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Telling the story: Israel through literature

Holtzman gift reflects passion for telling the story of Israel through literature

Detroit area builder and business owner, Irwin T. (Toby) Holtzman

Irwin T. (Toby) Holtzman knew the power of great literature to reveal culture. This simple truth led the prominent Detroit-area builder and business owner to become a lifelong book collector and literary scholar, helping to document what he termed the literature of his time and notably preserving the culture of the modern state of Israel through writers in residence there.

After Holtzman’s death in 2010, his widow, Shirley Holtzman, was faced with the question of finding a home for the thousands of books and artifacts in her late husband’s collection and continuing his legacy.

Toby Holtzman was known in Michigan as the second generation to lead the real estate development firm of Holtzman and Silverman, which was founded in 1919 by his father, Joseph. Today, the apartment management company continues as Village Green under the direction of his son Jonathan.

But Holtzman also was known throughout the world for his passion for books, actively collecting as many as 350 authors, many of whom counted him as a supporter and friend.  He took a particular interest in Israeli writers, whom he viewed as essential to the story of the revived Jewish national homeland.

Through a trusted friend, Shirley Holtzman learned about the work of MSU’s Jewish Studies Program, which includes a focus on the study of Israeli literature, and also about the expertise of MSU Libraries’ Special Collections.

“The perfect marriage was formed,” she says, adding that MSU represents the finest of Michigan.

She hopes her gift to MSU to establish the Irwin T. and Shirley Holtzman Collection of Israeli Literature will aid MSU’s unique efforts to advance the understanding of Israeli culture through the significant contributions of its literature.

“Toby wanted Israeli authors to have a voice in the world in the same way that American authors, such as William Faulkner, represent our country, our history, and our culture,” she says, noting that her husband was in awe that such a young country could produce authors of such brilliance, who were also among the first in their time to write in colloquial Hebrew.

The collection includes fiction, poetry, and drama from the earliest days of Israeli statehood, many with author inscriptions. It is augmented by a wealth of primary resources including Holtzman’s personal correspondence with important Israeli literary figures, among them the novelists Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua.  Holtzman also collected the works of Yehuda Amichai, considered by many, including Holtzman’s close friend Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, as Israel’s greatest modern poet, Shirley Holtzman notes.

 “The Holtzman collection will be a tremendous asset to teaching and research at Michigan State,” says Marc Bernstein, professor of Hebrew and core faculty in MSU’s Jewish Studies Program. The collection includes the works of all major Israeli authors, including many rare and valuable first editions, and places MSU on the map of Israeli literature. These works offer a window onto the modern miracle of the revival of the Hebrew language that began just over a century ago and provide insights into an extremely dynamic and creative culture and society.”

MSU Libraries faculty plans to have the collection catalogued and preserved in the near future, opening the door for scholarly conferences on Israeli literature that will highlight the texts.