Cities, it is frequently said in Academialand, are essentially in the imagination. What they look like and what people do in them is “constructed” (even better, “mediated”) by the beliefs and values that help shape our experiences of them. Top cities are often imagined in pairs: St. Petersburg and Moscow define each other; each means, indeed “is,” what the other “is not”—the one modern, the other traditional. So too Berlin and Munich (pragmatic vs. arty), Los Angeles and New York, Barcelona and Madrid. It’s all quite relative, and very much in the mind—the stuff of literature and art.

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have often been painted in such colors: Tel Aviv brash and European, Jerusalem studied, Oriental—and exquisitely painful to the modern sensibilities of an Amos Oz (My Michael) or a Yehuda Amichai (Poems of Love and Jerusalem). One can feel their pain: Jerusalem’s tatty downtown and ageless Old City perch on a mountain ridge hemmed in by an arid wilderness seemingly unchanged since Bible times—a far cry from the Art Deco chic, marinas, and soaring towers of Tel Aviv. Here is a feast for binary imaginations.

Top cities are often imagined in pairs.

The Jerusalem of reality, as Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint disclose in their mesmerizing narrative, Jerusalem: City of the Book, is every bit as vivid as that of the imagination, often even surpassing it—a fact embodied in the pages of books themselves, the places built to hold them or hide them, and the people responsible for them. All this is richly illustrated and narrated.

Of writing books there is no end, said Qohelet, the biblical King of Jerusalem, and the sacred city has produced them for three millennia, for a multitude of faiths and camps—Judaism, Hellenism, Christianity, and Islam in all their forms—and for the secular gods that now demand submission.

Histories of Jerusalem exist in abundance: from F. E. Peters’s magisterial cultural sweep (1985) to Martin Gilbert’s analyses of the emergent modern city (1985) and Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s graphic, often witty saga (2011). But none focuses on Jerusalem’s books.

Mack and Balint clearly relished the task, and they transmit that relish to the reader. For every library known and open to the public, there are many more libraries and repositories of the written word open only at special times or to very special people—or just never open. “Like families,” they write, “Jerusalem’s libraries are riddled with secrets and concealments.” How our authors tracked them down is a story in itself. A good part of the interest lies in how they talked gatekeepers and librarians into letting them come anywhere near some of the books—and in the reasons that they normally would not. Frequently, this was not because of what the books said (although that can be a problem almost anywhere on earth) but because of sheer rarity or previous losses. (I say “books” and “what books say,” but we often use the word “book” in the more abstract sense of the text of a book, rather than the physical form—manuscript, print, parchment, vellum, scrolls, codices, and—increasingly today—books on tape, on disk, or online.)

Taking their cue from Jerusalem’s long and tempestuous timeline, the authors proceed from antiquity (Rome destroys Jerusalem, the Bible is canonized, the Church acquires power) through Arab conquest, the Crusades, the Mamluk and Ottoman Empires, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Zionist influx and the emergence of modern Jerusalem, the War of Independence (1948), and finally the partition of Jerusalem (1949) and its reunification (1967) under Israeli control.

“Like families,” they write, “Jerusalem’s libraries are riddled with secrets and concealments.”

