UF library unveils Judaica Suite

Kenneth Treister, the designer, leads a group on a tour of the Judaica Suite at the Smathers Library on the University of Florida campus, in Gainesville Tuesday Jan. 20, 2014.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 20, 2014 at 7:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 10:49 a.m.

Correction: Rebecca Jefferson is the curator of the Isser and Rae Price Library of Judaica. Her last name was incorrect in a story published Tuesday.

One enters the new suite of reading rooms of the Isser and Rae Price Library of Judaica at the University of Florida through a foyer that has a sculpture showing a floor-to-ceiling stained glass window representing “the one God” of Deut. 6:4.

“Hashem Our God Is One Hashem” are the words written across the top.

Occupying an alcove off to the right is a full-sized sculpture of a pyramid with bronze wires sprouting out of its peak, symbolizing the parting of the Red Sea and the Jewish exodus from Egypt, followed by four decades of desert wandering.

Behind the sculpture is a plaque with a quote from Kenneth Treister that explains the significance of the reading suite he designed for UF — the Jews invented a portable religion, a religion of the book. That tradition is carried out in this library, he said.

His driving concept was to create a space for students and scholars to come to read and contemplate the rich intellectual and cultural traditions of Jewish literature.

“I had one concept — the Jewish contribution to Mankind,” said Treister, a UF alumnus and retired architect.

He's also a designer, a painter and a philosopher and put great thought and care into the artwork and tapestries he created and the furniture he designed for this sanctuary.

“This whole suite is one work of art made up of many pieces,” he said. “It is a home for scholarship.”

A year ago, he said, “It was a slum.” A warren of cramped, cluttered offices for other curators and staff that Dean Judith Russell wanted to rescue and restore to its original purpose as a reading room.

The Price family donated $250,000 for the fabrication of the art, furniture, lighting fixtures and window grills designed by Treister, Russell said. The library used money from its own budget for lead paint and asbestos abatement, she said.

“We wanted to repurpose this space as a public space,” she said.

It also serves as a way for the public to have access to the 7,000 volumes in the rare and semi-rare collection contained in the 93,000-volume judaica library, the largest of its kind in the southeast, said Rebecca Jefferson, the library's curator.

The reading suite had its grand opening and dedication this week, with more than 170 invited guests attending Sunday's dedication and about 60 or so visitors to Monday's open house, said John Nemmers, an archivist with the George A. Smathers Libraries at UF.

“Researchers will be able to come in here and do their reading and use these materials,” Nemmers said of the two-story multi-purpose space that was used for storage for the past 10 years. “It was a cluttered, well-loved and well-used space,” Nemmers said.

Everything was moved out last year and a wholesale renovation began, right down to ripping down yards and yards of electrical cable that had been attached to the walls. Blinds were ripped down, and wooden grills with the Star of David were installed to give the space more light.

The reading suite is divided into alcoves with quotes chosen by Treister carved into gold plates that express aspects of Jewish intellectual life and culture from famous scholars, scientists and writers like Moses Maimonides, Rabbi Akiba, Elie Wiesel and Albert Einstein. Each quote ties into the theme of its alcove.

The chairs in each alcove are paired to reflect the tradition of scholars studying with a partner. The tables are carved with what look like the spines of books.

A mezzanine upstairs has paintings of Treister's showing the six days of biblical creation, and more books, and antique chess sets from 431 B.C. Greece, 1530s Peru, 17th century Russia.

One alcove contains rabbinical writings, another has books on the Holocaust. A section of Jewish memorial books is probably one of the largest anywhere. There is a Yiddish language collection. There is a section of books on art and music.

“It's huge that it finally does have its own space,” said Elizabeth Kanopka, a graduate student majoring in physical therapy who has worked with the Judaica collection since she was a freshman at UF. “It's a great research space for students and professors.”

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