Daily Archives: June 5, 2013

A Hebrew Scholar at Harvard

Last night was the second annual Conservation Night at the Salem Athenaeum, at which the newly-conserved books which were “adopted” last year were showcased to their sponsors, as well as a whole new (actually very old) crop of books which need conservation through sponsorship. It was a really nice evening, because it was immediately apparent that everyone in attendance (quite a crowd) really loved books, and they were able to examine and touch and talk about such amazing texts as the 1730 edition of Newton’s Opticks, a 1774 edition of Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, several Hawthorne first editions, as well as the first appearance of Poe’s The Raven and Collected Poems in book form. Two conservators who did much of the work on the first group of adoptees were also on hand to discuss their process and answer questions (quite a lot of questions):  Peter Geraty of Praxis Bindery and Stephanie Gibbs. I was on the committee which chose the books to be put forward for adoption, so I’ve been looking and thinking about these titles all year long. I knew that the Newton and the Franklin and the Poe and anything by Hawthorne (this is Salem after all) would find sponsors quickly (and so they did) but that less famous titles might be “orphaned”, so I went straight for a more mundane text (book), the first Hebrew textbook to be published in America by the first Jew to receive a college degree in the New World:  Judah Monis’s Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue [Dickdook leshon gnebreet]. Being an Essay to Bring the Hebrew Grammar into English, to Facilitate the Instruction of All Those Who Are Desirous of Acquiring a Clear Idea of this Primitive Tongue by their Own Studies.  Boston, N.E., Printed by Jonas Green, and are to be sold by the author at his house in Cambridge, 1735.

Monis 1

Monis 3

Monis 4

As an educator myself, I was drawn to this important educational text:  upperclassmen at Harvard College in the eighteenth century were required to read the Old Testament in its original language, and so training in Hebrew was essential. Monis transitioned from student to instructor at Harvard in the 1720s based on his knowledge of the ancient language, and students would make copies of his handwritten grammar before the college imported Hebrew type from England and commissioned the printed text, which remained required reading for undergraduates for much of the eighteenth century. I was also drawn to Monis’s personal story: born in the Old world, he flourished in the New, based on the expertise he acquired from his heritage. But in order to retain his position at Harvard  (which he held until his retirement in 1760) he was compelled to relinquish a good part of that heritage and convert to Christianity.

Monis 5

Monis 2

The complete list of adoptable Athenaeum books is available here: there are still a few “orphans”, and one share of Monis, I believe.


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