"You wouldn't happen to have a slightly used copy of the Gutenberg Bible?" the Maslan boys would ask when they went to second-hand bookstores and thrift shops with their father, Ben Maslan. Although Mr. Maslan never acquired a copy of the first printed Bible, he did amass a collection of close to 4,000 other rare and unusual bibles in dozens of languages. These were donated upon his death to the Ostrow Library at American Jewish University. Maslan’s daughter, Ruth Maslan Sassoon, an alumna of AJU’s Brandeis-Bardin Institute, didn’t accompany him on these expeditions, but she still is very much a part of the story of this unique collection and its connection with AJU.
Maslan may be gone, but his legacy remains as a source of pride for American Jewish University's Ostrow Library. Bea Reynolds, a former Woman's League president, recalls the day the books arrived thirty years ago. With no one aware of what would be arriving, the opening of each box revealed new gems. There are several Breeches Bibles from the early 1600's (Adam and Eve were dressed in breeches rather than fig leaves in this early English translation). Different versions of the Breeches include both the "he" and "she" versions of the Book of Ruth that had typographical errors due to the confusion over the translation of the Hebrew.
The Maslan Collection is quite diverse. There are old Septuagint bibles in ancient Greek from 1534 and an English prayer book written in shorthand in the last century. There are bibles in Cherokee, in the Maori language of New Zealand and a bible from the Isle of Mann, as well as the expected versions in Latin, French and Hebrew. Illustrated editions of the bible include intricate engravings based on famous paintings by the Old Masters and volumes with beautifully decorated margins.
The Yorubu Bible from Western Africa is one of the special treasures of the collection. The tribe believed in an "Ori," or divine spirit, a term from the Ifa religion that is used when the bible states, "God says." None of these extremely fragile bibles are available to borrow. However, anyone who wants to examine one of them can make an appointment to view the book with a librarian.
While many of the volumes are in good condition, others are in need of repair. The Ostrow Library is currently seeking funding to carry out the necessary preservation of this unique resource.
Ben Masliansky was born in Dublin, Ireland on January 30, 1901 to a Jewish family that had emigrated from Lithuania. He shortened his name from Masliansky to Maslan when he became a U.S. citizen. The family left Ireland for Manchester, England when Ben was five years old, and it was there that he received his first formal education in a proper English school. This style of learning influenced his selection of English theological works. The Maslans relocated again when he was twelve – this time to Minneapolis, where he became a newsboy and began his love of the printed word while attending North High School. The next move led the family to Houston, Texas to be near Ben while he attended college at the University of Texas in Austin. Later he attended law school at the University of Washington in Seattle.
As an attorney, Maslan became active in the local Bar Association and was invited to give a presentation on the Bible which became the “springboard” for his interest in collecting rare bibles.
In addition to the Bar Association, Maslan was active in many other organizations such as Sons of Ireland. He belonged to an Orthodox synagogue as well as serving as president of a Conservative synagogue. He also volunteered for the Jewish National Fund, B'nai Brith, Bonds for Israel and participated in ZOA, hosting many visiting speakers.
The Maslan home was filled with children, laughter and books. On weekends, the boys would help their father on his quest for unique bibles by exploring used bookstores.
Maslan searched locally for bibles, and long before the internet made long distance shopping common, he ordered bibles through catalogs. Many of these catalogs and auction lists have been kept together with the volumes purchased, adding an interesting study of the acquisition and valuation of rare books. Maslan kept books in the upstairs rooms and closets of his home, ever increasing his collection, until the day before he died on May 1, 1979.