Reading the Readers

Lipstick kisses, wine stains, cigarette burns, and other glimpses of provenance

Most of the books at the Yiddish Book Center contain little pieces of evidence about their former owners. Sometimes there is only a name or a similarly small tidbit of information. Other times there are numerous clues left behind, which can show who the owners were and what their lives were like. Many books were gifted, revealing personal relationships and/or the occasion on which the book was received. In some cases, it is even possible to gauge a reader’s interaction with and impression of the book. Below are just a few examples of these pieces of evidence in their varying degrees of depth, starting with stamps, seals, and bookplates, which can help to reveal the name, place of residence, and even profession of the former book owners.

Digging a bit deeper, it is possible to find books that were inscribed by authors possibly at book signings, gifted by family or friends, donated in honor or memory of someone, or awarded to the owner(s) at an event or for an achievement. Quite a few books contain genealogical information, placed there either for the readers themselves or upon donation of the tome, so that the provenance would not be lost. Through these little clues, a multitude of personal connections unfold...

Many books are donated to the Center with hidden treasures left inside. The book was perhaps used as portable storage to file documents and/or these scattered archives and ephemera were used as bookmarks. Regardless of intent or purpose, these books were clearly used by their former owners in one way or another. These fun little pieces of history can reveal a great deal about the book users, or possibly readers.

With a bit of creativity, a book can serve many purposes other than reading material. Naturally, books can be used to press flowers. A Yiddish book can also be a doodle pad, which is, not surprisingly, most commonly practiced with school texts. Yiddish books often have blank end papers and fly leaves, which have tempted many former book owners to put them to use as canvases for art sketches or scrap paper for arithmetic or calligraphy practice. A dictionary, below, also apparently functioned as its former owner's address book, with handwritten names and numbers stretching across many leaves at the front and back of the volume. Someone else pasted lists of baby names for boys and girls onto the endpapers and flyleaves of another volume. A book can also serve as a coaster, which can be convenient when small nightstands are coupled with large tomes.

But was the owner necessarily the reader? While the little hints and clues from books, described above, might reveal interesting details about the lives of their owners, it can be difficult to ascertain whether these owners actually read their books. The Center is sometimes donated suspiciously pristine copies, either newer books still in their original wrapping or older books with uncut pages. But those are by far the minority. Most books here proudly bear signs of wear and tear, which can be considered damage to some eyes and signs of love to others'. Books that were meant to be used for reference, instruction, or devotional purposes tend to be especially well worn, because they were not just read once from cover to cover, but were consulted or read repeatedly. These include dictionaries, school texts, immigration handbooks, cookbooks, prayerbooks, hagodes, etc. In addition to wear and tear, there are also some books that shed light on the reader's experience or impression of reading through marginalia and other evidence left behind.

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. Here are a few images of readers from Yiddish books, which include men and women, the young and old, an angel and a cosmic man, and a dog and a cat.

It is also possible to read in Yiddish about reading in Yiddish. There exist Yiddish books about Yiddish readership and excerpts from memoirs and fiction that describe the reading experience. Additional perspectives on readership can be found in the Center’s other collections. The Wexler Oral History Project has many interview clips on the topic of reading and readership. Jack Lewin talks about how reading helped him forget hunger in the ghetto, and Dolph Klainberg tells of his father reading Sholem Aleichem to keep everyone laughing during the boat ride from Buenos Aires to New Orleans in 1947. Israel Milkow describes reading Yiddish secular literature in Yeshiva, for which he received "a patsh aher un a patsh ahin" (a slap from here and a slap from there), and Eugene Orenstein explains how reading one book led his father to lose his religious faith while studying at Yeshiva. David Fishman discusses Chaim Grade's relationship to his multilingual private library and how Grade would move books from one place to another and flip through their pages to maintain "living" contact with his library. Becky Rubinstein reminisces about how her father, a linotypist, would read Yiddish literature with ink-stained fingers and how she still has Yiddish books with his inky fingerprints. Bella Bryks-Klein, Yiddish speaker and daughter of writer Rachmil Bryks, remembers how she enjoyed having her father read Kaminsky's Mayn alef-beys to her, and she recites some of the rhymes from this booklet below:

I will conclude with an anecdote about a call that was transferred to me at the Center. It was the grandson of the Yiddish author Sarah Hamer-Jacklin inquiring about his grandmother’s books. Although I had never met the caller or his grandmother, nonetheless, I told him, “I think my grandfather was your grandmother’s doctor.” My grandfather was a doctor and also a native speaker of Yiddish. While I only possess a few of his Yiddish books, I knew for a fact that one of them was a book of short stories by Sarah Hamer-Jacklin, with the author’s inscription to my grandfather, “a gutn doktor” (“a good doctor”). Just as books create bridges between writers and readers through time and space, these little glimpses of provenance can also connect strangers in unexpected ways…