A Yiddish literary treasure lies in the McGill library

Alberto Manguel, left, discusses the collection of Yiddish books amassed by a New York garment worker with Esther Frank and Sebastian Schulman. (Janice Arnold photo)

The rare books and special collections section of McGill University’s McLennan Library is the repository of more than 700,000 volumes dating back to the 16th century that have been collected since the 1850s.

On its old wooden shelves can be found a copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio (1632) of collected plays, as well as a 1598 printing of Richard II.

So it might be surprising that the section is also home to what is considered one of the most important private collections of Yiddish literature in the world.

The more than 2,300 volumes were amassed by a New York garment worker, Joe Fishstein (1891-1978), who spent the little time (and money) he had away from the factory searching out new publications, mostly poetry.

Although the majority were published in eastern Europe and the United States, publishers on every continent are represented, with China probably the most surprising source, said Elis Ing, the librarian responsible for the collection since last year. It includes some rare pre-Second World War imprints from eastern Europe that were otherwise destroyed in the Holocaust.

Using his sewing skills, Fishstein fashioned dust jackets and bookmarks for each of them. The collection, which was donated by the family, arrived at McGill in 1981, in pristine condition.

An active member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, Fishstein also collected union memorabilia, as well as early 20th-century photographs and postcards that he kept in albums.

A catalogue of the collection was published in 1998 under the title, A Garment Worker’s Legacy, edited by Goldie Sigal, a Jewish studies librarian. More recently, she’s been responsible for curating the collection and the online catalogue of the material.

The website also reproduces the exhibit that was mounted in McGill’s Redpath Library concurrently with the book launch. Its content has been enhanced with audio-visual materials and related hyperlinks.

The content is indexed not only by title and author, Sigal noted, but also illustrator. The work of about 400 artists, some well known, can be found throughout the books.

Not well known is that the Fishstein materials are open to the public for on-site consultation in the library’s fourth-floor reading room, as are all the rare books section’s holdings.

That fact was stressed at a recent event highlighting the Fishstein collection as part of a series of talks on the diversity of McGill’s holdings.

On Nov. 20, writer and literary critic Alberto Manguel was in conversation with McGill Jewish studies Prof. Esther Frank, who teaches Yiddish literature, and Sebastian Schulman, the executive director of KlezKanada, a scholar of Yiddish culture and a translator.

Manguel, who was born in Buenos Aires in 1948 into a Jewish family, said the only Yiddish he was exposed to as a child was the occasional utterances of his multilingual grandmother when she was angry. (His father was Argentina’s first ambassador to Israel.)

Manguel knew nothing of Yiddish literature until he was asked to review the English translations of two novels by Yehuda Elberg (1912-2003), which were published in 1997, for the Globe and Mail.

Manguel was astonished by their brilliance, which he said was “reminiscent of Dostoyevsky.” He was also honoured to meet Elberg, who had lived in Montreal since after the war, in the final years of his life.

Frank recalled that it was Ruth Wisse, the founder of McGill’s Jewish studies program, who was instrumental in securing the Fishstein collection.

Shortly after Fishstein died, Wisse visited the small Bronx apartment where he had lived. In such a humble setting, Wisse was staggered by the collection, not only for its size, but the way it was presented, as well. “The bright, decorative bindings shone on the shelves like a bedecked bride,” Frank remembers Wisse saying. It spoke of how precious these books were to Fishstein.

“His wife said that he had a standing order at four bookstores for every new Yiddish title or book about Yiddish verse that came in, and he spent every Saturday picking them up, reading them and decorating them,” Frank said.

She noted that she is close to completing a translation and critical analysis of the poetry of Polish-born Rochl Korn (1898-1982), who immigrated to Montreal after the war and is represented in the Fishstein collection.

Ing also drew attention to two other collections of related interest, both donated by Montrealers: the Saul Shapiro collection of Anglo-American Judaica, diverse fiction and non-fiction in English of historical significance; and Rabbi Daniel Lewin’s collection of 16th- to 19th-century sacred texts.