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  • Daniel Santacruz

Largest collection of Ladino Bibles viewed by thousands in Madrid

By Daniel Santacruz

Bible printed in Amsterdam.
Cover of Bible printed in Amsterdam.

"Never has a Jewish cultural event been covered so by the media extensively in Spain and received so well by the public,” said Uriel Macías in an e-mail to referring to “Palabra por palabra: Biblias sefardíes en ladino en una colección madrileña” (Word by word: Sefardic Ladino Bibles from a Madrid collection), an exhibit of 90 rare Ladino books owned by him. Seventy-three are Bibles.

The exhibit, which opened September 18, was scheduled to close on October 26, but it has been extended until November 9 at the request of the directors of Madrid’s Círculo de Bellas Artes, where it is being held, said Macías.

Some 200 people attended the exhibit opening night and about 3,000 viewed it during the first four weeks, he added. But the exhibit, considered the largest collection of Ladino Bibles put together until now in Spain, is not the first as Macías had organized two small ones a few years ago. The current exhibit has received ample coverage in the media, which highlighted the importance of Ladino to keep Spanish culture alive in the countries where the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 settled.

“The exhibit is not for experts but for a lay public that may come away from it curious to know more about Sefardic culture,” said Madrid-born Macías in an interview with Radio Sefarad recently, adding that the Bible collection may not be the largest in the world, but the exhibit is the largest open to the public, he added.

Patience, love and time

Collecting of any type, he said, requires patience, along with love for what is being collected, and time, otherwise it’s impossible to do it. The economic cost is also important, but it is also important to be knowledgeable about what you are collecting, he added. The title of the exhibit, “Palabra por palabra,” comes from the cover of several Bibles, among them one printed in Ferrara in 1553 (photo), in which its translators, Abraham ben Salomon Usque and Yom Tov ben Levi Atías, promised that the work was “traduzida palabra por palabra de la verdad Hebrayaca por muy excelentes letrados (translated word by word from the Hebrew truth by outstanding scholars). The palabra por palabra translation system, Macías explained , was a uniquely Jewish, and especially Sefardic, which resulted in texts that had Spanish and Ladino words with Hebrew grammar. 

“For the twenty-first century reader, especially, reading [this type of texts] is difficult because the grammar is unnatural,” he added.  Some of Macías’ ancestors settled in Turkey and Tunisia. His maternal grandparents returned to Spain in 1936 and his paternal grandparents in 1950. According to press reports, Macías inherited a passion for collecting, especially Ladino Bibles, from his father, Moís Macías. After his death in 1998, Macías realized how important the collection was and decided to expand it, embarking on a worldwide search.

Only one of the works in the collection, the Book of Esther, printed in Vienna, had been in the family. It bears the name of its former owner, Isaac Hachuel, his father’s maternal uncle.

Macias is a specialist in Spanish Jewish bibliography as well as the author of several catalogs and articles on the subject. He has organized courses and exhibits about Sefardic Jews and the history of Jews in contemporary Spain, and is also founder and director of the permanent exhibit of the Museum of the History of the Jewish Community of Madrid. The exhibit is organized by Fundación Don Juan de Borbón España-Israel, and co-sponsored by Fundación César Vidal and Fundación San Millán de la Cogolla. Kolsefardim: How many Bibles do you own? ¿Are they all in the exhibit? Uriel Macías: Seventy-three. Ninety books are in the exhibition, of which 73 are Bibles. KS: Which is the oldest work in the collection? UM: Seventeen folios of the Ferrara Bible, not the complete book, from 1553. Some of them are not in good condition. They were used as padding for the cover of another book. KS: Where were the 90 books printed and in what years? UM: They were printed between 1553 and 1946 in Amsterdam, Constantinople, Smyrna [Izmir], Ferrara, Jerusalem, Livorno, London, Pisa, Salonika, Venice and Vienna. 


© Daniel Santacruz    October 2014

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