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UCL marks centenary of unique Jewish collection

Publication date: Jun 28, 2006 4:10:55 PM

A 16th century Mahzor, a medieval Haggadah and correspondence between Charles Dickens and the wife of a Jewish banker – on the offence caused the Anglo-Jewish community by the depiction of Fagin in Oliver Twist – are among the exhibits on display at an event being held today to mark the centenary of the receipt at UCL of a major collection of rare and valuable Judaica.

Frederic Mocatta was a leading figure in the world of Anglo-Jewry and philanthropy, and the library that he bequeathed to UCL in 1906 forms the nucleus of the university’s extensive collection of Jewish artefacts. Since Mocatta’s bequest, several other leading Jewish figures have donated their libraries and collections to the university, ensuring that the Jewish Studies Library at UCL is now regarded as the largest and most comprehensive collection of Anglo-Jewish research material in a UK university.

Highlights of the collection on display in the exhibition include:

  • The correspondence between Charles Dickens and Eliza Davis from 1863 to 1867 concerning Dickens’s portrayal of Jews in his works. The character of Fagin in Oliver Twist had caused offence to the Anglo-Jewish community, and Mrs Davis wrote to Dickens declaring that as a renowned author and defender of the oppressed, he had a duty to portray Jews in a sympathetic manner, but that he had instead “encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew.” Dickens defended himself against the charge and declared “that I have no feeling towards the Jewish people except a friendly one.” In his subsequent novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens introduced the character of Riah, and Mrs Davis wrote again to praise this character;
  • The Italian Mahzor, a richly illuminated service book of festival prayers, generally recorded as early 16th century;
  • Works of Flavius Josephus, for centuries the most widely read secular texts in the known world, containing invaluable eyewitness accounts of the history of Judaism and of early Christianity.

UCL’s relationship with the Jewish community stretches right back to its beginnings, when a successful financier, Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, brought together the poet Thomas Campbell and the politician Henry Brougham on a project to found a new university in London that would embrace all ‘non-establishment’ groups. UCL thereby became the first university in England to admit Jewish students.

“UCL was the first English university to admit Jewish students, the first to establish a professorial chair in Hebrew and is today the only UK university with a Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies,” said Dr Paul Ayris, Director of UCL Library Services. “Its scholarship in this area is internationally renowned. As such, UCL has been a natural focus for Jewish giving, and the university has acquired many rare volumes and more than 500,000 items of significant historic interest.”

Notes for Editors

1. Images of the highights of the collection are available from Dominique Fourniol in the UCL media relations office, on 0207 679 9728.

2. Please contact the UCL media relations office for interview requests or to visit any part of the Jewish collections at UCL.