On the Road Again: A Fellow’s Account of an Expedition to Save a Yiddish Writer’s Library

Photograph by Michael Carroll

On a bitterly cold Thursday in February another Fellow, David Schlitt, and I were packing up the Yiddish Book Center van for a collection run to the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan. It was our first book rescue — something Book Center founder Aaron Lansky and his young colleagues had done frequently in the 1980s and ’90s but is rare now, when few large collections of Yiddish books remain in American homes. We rounded up the items we would need for shlepping: dust masks, Mylar sleeves for fragile volumes, markers, coveralls, two hand trucks, and 75 cardboard cartons. While David went outside to get the van, Aaron helped me navigate a hand truck loaded with empty boxes through the building. “Swing wide,” he directed as we navigated a corner on the repository ramp. The ramp I knew so well felt unfamiliar with the cart in tow, but it was clear that the process was ingrained in Aaron’s muscle memory. I’d been a Yiddish Book Center Fellow for nearly five months, yet had seldom used one of these contraptions. In fact, I almost never work directly with Yiddish books. Our bibliographer, other Fellows, and students from Hampshire College organize and shelve our books; I work mostly in educational programming. But not today. Today I was a grine, a novice.

The Starkman collection was not only broad, it had incredible depth.

Soon David and I were eating clementines, pistachios, and a Three Musketeers bar as we made the three-hour drive to New York City. I kept my winter jacket zipped the whole trip—giant, empty vans don’t warm up fast on freezing nights in early February. We’d been driving for an hour before a solid rivulet of ice on the windshield finally melted. I couldn’t believe how tired I was after days of attending meetings, gathering supplies, and negotiating with our donors, and this was before I had lifted one book off a shelf.

When we shook hands with Dr. Monica Starkman Schteingart at 10:30 the next morning, I could tell that her personality was as warm as her fur coat. Monica, age 72, had come with her husband, Eduardo, her daughter, and her grandson. The four of them met us outside the apartment building, in the shadows of Fort Tryon Park. In December, Monica had approached Aaron after a lecture he gave at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, a meeting that had set our collection trip in motion. On behalf of herself and her younger sister, Reeva Mager, Monica had told Aaron they wanted to donate their parents’ collection of Yiddish books to the Book Center. Both parents were Yiddish authors: her father the newspaper writer and bibliographer Moshe Starkman; her mother Rachel a Forverts contributor and, after Moshe’s death in 1975, a staunch advocate for her husband’s work. Rachel had passed away in October 2010, at 97.

Monica’s parents had moved to upper Manhattan after admiring the neighborhood while en route to the Jewish Memorial Hospital for Monica’s birth. Monica recalled Inwood as “Irish-Jewish” during her childhood: the Irish kids attended parochial school and the Jewish kids went to public school. Now many gay/lesbian and Dominican families live here, and the community retains a family-oriented and almost small-town feeling.

The apartment itself, as heymish as the neighborhood, had been inhabited by varying numbers of Starkmans for 65 years. Rachel had “never wanted to give up this apartment,” Eduardo explained, even though she and her second husband also had homes in Montreal and Florida: “And in fact, her second husband said, ‘Why do you want an apartment in New York? We have all these apartments.’ She says, ‘I have my things here.’ ”

The “things” were books. The right side of the long entryway contained floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Eduardo had organized them by language — Yiddish and Hebrew — and on magenta sticky notes had added labels such as “Yiddish in the ’50s and ’60s,” and “Antique Yiddish Books.” Smaller bookcases dominated the left side of the hallway. In Rachel’s bedroom shelves spanned one entire wall. There was also a bookcase full of English volumes and dusty shelves of even dustier books above a small wooden desk. Every cupboard we opened, every surface we looked under, revealed still more volumes.

The Starkman collection was not only broad, it had incredible depth. Moshe belonged to many literary circles because of his work with various Yiddish newspapers and the Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, an eight-volume who’s who of Yiddish writers published in 1961. The Starkmans often invited Yiddish poets and writers into their home, and not surprisingly, their books reflected their relationships with the Yiddish literati: dozens of the volumes were inscribed by their authors.

It was an honor to handle this one-of-a-kind collection of Yiddish literature, and luckily, we had enough shtarkers to take care of the heavy lifting. Working alongside David and me were Anita Christensen, another Fellow, and Sam Zerin and Josh Friedman, both alumni of the Yiddish Book Center’s Steiner Summer Yiddish Program. (Josh is doing fieldwork at the Center for his doctorate in anthropology at the University of Michigan.) As the day progressed, more people joined us: a photographer and a videographer; David’s friend with his three-year-old son; and a location scout for a Robert De Niro film, whom we commended for her good timing. Counting the six members of the Starkman clan, 16 people passed through the two-bedroom apartment in the several hours we spent there.

In anticipation of the commotion, Anita, David, and I had assigned ourselves roles. I was what Aaron calls “the eater”: I would look after the donors, to comfort and distract them in case the sight of packing and removal became too emotionally difficult. (The term “eater” comes from the familiar scenario of book collection in Aaron’s day, when almost every donor offered kugel, Entenmann’s cakes, or tea, and a staff member was designated to eat and socialize while the others shlepped.) Although David had volunteered for this job, I insisted that we needed his muscles to move the vast library. Anita would coordinate the day’s many activities: book packing, photographing, eating, and more. As the Yiddish saying goes, however, A man trakht un got lakht—Man proposes, but God disposes.

