January 18, 2020

Mysterious Migrations of Hebrew Manuscripts in ‘The Spanish Prayer Book’

Scene from “The Spanish Prayer Book”

Playwright Angela J. Davis’ “The Spanish Prayer Book” is set in 2007, when an Oakland school teacher discovers she has inherited a collection of rare and valuable Hebrew texts — including the hauntingly beautiful book of the play’s title — decades after a mysterious theft from a leading Jewish cultural institution in 1941. 

As the play moves forward, the book’s migrations are revealed along with the impact it has on six characters who take possession of it.

The play, which opens Sept. 20 at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood, has garnered numerous national and international honors this year, including being named one of the top 21 plays (from a field of more than 1,200) for the Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle Hart New Play Initiative; being selected as a Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference semifinalist; and earning ATHE Award for Playwriting Excellence second-place honors. 

Lee Sankowich, who directed “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in New York, London and Tel Aviv, has temporarily relocated to Los Angeles to direct “The Spanish Prayer Book.”

Speaking with the Journal, Davis describes the play as “a historical mystery. It does get revealed how this family got into possession of these books and there is a moral dilemma. The play follows a nonlinear timeline and there are some moments in the play that are surreal and magical, where the past and the present kind of converge on each other.”

The speculation was that the consignor was an aging Nazi art thief. However, it eventually was revealed that the seller was an aging rabbinical professor.

Although “The Spanish Prayer Book” is a work of fiction, it was inspired by a real-life controversy. In 1984, Sotheby’s auction house announced it was holding a sale of extremely rare Hebrew books and manuscripts, including a prayer book from 14th-century Spain. As is standard in auctions, the owner was anonymous. Protests erupted, however, following the discovery that the books bore the library stamp of the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin —where Leo Baeck and other luminaries of the Reform movement studied — which was dissolved by the Nazis in 1942. 

The speculation was that the consignor was an aging Nazi art thief. However, it eventually was revealed that the seller was an aging rabbinical professor, who claimed he was given the books in exchange for his solemn promise to smuggle them out of Germany more than 50 years earlier. 

One of the most disturbing aspects of his story was that he had retained the books for decades, keeping his possession of them secret, even from his own colleagues. A lawsuit ensued, attracting the interest of major media outlets and prompting many individuals, including Davis, to write about the unusually delicate legal and ethical issues raised by the case.

“I actually wrote and published an article about the case in the 1980s,” Davis said. “I was fascinated by the human aspects of the case, of the idea of this rabbinical professor having this secret — and the secret being this treasure hoard of priceless books and manuscripts that were stunningly beautiful — and not telling his colleagues about them and his family deciding to auction them off. I thought there was a lot of personal drama in this story as well as a legal debate. So the play essentially focuses on a family drama about the decision whether or not to auction the books.”

Scene from “The Spanish Prayer Book”

One of the things touched on in the play is the overlapping history of Jewish and Islamic traditions and how Islamic motifs show up in the Hebrew Bible during certain periods. This is conveyed through projections of centuries-old illuminated Hebrew manuscripts created by renowned set and projection designer Yuki Izumihara. 

“The books in the play are Hebrew books, but the point I am trying to make is that the greatest works of art are really for all of humanity. … The greatest artistic treasures don’t ‘belong’ to one cultural heritage.” — Angela J. Davis

“One of the things that this beautiful artwork reminds us of is that there were Jews and Muslims living side by side in 14th-century Spain before the Inquisition and other times in history,” Davis said. “I think that this is stated concretely when you look at a beautiful page from a Hebrew Bible and discover that it looks a little Arabic, and that’s what gives Spanish art and architecture and language all its richness.”

For Davis, it is especially important that the play conveys the ethical issues about art being displaced during wartime. “The books in the play are Hebrew books, but the point I am trying to make is that the greatest works of art are really for all of humanity. I can walk into a performance of Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ or see Botticelli’s ‘Annunciation’ and be blown away. The greatest artistic treasures don’t ‘belong’ to one cultural heritage. They are to be cherished and protected by all of humanity, so when you talk about destruction of works of art during wartime, it’s not just a loss for the Jews or Armenians or the Buddhists who lost the Bamiyan statues blown up by the Taliban. It is a loss for the whole world.”

One of the main things Davis said she’d like audiences to take away from the show “is the power of art to forge human connections. The strongest thing that happens in the play is these books are works of art and they are stunningly beautiful and have a power over people. And regardless of your religion or your predisposition, they speak to people. It transcends religion even though these books were created for religious purposes. It’s for all humanity.”

“The Spanish Prayer Book” runs Sept. 20 through Nov. 10. For tickets and more information, click here.