Stacy (Kaeser) Derby, ’01 LAS, cradled a small, tattered black suitcase in her lap throughout the entire 12-hour Chicago-to-Paris-to-Tel Aviv flight. Once she arrived at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, a team of waiting scholars ushered her into a climate-controlled, glass-encased room before opening the valise to audible gasps.
Inside were 85 amulets and scrolls ranging from locket-sized to over a meter long when unrolled. Ornate writing in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic-Jewish danced across pages of notebooks constructed with pre-modern parchment and bound with animal hide. Derby—a self-described “history nerd” who studied Kabbalah (ancient Jewish mysticism) during her junior year abroad at the University of Oxford—instantly recognized them as Kabbalistic artifacts that offered protection for mothers and babies, summoned angels, detailed invisibility spells or prescribed remedies.
How the Chicago-based Derby came by this find—one of the largest Kabbalistic collections ever discovered—is equally fascinating. She works as a family biographer who develops deep connections with her clients, spending months, even years hearing their stories and conducting relevant research. She creates handcrafted, one-of-a-kind coffee table books through her publishing house, Bind These Words. Derby was working on a biography for Drs. Fred and Eleanor Coe when Eleanor presented the case in question. It had belonged to her father, Dr. Max Leopold Brodney, who crossed the Iron Curtain with a medical delegation in 1959. A rabbi thrust the suitcase into his arms, begging him to smuggle it out of the Soviet Union. For years, Dr. Coe showed the suitcase to various Judaica experts, “but Stacy was the first to recognize they were precious,” Eleanor says.
Derby emailed Kabbalah experts around the world, ultimately connecting with the Gershom Scholem Library at the NLI. They dated the contents to the late 1800s.
Donated to the NLI in Dr. Brodney’s memory, the scrolls are being cleaned, archived and digitized.
Derby’s experience with the Kabbalah artifacts suggests there are powerful forces at play in our lives. Just days after the amulets and scrolls were removed from the Coe home, a pipe burst.
“I told an NLI curator,” Derby says. “He laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry. If the amulets had been there, the pipe never would have burst.’”