Anita had brought bagels and lox from Zabar’s with the intention of getting to know the Starkman sisters and their families before we started work. But with all the books plus the other possessions accrued over 65 years in a single apartment, we were overwhelmed from the second we stepped inside. Our well-laid plans quickly evaporated. Instead of sitting down for a leisurely breakfast, we had a cursory tour of the apartment and immediately got to work assembling boxes and removing volumes from the shelves. We all realized right away that David, in fact, was the natural “eater”: not only is he lovable and always hungry, but he knew the most about Yiddish literature. He understood the significance of the works we were pulling off the shelves, and Monica and Reeva were enthralled by his enthusiastic descriptions of treasures in their parents’ library. Among many treasures they discovered a book about the Six-Day War and a complete index of Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain), the preeminent Yiddish literary journal of the second half of the last century edited in Israel by Avrom Sutzkever.

Aaron will tell you that his book-pickup schedules always ran late because the donors had to show each book to the crew of yunge mentshn packing them up, but this time it was the other way around: Monica and Reeva, who know Yiddish and attended shule as girls, asked David to explain what they were giving away. Their parents, both entrenched in the Yiddish literary world, had maintained a home in which books were a staple of everyday life. Monica’s pivotal moment in her father’s library came when, at the age of 14, she discovered an English volume by Sigmund Freud; she is now a semiretired professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan. Yiddish was part of her childhood, but perhaps not the most important component of her formation as a person and a scholar.

Although the Starkman sisters are in their seventies, they are emphatically not of the same generation as the people who donated books to Aaron 20 and 30 years ago. They donated their parents’ Yiddish collection, which has an ambient meaning in their lives but is not something they know intimately, not something that surrounds them every day now. For Moshe and Rachel, Yiddish was something they created, wrote down on paper, and folded between hard covers; for Monica and Reeva, Yiddish is something that someone else opened up for them, explained, and then took away.

We spent close to five hours pulling books from shelves, packing boxes, eating lox, maneuvering heavily laden hand trucks, and learning about the couple who had amassed this vast Yiddish library. On some of the shelves we discovered books behind books, and old Yiddish newspapers had been stored behind the volumes on the top shelf in the entryway. (Brittle newsprint confetti rained on David when he removed the papers from their perch.) Tucked inside book covers we found scores of Moshe’s letters, notes, copied pages, and other ephemera. We packed a box full of these papers for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, to add to the collection of Moshe’s correspondence in their archive. When items were related to the books themselves—if Moshe had written a review, for example, he often pasted the clipping into the cover—they came back to the Book Center with us.

As we worked, Monica and Reeva shared stories about their parents. “He wrote so much,” Monica said of her father. “He was always writing, sitting at his desk.” Nevertheless, the daughters remembered him as playful, someone who adored children and loved to cultivate their creativity. Their mother, who had immigrated at the age of 16 and had never had the opportunity for formal education, was bright and independent, writing advice and recipe columns in the Yiddish newspapers. Having grown up in a town on the border of Poland and Russia, Rachel Starkman felt comfortable in many languages. Monica remembered that “in her seventies and eighties sometimes, she would visit us in Ann Arbor.... We’d meet a Polish woman or a Russian woman and she would just—after thirty years—have a conversation in the other language.”

So busy were we I almost forgot that only months after their mother’s death we were plundering the apartment where the sisters had grown up. The two of them opened some of their mother’s old mail, asked questions about where they might send her Hebrew books, and peered into some of the particularly interesting volumes. The commotion we created seemed to overshadow any sense of melancholy stemming from Rachel’s death and from parting with objects that had shaped Monica and Reeva’s lives. When we had loaded all the boxes into the van—we guessed there were just under 1,200 volumes—we asked whether they wanted to see their books once more before we left. Their reaction showed us how they really felt about what was happening that day: they declined to say that final good-bye; the sight was too painful. Had we not been there—to listen to family stories, to acknowledge the intellectual depth of the collection, to handle their books with care and wonder—the sisters said, it would have been much more difficult to send the books away. A considerate husband, Eduardo came down to the street with us and took a photograph of this impressive collection packed into 40-plus cardboard boxes that took up about two-thirds of the van.

Like Monica and Reeva, my grandparents are the children of Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Immediately after the collection trip I flew to Florida to see them and escape the dreariness of February up north. I’d been working among the thousands of books at the Book Center for months, but having seen Yiddish books in someone’s home that week reminded me of their natural habitat, as it were, as part of a family. And this is where we hope many of the duplicates on the Book Center’s shelves will one day end up—back in the hands of a student or family, as part of a vibrant home.

My grandparents don’t have Yiddish books on their shelves. They do have "World of Our Fathers and other English Judaica," the 1950 Weequahic high school yearbook, and copies of the Talmud and Hebrew prayer books. My own shelves hold a Yiddish-English dictionary, a Yiddish textbook, and photocopied pages of Yiddish articles and stories. This made me wonder: what does the act of furnishing the bookshelves in our own homes mean? Removing books from their parents’ shelves was something Monica and Reeva hadn’t dared attempt until their mother had passed away. “We wanted to start doing this when my mother-in-law was still alive,” Eduardo told me, “but no one wanted to touch anything, because she lived with all these books. That was her memories.”

But the story of the Starkmans’ books is far from over. The signed volumes have been added to our permanent collection in Amherst. Duplicates will go to other homes and libraries. There they’ll be touched by new hands, and they’ll be read and debated and reconsidered in the 21st century and beyond.

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