripts. Such manuscripts were prized, even though Hebrew printing had existed since the 15th century! The existence of the Altona Haggadah shows that the collection of manuscripts was later adopted by the middle class. Because of the naive style of the art, an artist–scribe with less training could probably be commissioned—and at a lower cost than a “high-end” artist.

The small but lively Jewish community in Altona had been granted the privilege of engaging in shipbuilding by King Christian IV. As a result, there was economic stability and a middle class. The scenes of contemporary participants on the page that shows the ritual steps of the seder indicate a certain degree of comfort. For example, they are sitting on chairs that appear to be upholstered, around a sturdy table that is covered with a red cloth. In a room lit by a chandelier, each person also has the luxury of using his own haggadah.

Colourful image, in red, brown and grey, of a page from a manuscript of a Passover haggadah. The 12 ritual steps of the seder are illustrated. On the outer and inner margins beside the illustrations, text in Hebrew names the ritual and gives directions on how to carry it out in Yiddish (written in the Hebrew alphabet).

The illustrations show the ritual steps of the seder being carried out by contemporary participants. The scenes provide a snapshot of the Jewish lifestyle in Altona in the 1760s (AMICUS 33226322).

The Altona Haggadah also informs us that Jews in Altona had much in common with Jews elsewhere during the early modern period. For example, the scribe painstakingly wrote the commentary of Don Isaac Abravanel, 1437–1508, in small cursive letters, wrapped around the central text. This commentary, with its emphasis on redemption, written by a Jewish man who was forced to flee the Iberian Peninsula, was first printed in 1505 and is commonly found in Passover haggadot.

The artist and his work

The study of the Altona Haggadah, like that of any visual source, is an opportunity to learn about the artist and the iconography.

The name of the artist–scribe Elkanah “Pituhe Hotem” (literally, Elkanah, “engraver of the seal,” referring to the engraved stones in the shoulder piece of the High Priest in biblical Jerusalem), son of Meir Malir (Meir, the Painter, in Yiddish) is found in the colophon, the closing statement at the end of the Altona Haggadah.

We know of only two other manuscripts that Elkanah created. One of these, at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is a haggadah on vellum, or animal skin, whereas the haggadah at the Jacob M. Lowy Collection is on paper. The other manuscript, “Tikune Shabat” (special prayers for the Sabbath), is found in the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

The Lowy haggadah has a unique feature: an “omer” calendar. This is a calendar used to count the 49 days from the second night of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites. An omer is a biblical unit: a measure of grain. On the second night of Passover, an omer of barley was brought to the Temple as an offering, which marked the first day of the count. Since no Jewish calendars were printed in Altona during the 1750s and 1760s, the omer calendar may have been a welcome way to keep track of the count.

A colour image of two pages from a book. The writing is in Hebrew, in red and black, and includes mystical references. Some squares are colourful pieces of paper with a simple floral design, which were affixed to the calendar.

The Omer calendar, in which each square represents the cumulative days counted from the second day of Passover to Shavuot (AMICUS 33226322).

The scribe–artist Elkanah, or the patron who commissioned the Altona Haggadah, was influenced by the Amsterdam Haggadah or its many subsequent imitations. The Amsterdam Haggadah, which was printed in 1695, featured innovative copperplate engravings.

A collage presenting, side by side, the same page from two different editions of a book. In both images, there are drawings of two men standing on each side of a text in Hebrew. The page on the left is in colour, while the page on the right is in grey tones.

The colourful title page of the Altona Haggadah, 1763, is on the left (AMICUS 33226322); the engraved title page of the Amsterdam Haggadah, 1695, is on the right (AMICUS 29060785). Both show Moses and Aaron as well as vignettes (small illustrations) of Bible stories. The imagery in the Altona Haggadah has been simplified, and there are fewer vignettes—only three in medallions on the top of the page.

Another example of the influence of the Amsterdam Haggadah can be seen in both editions’ representations of the four sons. The four sons symbolize the attitudes of four types of participants in the seder: the wise son, the wicked son, the innocent son and the son who does not even know how to formulate a question.

A collage presenting, side by side, part of a page from two different editions of a book. Both images have four men with different clothes and poses; the images are alike because the corresponding men are dressed and posed similarly. The page on the left is in colour, while the page on the right is in grey tones.

The colourful illustration of the four sons in the Altona Haggadah is on the left (AMICUS 33226322); the engraved version of the four sons in the Amsterdam Haggadah is on the right (AMICUS 29060785).

Elkanah, the artist–scribe, used iron gall ink, notorious now for its corroding effect on paper, to write the text. He illuminated it with colours whose pigments included copper and other metals. Both ink and pigments caused corrosion that even a de-acidification in 1987 could not stop. The Altona Haggadah was brought to Library and Archives Canada’s conservators in 2007. How would they save this cultural artifact? They will share their secrets in the following blog, to be published next week.

Related sites:


Leah Cohen is a curator at the Jacob M. Lowy Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

From the Lowy Room: the magnificent 1657 Walton Polyglot Bible

Although Brian Walton sounds like a guy you could google or find on LinkedIn, one glance at his likeness in the 1657 Polyglot Bible, resplendent in bishop’s robes, quill in hand, will quickly disabuse you of that notion. Walton, indeed, was a product of the 17th century and left a legacy in the form of the magnificent multilingual Bible comprised of original tongues and early translations. Two versions of the bible were printed, the earlier one is known as the “Republican” version which thanks Cromwell in the dedication for removing the import tax on paper. The latter one is known as the “Loyal” version as it was printed after the Restoration of the Monarchy. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has the privilege of owning both versions. These bibles are just some of the treasures available in the Jacob Lowy Room at 395 Wellington Street for scholars and the general public due to the foresight of Mr. Lowy and LAC.

Colour photograph of a richly ornate book with gold leaf and the inscription “Bibla Polyglotta Walton” on the spine.

The 1657 Walton Polyglot Bible (AMICUS 940077)

If not for the Polyglot that bears his name, Walton’s face and backstory might not have made it to the 21st century, as his grave was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. An active and controversial clerical figure in the 1600s, he disagreed with some of his puritan parishioners and a House of Commons committee over the issue of tithes. Forced into early retirement in Oxford, he used the opportunity of enforced leisure to brush up on a few ancient languages, conceive a plan to create a polyglot Bible, sell the idea to eminent scholars of the day, and enlist the services of his colleagues who specialized in Eastern learning.

Colour photograph showing an image of a man standing in bishop’s robes with a quill in his hand and looking directly at the reader.

Engraving of Brian Walton in the introduction to the 1657 Polyglot Bible.

At least three polyglot Bibles had appeared in Europe in the 1600s but Walton was interested in creating a less costly, more saleable version. It was a successful commercial venture, even though Walton had priced it at £50. It often was the most expensive book on the shelves of scholars and gentlemen. This was the first work to be sold in England by subscription. By the time the work was ready for press, over £9,000 had been collected. It also represented a technological triumph of the day, being the first Bible to print all versions side by side on the same page.

Colour photograph showing the different languages side by side.

An example from the 1657 Polygot Bible with all the languages and scripts laid out

That is just one of the incredible features of this six-volume set that gives new meaning to the word “tome.” Seeing the ancient biblical text appearing in nine languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Persian on one page, with Latin translations of each language, makes you wish you had taken more languages at school.

The Walton Polyglot is a unique work with a unique story to tell, not only through its content but also through its more than 400-year journey from London into the Montreal home of Jacob Lowy who donated his entire world-class library of rare and old Hebraica to LAC in 1977.

For more information about the Lowy Collection, please visit http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/lowy-collection/index-e.html.