To each era its own texts, anchored in the physical manuscripts or books and the institutions to which the authors conduct us, and to each of these its own story—with a checkered panoply of men and women who variously wrote them, sought them, bought them, or pillaged them. There was Josephus, the Jewish military leader turned Roman historian, one of the few witnesses to write about the sacred library at the Jewish Temple that laid the basis for the Jewish Bible. There were the monks of Mar Saba, an ancient monastery on a desert cliff outside the city, who created a Christian literature in Arabic following the Muslim conquest. There is His Beatitude Nourhan Manougian, the current Armenian patriarch of Jerusalem, who grants the authors permission to view some of the treasures of the Saint Toros library, the greatest in Jerusalem’s Old City, home to four thousand manuscripts and (perhaps wisely) not connected to the electricity grid. There is the Ethiopian Orthodox Archbishop Abuna Enbakom, who sends them to Addis Ababa to gain entry permits to a “dark single-room library” in a Jerusalem backstreet chaotically housing 468 religious manuscripts in Ge’ez, the Ethiopian liturgical language. There was Hajj Matityahu, one of two thousand Persian Jews forcibly converted to Islam in 1839, who eventually absconded to Jerusalem and whose great-grandson Efraim Halevi manages an almost unknown Sephardic Council archive, much of it in a Ladino cursive that few but he can decipher. In an Arab neighborhood, there is Fahmi al-Ansari’s small private library, where the authors happen upon part of the second-century A.D. code of Jewish law, the Mishnah, in an Arabic translation created (by an Arab graduate) in the 1940s. There is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate library, which denied entry to the authors, still smarting from the depredations of Bishop Uspensky, who in 1860 flogged 435 manuscripts to the Russian Imperial Library. And, inevitably, there are forgers, most cunning of all Wilhelm Shapira, whose “3,000 year old” Biblical scrolls were briefly displayed at the British Museum, but are now long gone, like Shapira, who shot himself in 1884. Some of his forgeries are still kept at Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum. What were once expressions of faith had morphed, we are told, into a modern nationalistic “fetish of authenticity,” with nations vying to claim these documents as their own for reasons of prestige. Not to my mind; as Anthony Grafton has shown, the Renaissance too made a fetish of the past and used it to project national power.

One happy product of all the modern looting were the two-thousand-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls, including the oldest known Biblical texts, as well as ancient hymns, communal regulations, and military correspondence. While modern dealers have sold or smuggled many of them overseas, many others are now at last published and housed together in the Shrine of the Book, a stunning structure iconic of the old-new Jewish capital.

Today, eclipsing every library there ever was in Jerusalem, is the Israel National Library, a new kid on the block but a secure home (one hopes) for the largest collection of books in the Near East since the fabled Library of Alexandria—embodying the ingathering of the Jewish nation to its land while seeking to salvage perhaps one million books that survived the ravages of Hitler (and Stalin). But not without a struggle: some initially argued that the true heirs to these books were those comprising the six-million-strong American Jewish community, not the 600,000 Jews living tenuously under British occupation in Palestine—and 40 percent of the books were duly shipped to the United States. Sadly, other such battles remain unresolved, such as the one over the trove of Jewish artifacts rescued by the U.S. military from a police basement in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and that over the fabled Schneerson Hasidic library, seized by the Bolsheviks and tragically still held in Moscow as “Russian cultural heritage.” Priceless Yemenite and Syrian manuscripts were also filched while being brought to Israel, with no one brought to justice.

Great collections have attracted great scholars. The reserved seats at the Israel National Library’s Judaica reading room once resembled a Who’s Who. I witnessed them. But today’s luminaries are just as likely to be in their office squinting at or some online journal, their seats in the library occupied by students munching and texting. Perhaps it’s just as well that our authors don’t dwell on the future of libraries.

Intriguing issues emerge at every turn in this book. What has Jerusalem signified, to whom, and why? What are libraries for, and what do they mean? What is a book? Sanctity? Salvation? But there is no attempt to treat them methodically; this is not so much an academic study as a scholarly travelogue, rich in vignettes of significant people, places, and events, avidly praising cultural exchange and other celebranda of our time. Sometimes the journey stops and the guides expound—on dragomans and book heists, forgeries and urban planning. But source texts are generally brief and subordinate to the authors’ own whimsical narrative. Writers whose responses to Jerusalem have been so seminal, such as Amichai, Oz, Zev Vilnai, Elie Wiesel, and A. J. Heschel, are scarcely acknowledged. The narrative itself, though arresting, even entertaining, is sometimes difficult to follow. It teems with red herrings, parentheses that should have been endnotes, and names that come dropping fast while the reader is left gasping for background. (How and why, for example, did Karaism suddenly appear and disappear? Or who or what were the Mamluks?)

Indeed, I searched in vain for a glossary, a map, or a timeline. One would have appreciated some insights into what made Jerusalem so different from Mecca as a spiritual gateway for the ascent to heaven and the divine descent on Judgment Day, and how Mohammed’s “night journey,” explained as a dream by the respected tenth-century Koranic commentator Al Tabari, was reconceived as a physical event. Similarly, the nineteenth-century boom in pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the funding or pillaging of its libraries had more than a little to do with great power rivalries (both spiritual and territorial), romanticism, mass religious awakenings, and the beginnings of steamship tourism and the popular press. Nor should Oleg Grabar’s statement, in reference to medieval Jerusalem, that a “significant Jewish monumental presence appears only in the nineteenth century” be allowed to obscure the spectacular Jewish monumental presence in the ancient city: the Holy Temple, the city walls, the tombs of nobility, and of course the Western Wall of the Temple platform, extolled in Jewish folk memory as the kotel maaravi, which still stands today.

