Jerusalem's National Library Home to Jewish Amulets

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An American physician, Dr. Max Leopold Brodny, visited Moscow, the cosmopolitian capital city of the former Soviet Union in 1959, and decided to tour many Jewish historical sites during his stay in the city. Upon visiting an old synagogue, the rabbi led the doctor into the back room to give him a leather suitcase, approximately the size of a clarinet or oboe case.

“It has no future here,” the Rabbi explained. “Take it away and preserve it… But be careful - we’re being followed.”

Dr. Brodny peeked inside the suitcase and noted several scrolls of parchment with Hebrew writing, but did not deeply investigate the contents. He vowed to preserve the contents and brought the suitcase back to America, storing it in a hall closet in Chicago to collect dust until his death nearly 20 years later.

Upon his death, his estate was passed on to his daughter, Eleanor Coe, who was curious about the mysterious suitcase. She sought the help of local Judaica researchers in Chicago who were not too helpful, so she turned to the help of the National Library of Israel to decode the contents of the suitcase, which ultimately ended up being donated to the library. 

The contents of the 85 parchment scrolls are believed to originate from late 19th century or early 20th century North Africa, penned in multiple languages from Hebrew to Arabic, Italian, and Greek, and spanning such vast and electic topics as invisibility spells when robbing friends to cures against scorpion stings to diatribes on “angel writing.”

“My jaw dropped and I had goose bumps when I saw a notebook bound with animal hair,” one scholar noted.

Other scrolls depict illustrations of the Sephirotic tree which has roots in Kabbalah traditions, among other medieval and mystical writings. A couple of the amulets are believed to be written in Israel itself, however, based on the literal text on the page, “Here in the Land of Israel.”

“There are lots of recipes about invisibility. What is specifically interesting is this one tells you why to do it: If you want to get into the house of your friend, then do such and such. The aim itself, when it’s so explicit, I haven’t seen that before,” another scholar commented on the amulets.

Some of the scrolls are very small and could easily fit in one’s pocket, and other scrolls were at least a meter long when unrolled.

Yet, how the North African and Middle Eastern scrolls depicting mysticism, magic, and other supernatural events arrived in the Soviet Union remains a mystery today.

“In donating the collection to the National Library of Israel, we have fulfilled the request of the rabbi from Moscow,” Eleanor stated.

 

Written by Erin Parfet

 

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