November 25, 2013

Dispute over a library adds tensions to Russian-American relations


Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s collection of books and manuscripts, which contains 250,000 published volumes—the vast majority of which are in Hebrew and Yiddish—is located at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York. It is one of the most prominent Judaic libraries in the word.

It is also one of the most contentious.

Throughout the history of the Chabad movement, the Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement based most strongly in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the Rebbe of every generation would keep a central collection of books and manuscripts. During the 19th century, the collection grew dramatically, but in 194 the Soviet regime decided to nationalize the warehouse where the books were kept, and give the Lubavitch Collection to the Russian State Library.

After the books were confiscated, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak began to build the library anew, and when he made his way to the United States from the Soviet Union, he was able to bring his collection from occupied Poland to its current location in Brooklyn.

Earlier this past September, Avital Chizhik wrote about the collection for Tablet. In January 2013, the United States ruled that Russia should return the Schneersohn library, which is more ancient portion of the collection based in Moscow, and pay fines of $50,000 a day. In response, the Kremin said that if U. S. authorities tried to take Russian property, there would be “severe measures,” and that the Schneersohn library is a “national treasure of the Russian people. As Chishik writes, it’s getting worse:

Since February 2011, Russians have refused to loan any artwork to American museums, fearing the pieces will be used as ransom for the Schneersohn books. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow have effectively canceled all loans… Since January, as Russian-American relations have soured, thanks to Congress’ Magnitsky Act barring certain Russian officials from entrance to the United States, and then the more recent Edward Snowden affair…

Today, the library in Brooklyn is open to rabbis, lecturers and authors who are interested in doing research and viewing the collection.


Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.