But lest the Jewish claim to Jerusalem appear too strong, the authors have unabashedly rewritten the history of the city to marginalize its Jewish connections.

And there’s the rub. Taking advantage of the regnant scholarly passion for narratives, Mack and Balint felt free to infuse a narrative of their own, one promising a reconciliation between Jew, Arab, and all other interested parties in the Holy City, based on a faith in “the compromises of partial return” (of Palestinian Arabs), thus creating “a place where Israelis and Palestinians ground their respective identities.” But lest the Jewish claim to Jerusalem appear too strong, the authors have unabashedly rewritten the history of the city to marginalize its Jewish connections. For almost a millennium and a half, the Jews seem to vanish. Was Jerusalem really judenrein from the Roman conquest until they suddenly reappear in 1492? In actual fact, they played an important part in briefing the seventh-century Arab conquerors about the religious significance of the Temple Mount, as documented by Peters, and continued to live and study there except for a hiatus during the Crusades, attracting such greats as Nahmanides and Obadiah da Bertinoro. Alas, little survived of Jerusalem’s synagogues or their libraries under Crusader, Mamluk, or Ottoman rule—only a Jewish literature that fortunately was nurtured in other places. Also strangely missing from Mack and Balint’s narrative is the near-miraculous regeneration of yeshivot (Talmudic academies) after their liquidation by the Nazis and Soviets. To witness the round-the-clock Talmudic learning in the study halls of Merkaz Harav or Belz is to see the most intensive use of libraries in the Holy City—and a study culture largely unchanged since antiquity. The one yeshiva that does get a mention is the small Torat Chaim—for the reason that its library was rescued from the Arab Legion by its Arab caretaker.

The authors coyly mention the “irony” that “many have remarked on” regarding Palestinian claims to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which describe the same Jewish Temple dismissed by Palestinian guidebooks as a fiction. And they conclude: “In Jerusalem, when historical retrieval aims to legitimize origins, it always seems to require erasure.” Given their uncritical reading of the twentieth-century construction of Palestinian national memory (in a spirit worthy of Benedict Anderson and of the recently christened discipline of “memory studies”), it is hard not to read this as an endorsement of Arab denial and erasure of Jewish connections. To speak of “political battlegrounds” and “contentiousness” is a tad ingénu.

The “imagined” Jerusalem is, in fact, far more than a postmodernist trope. It is a vast subject, far greater than the scope of this book. It embraces the celestial city and the beliefs that have inspired centuries of pilgrimage. Artists like Conrad Schick who created models of ancient Jerusalem were not intent on “the real blurring into the imagined,” but on a very real past.

Is this book, as its prologue declares, about “reading Jerusalem”? Not in so many words. After centuries of plunder, migration, and neglect, much of Jerusalem’s literature has been scattered or lost. Meanwhile, the city has acquired other writings from near and far—most famously the Dead Sea Scrolls. And whatever the spiritual bonds, now or in times past, between Jerusalem and all its “textual communities,” their scriptures are not lodged in its libraries; they are in every sense global. If the city’s books are indeed a “palimpsest,” appropriating and recycling memories across languages and ages, one must add “and across places.”

And one major exclusion: for many of the city’s traditional residents, such as the stringently traditionalist Haredim, “memory is expressed in ritual, law and liturgy.” Here, history-writing and documentation count for little.

But might the Haredim have the last laugh? As books and manuscripts go digital and libraries become museums, traditionalist Jews—prohibited from manipulating electric and electronic equipment during their Sabbath day of rest—will continue to use real books and real libraries.

Meanwhile, on a quite different plane, Jerusalem will exist, as ever, “by the power of words”—not its physical tomes but the letters flying aloft (to evoke a Talmudic image), a sheer idea, summoning peoples from the ends of the earth to the Holy City, whether to share or to seize, to hallow or to raze.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 7, on page 65
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