Holtzman’s definitive Israeli literature collection goes to the National Library of Israel.
Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer
ABOVE: An architectural rendering of the National Library of Israel being built in Jerusalem near the Knesset; a special room designed by the late Irwin “Toby” Holtzman of Bloomfield Hills will hold his massive collection of Israeli literature.
The new National Library of Israel Complex under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem will have a room named for Irwin and Shirley Holtzman of Bloomfield Hills. The room will house an irreplaceable special collection known as “the greatest single collection in the world of Israeli literature.”
The collection started in 1973, when Irwin (known as “Toby”) and Shirley Holtzman first traveled to Israel. Impressed by the “founding Israeli authors,” the Holtzmans began collecting first editions of works by famous Hebrew writers, first editions of literary works in Arabic and the many other languages of Israel, including English, Ethiopic, French, German, Hungarian, Ladino, Lithuanian, Polish, Rumanian, Russian, Spanish and Yiddish. They also snapped up translations of Israeli works in other languages.
For years, they kept this collection in their home in Bloomfield Hills.
Each time they returned to Israel, Irwin Holtzman would visit bookstores looking to add to the collection. Gil Weissblei, now archivist at the National Library of Israel, remembers those visits:
“The first time I met Holtzman, I was working in a bookstore,” Weissblei said. “We did not have many customers like him; actually, we did not have any. He would come once per year, accompanied by his wife, Shirley. She was a very nice lady, cordial, warm. Price had no interest for him. If it was a first edition, in mint condition, he would say, ‘I just want it.’”
Eventually, the Holtzmans donated the collection to the Jewish National and University Library on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University. Galia Richler, reference librarian for Judaica at the National Library, notes that before the collection could move (in August 1999), Irwin Holtzman designed the room to house the collection and chose all the furnishings. “He wanted everything just so. In the dedicated room displaying the collection, for example, he chose the blond wood decor and each piece of furniture.”
Building The Collection
In the ensuing years, Holtzman continued to add to the collection. According to Richler, “Holtzman was proud of the collecting he did for the library. He personally kept a catalogue of the collection — inserting slips of paper with the information about each item into slots on pages, which he kept in oversize loose-leaf binders, eventually four of these huge binders.”
Besides his annual trips to bookstores, Holtzman used other methods to add to the collection. “He would boldly ask authors to make the library the repository for their personal letters and manuscripts,” Weissblei said.
“He commissioned English translations of Hebrew works. In exchange, he would ask the Hebrew authors for signed photographs and manuscripts, which also became part of the collection at the library.”
Richler adds, “He also commissioned special editions, beautiful handcrafted and numbered editions, celebrating specific works. One of each of these special editions went into the library’s Holtzman collection.”
Weissblei adds, “Holtzman also provided financial assistance to writers. His patronage enabled writers to concentrate on writing.”
In 2007, Knesset passed a law renaming the library as the National Library of Israel. Dr. Malachi Beit-Arié, the poet and prolific scholar who directed the library from 1979 to 1991, observed that Irwin Holtzman had a role in the change.
“He knew how to insist,” Beit-Arie said. “Whenever he visited, he mentioned the effort to change the name of the library from Jewish National and University Library to the National Library of Israel.” It took 50 years to make that change.
According to Weissblei, “He was passionate about the collection. He cared about books, about culture, especially Jewish culture. He was a Zionist — not that he ever moved to Israel, but a Zionist, nonetheless.
“He saw the founding of the State of Israel as a major event in the history of the Jewish people. He wanted to have everything published in Jewish and Hebrew literature — every single book of prose or poetry — and every translation into other languages. And he was insistent on getting first editions in mint condition.”
Richler notes that Holtzman “especially liked to have first editions with the author’s handwritten dedications, often to him, ‘To Toby,’ but also to other people.”
Irwin Holtzman died in July 2010. The Holtzman’s son Jonathan maintains the family relationship with the National Library of Israel. Jonathan is a local multifamily real estate developer who had led the nearly 100-year-old company started by his grandfather and then run by his father but now heads his own venture, City Club Apartments.
“We are proud to count Jonathan Holtzman as a leading partner in the renewal of the National Library of Israel as we build our new home adjacent to the Knesset in Jerusalem,” said Oren Weinberg, library director. “Through his generosity and vision, the treasures of Israel’s literary heritage will be preserved and cultivated for generations to come.
“Irwin Holtzman had tremendous passion for Israeli literature and played a significant role in cultivating and promoting the creation and translation of contemporary Israeli literary works,” Weinberg said. “We are grateful he recognized the National Library of Israel as the proper home for his world-class collection, where it is preserved alongside the largest collection of textual Judaica ever amassed …”
The Israeli Literature collection at the National Library of Israel was not Holtzman’s only collection. He also collected the works and papers of Isaac Babel and other Soviet Jewish writers, especially Boris Pasternak and Joseph Brodsky. These collections are now kept at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California.
Holtzman Collection At MSU
The Irwin T. and Shirley Holtzman Collection of Israeli Literature at Michigan State University contains works published from the early 20th century through the early 21st century, with a focus on belles-lettres. The archival portion of the collection contains a wealth of primary resources, including manuscripts of poetry and drama; posters advertising literary events; political cartoons and other original artwork; and Irwin “Toby” Holtzman’s extensive correspondence with many important Israeli literary figures, including Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Yoram Kaniuk, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua.
The Holtzman Collection is accessible to scholars and the public alike at the MSU Libraries’ Special Collections. For more information, contact librarian Deborah Margolis firstname.lastname@example.org, or see https://libguides.lib.msu.edu/jewishstudies/holtzman.