The suitcase was a treasure chest

Chicago writer Stacy Derby helped recover a trove of centuries-old mysticism

KabbalahScrolls image
Dr. Eleanor Coe (left) and Stacey Derby with the Kabbalistic scrolls Coe's father rescued from the Soviet Union.

The suitcase itself took decades to cross continents and oceans. But its contents-85 centuries-old Kabbalistic scrolls from throughout North Africa-took an even longer, stranger trip.

Stacy Derby, a family biographer from Chicago, was writing the life story of Dr. Fred Coe, a Chicago nephrologist. While she was at their home, his wife, Eleanor, a psychologist, showed Derby a small, black suitcase that had belonged to her father, Dr. Max Leopold Brodney.

"When I saw what was inside, my jaw dropped," said Derby. It was a large collection of scrolls, that were "obviously Kabbalistic."

In the summer of 1959, Eleanor explained, Brodney-a Jewish urologist from Chicago-stepped behind the Iron Curtain with a medical delegation to tour Soviet hospitals. While in Moscow, Brodney went to Friday night services, where he was taken aside by the synagogue's rabbi. The rabbi gave him the suitcase, showed him its contents, and begged him to smuggle it out of the country before it was discovered by the Communist authorities.

Eleanor first saw the suitcase when he returned; she was 17. Her father never did learn how the Moscow rabbi came to have the suitcase, she said.

When Brodney died in 1979, his daughter attempted to research the scrolls, but to no avail. The suitcase took up another decades-long residence in her  cabinet, until she showed it to Derby this year.

Derby sent photos of the scrolls to a former professor of hers at Oxford. He referred her to The National Library of Israel, who sent her to the collection to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of its Chaim and Hannah Solomon Jewish Collection.

Finkelman's staff  began to unravel the scrolls-and their mysteries.

They counted 85 scrolls-one of the largest such collections ever discovered-and a guidebook for writing such scrolls.

They determined that the scrolls were, in fact, Kabbalistic in nature, handwritten from the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th. Based on the names mentioned and the writing styles, they determined that some were created in Israel, some in Russia, and some in places throughout North Africa, while the origins of the rest remain unknown.

Asked to speculate how Middle Eastern scrolls came into the possession of a Moscow rabbi, Finkelman imagined that a Russian anthropologist had investigated the Jewish communities in North Africa.

Prof. Shalom Tzabar-an expert on folklore, art, and mysticism, at the Hebrew University-instead hypothesizes that the collection likely had belonged to a Chabad rabbi, as such clergy were active in North Africa at the time, he noted.

Some of the scrolls were pocket-sized and some a yard long. Their contents were as varied as their lengths. They are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic-Jewish. Some only bear text, while other bloom with colorful calligraphy, artwork, and diagrams.

Some of the scrolls summon angels, others protect their holders-including new mothers and their babies-from dangers natural and supernatural. Still others include prescriptions for various ailments. One seems to contain a method of identifying a thief. Many were tailored to the specific needs of their bearers.

Eleanor donated the collection to the library in her father's memory; once it is cataloged, it will be scanned and uploaded to the Internet. She also expressed gratitude at finally being able to fulfill her father's 60-year-old promise to a rabbi he once met, half a world away.

The scrolls themselves have at last found a proper, permanent home. Not a closet in a Russian synagogue or a cabinet in an American house, but an archive in an Israeli library where their art, history, and indelible Jewishness can be thoroughly studied and fully appreciated.

"This is where they belong," Derby said.


Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.