National Library of Israel Quietly Opens its Majestic New Building In the Midst of War

Israel National Library.

Many visitors coming to Israel to volunteer their time and show support have found another site to visit in Jerusalem – the new home of the National Library of Israel. Yet the new and beautiful library is tempered by war and sadness, as is most of the country.

I traveled to Israel last month to check on children and grandchildren and do some volunteering, but the library was also on my list of things to do. That’s because one of the library’s magnificent new reading rooms houses the Valmadonna Trust, a collection of 13,000 printed books and manuscripts printed in Hebrew or in Hebrew script and sold to the National Library of Israel in 2017. The collection was the life’s work of my uncle, Jack Lunzer, and on visits I would see him in his study in Jerusalem or London, marveling over the newest sefer (Jewish text) he had purchased.

On trips to New York booksellers would sometimes meet him at our home to show him books whose origins and content he typically knew better than they did. Seeing the books at the new library building, in a room paneled, quiet and softly lit, brought back his enthusiastic perusals of new books and early morning calls to my father about booksellers who were anxious to send new books in time for my father’s next trip to London. Many items in the collection are rare or unique, and many date back to the earliest Hebrew printings. The books are now at home in Jerusalem.

While the library had planned to open its new, $255 million building, to great fanfare this past fall, it instead opened quietly in late October and has already lent its beauty and mission to aspects of the war. Families of released and still captive hostages have gone on tours of the magnificent new building, and an exhibit features chairs representing every hostage still captive, including a highchair for one-year-old Kfir Bibas, with a book on each seat specially chosen for each hostage. The Hebrew title of the book chosen for Ariel Bibas, 4, Kfir’s redheaded brother whose parents were also taken hostage, is called “Mommy and Me.”

Mobile collections have been sent out to lend books to families temporarily relocated to Jerusalem and the museum has begun collecting artifacts that will tell the story of the war, says Rachel Neiman, head of international media and public relations at the library, such as WhatsApp messages sent by residents of kibbutzim that were attacked on the morning of Oct. 7.

The new building replaces the old beloved one on the Hebrew University campus and the U.S. affiliate of the National Library of Israel, NLI USA, has connections to two Washingtonians – U.S. Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew is the immediate past co-president and David Makovsky, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is president. “The National Library of Israel is a gem,” Lew said in a statement. “A resource for people from the four corners of the world who are interested in the history of Israel and of Jewish communities everywhere. With digitization and our ability to connect virtually, I see the Library as a cultural and educational destination for all of us in America.”

Among the library’s mission is to have copies of all material published in Israel, in any language; all publications on the subject of Israel, the land of Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people published in any language, in any country in the world; and all material published in Hebrew or any languages spoken in the Jewish diaspora such as Yiddish and Ladino. That vast mission has a visual element in the new building: multiple floors below ground contain much of the library’s collection, retrieved by massive robotic arms.

Watching the giant arms collect normal sized books is a highlight of a tour of the library.
While much of the collection focuses on the printed word, items include video, art and audio that tell the story of Jewish culture. Enroute to research rooms where librarians are ready to help are textiled walls, explains Neiman, a calming, beautiful site that prepare visitors for the serenity of the library.

The stone of the outside walls reflect Jerusalem and installations include video images of people in motion, just as the books do.

Windows overlook a garden – made up flowers and trees specific to Israel – planted before construction was completed so as to abide with the rules of Shmita, a Sabbatical year that occurs every seven years under Jewish law during which nothing can be planted. The last Shmita year was September 2021 to September 2022, which is why the garden’s construction pace was ahead of the building’s pace.

An entire floor given over to Jewish texts and the library also houses the personal archives of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem as well as the Gerson Scholem Collection for the Research of Kabbalah and Hasidism, including Scholem’s personal library and items added since his death in 1982.

There is a small admission fee of about $12 for adults and $9 for students and information about tours is available on the library’s website. “We expect to have our audio guides available in February which will allow visitors to see the building at their own pace,” explains Neiman. Visitors will stand on marked tiles to hear about the art and artifacts around them.

The library has a pop-up coffee shop but is soon to add a permanent one as well as a restaurant and cultural events in the evening. Musicians from the Gaza border performed one November evening.

A highlight of the new building is the juxtaposition of technology and the printed words. Rare items, such as a song written by Israel song writer Naomi Shemer, are housed in temperature-controlled glass that light up at the touch of a button and stay lit for 15 seconds. One artifact that touched the heart of a visitor was the handwritten seating chart for a Tu B’Shevat seder, the upcoming New Year for trees. Names handwritten in ink around an oval shape depicting her dining room helped Lady Rothschild prepare for a holiday we all need right now – one of the promise of new beginnings and brighter days.

“The openness, both in design and accessibility to books, felt like an invitation for me to spend days at a time uncovering the layers of our history, meandering through the pages of our people’s books to learn more about who I am and where I come from. The reference desk volunteer even found me a book chronicling a branch of my family. The possibilities felt endless,” said Elizabeth Diament, a senior educator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Fran Kritz is a freelance writer.

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