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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: 'The Weight of Ink' by Rachel Kadish

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Rachel B. Dankert, Learning and Engagement Librarian, shares items she presented on February 3, 2022, as an introduction to The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here. 

Four hundred and fifty years separate the learned worlds of Ester Velasquez from Helen Watt and Aaron Levy. In her life in Restoration London, serving a once-prominent rabbi blinded by the Inquisition, Ester must navigate many difficult waters. She is young and Jewish, literate and inquisitive, independent and resourceful. Her intellectual pursuits are scorned by her community and her heritage is a potential liability in the rest of the city.

Maimonides, Moses. [Mishneh Torah. Latin] [In Hebrew] Canones poenitentiæ Hebraicè à R. Mose Ægyptio descripti, Latinitate donati à G.N. London, 1631. Folger call number: STC 18206 copy 1.

Ester finds both comfort and confusion in her readings of Jewish intellectual thought and begins to write to prominent philosophers of her day in search of answers to the meaning of life. Her letters and writings are hidden away behind a panel in a stairwell for hundreds of years, until historian Helen Watt and struggling PhD student Aaron Levy uncover Ester’s secret life as a philosopher.

Aaron and Helen spend much of their time working with Ester’s papers in their university library reading room, but their experiences with the librarians and conservators are hostile and cold in a way that does not reflect reality. In real life, the Patricias, as they were dubbed, would have been most concerned with preservation for access, not for creating roadblocks for their own sake. Despite the barriers to their research into Ester’s identity, Aaron and Helen uncover the full truth and elevate her important life story, dispelling long-held myths about London’s Jewish community and the intellectual life of women in the early modern period.

Folger Conservation treatment of a work on paper. Credit: Julie Ainsworth

As Aaron and Helen’s lives grow increasingly complicated and painful, so too does Ester’s. She experiences firsthand the great upheaval in London in which both a resurgence of the plague and the Great Fire of London coincide.

Rolle, Samuel. Shilhavtiyah or, The burning of London in the year 1666…London, 1667. Folger call number: R1876

Ultimately, each character finds peace and rest having found their truths and recognition of their stories.

For the full collection of presentation images, visit us on LUNA.

Graphic illustration of stacks of books in purple. aqua, and whiteWords, Words, Words continues on March 3, 2022 with a discussion of The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips. Registration for this session opens Tuesday, February 8. We hope you make a plan to join us!

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: