On 19 October 2021, a medieval Jewish prayer book was auctioned off at Sotheby’s New York for 8,307,000 US dollars. While the buyer wished to remain anonymous, many scholars of Jewish history are familiar with the seller. The Alliance Israélite Universelle had owned this richly illuminated manuscript since 1870. Before that, the prayer book—or ‘mahzor’ in Hebrew—travelled across borders from one home to another for centuries. It was designed for use during the high holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The modifications its successive owners made to the text provide a window onto the evolution of the local customs and legal statuses of Jewish communities in medieval and early modern Europe.
The mahzor’s last owner, the Alliance, was created in Paris in 1860 to promote Jewish rights around the world. It went on to build a vast network of Jewish schools around the Mediterranean. From the outset, it meticulously documented its mission and assembled a scientific library on Jewish topics. Its institutional archive allows researchers to explore modern Jewish politics, philanthropy, and associational culture across Central, Eastern and Western Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and North Africa. In addition to these rich sources, the Alliance houses one of the largest Jewish libraries in Europe.
The Alliance was part of the European Jewish philanthropic landscape that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of the organisations populating this landscape still exist today, although the Holocaust and the rise of the welfare state compelled them to reinvent themselves. While these charity organisations have always depended on donations and bequests, these have steeply dropped in recent years in the case of the Alliance. The organisation still operates a network of schools. Its library, which hosts the archive, consumes a significant part of the Alliance’s budget. As a result, the organisationhad to sell its invaluable mahzor and raise the alarm about its dire economic situation. From a historian’s perspective, this turn of events underlines the need for more research on the post-war evolution of European Jewish philanthropic patterns.
As staggering as the mahzor’s price is, its sale is only a temporary solution. A former director of the Alliance’s library recommended a longer-term solution. By changing the library’s status, the municipality of Paris and the French state could finance it, as is already the case for the Paris Jewish Museum. The Alliance’s leadership also tried to appeal to a 2003 law designed to promote art and culture patronage. Philanthropists are encouraged through tax incentives to donate the artworks they buy to public institutions. This is a critical aspect in the mahzor’s case: the research community’s biggest concern is that it will now no longer be accessible. While some French Jewish philanthropists expressed interest in the manuscript, the Alliance did not manage to raise all the necessary funds in the end, leading to the recent commercial sale.
The French state played an inglorious role in this story. An object must be classified as national heritage to benefit from the 2003 law. The culture ministry refused to classify the mahzor as national heritage. According to the Alliance’s president, the ministry pointed out that the French state already has two manuscripts of a similar nature and value. Hence, it was unwilling to invest a single extra euro in this type of work—which raises questions about the place the French state envisages for Jewish history and culture.
The future of the Alliance’s library has been an issue for a while. The organisation parted with its Haussmannian building in Paris’s rue la Bruyère in the 2010s to cut costs. Attempts to find institutions that could host the Alliance’s collections did not work out. Charities such as the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah and the Shoah Memorial (which hosts the Centre for Contemporary Jewish Documentation) could not take on the collection. Public institutions such as the French national library were not able to either.
Why is an archive about Jewish life, culture, and politics—as well as research on these topics—struggling to exist in France? First of all, French political culture looks unfavourably on so-called ‘communautarisme’, i.e. the expression of group identity in the public sphere, especially in politics. France’s self-styling as a staunchly secular state does not encourage the study of religion or of religious communities. This is particularly salient in French academia, where research is mainly publicly funded.
The top-down and hyper-centralised organisation of universities makes it even more difficult for research areas such as gender, race, and ethnic studies to gain visibility and establish themselves, especially if they do not fit the republican universalist-secularist mould. As a result, Jewish studies departments can be counted on one hand, which is striking for the country with the largest Jewish population in Europe.
So far, Jewish studies in France have managed to counterbalance the stifling effects of the French academic system thanks to third-party funding. The Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, created in 2000 with an endowment taken from the restitution of Jewish property spoliated during the Holocaust, is crucial in this respect. As its name indicates, it mainly funds projects related to the Holocaust and its memory, other genocides, and antisemitism. The Foundation’s ‘Jewish culture’ stream remains limited in comparison, especially regarding research funding. The organisation’s primary goal remains to encourage French society to confront its recent past and promote Holocaust education.
In contrast, the mahzor that was sold at Sotheby’s is about Jewish creativity, religious practice, and the inner life of the community. Research on such topics is particularly fragile in the French academic, institutional, and research funding landscape. Dwindling state support means that culture and research institutions increasingly rely on private donations and compete for resources. In this context, it is not surprising that all the doors the Alliance knocked on remained closed. The sale of the mahzor underscores how neoliberal austerity measures are forcing Jewish philanthropic organisations to rethink their mission once more.
P.S.: Before you go, do have a look at this stunning manuscript!
Noëmie Duhaut is a research associate at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz and currently holds the Karl-David-Brühl guest professorship at the Centre for Jewish Studies of the University of Graz. Her research focuses on the history of Jews in modern Europe, Jewish politics, and international law. Her work has appeared in Archives juives and French Historical Studies.
Cover image: [מחזור לימים נוראים], Rituel de prières pour les fêtes de Tichri, 13th century-14th century, Bibliothèque de l’Alliance Israélite Universelle, MS24, https://www.bibliotheque-numerique-aiu.org/idurl/1/28713