Yiddish Card Catalogue from a Personal Library
A handmade card catalog illuminates a Yiddish reader’s library–and his life
Every week, the Yiddish Book Center receives around two hundred donated books. As bibliography fellows, we’ve sorted through many thousands of used books, and we’ve seen nearly everything, from 19th century prayer books to contemporary Hasidic novels. At this point, it’s rare that something shocks us. However, a recent donation revealed a surprising and delightful coincidence.
In 1996, Claire F. Judin donated a unique object to the Center: her father-in-law’s hand-made card catalog for his personal library, along with some of his books. The label affixed to the front of the box reads “Library of Samuel E. Judin, New York, organized January 1st, 1911.” Claire explained that “these books were his pride and joy and [he] treasured them,” and that she had more of his books in storage in New Jersey.
About the size of a shoebox, this plain wooden box contains dozens of index cards sorted alphabetically. Glued to each index card is a small slip of paper with the title, the author, and an assigned number for each book. Some cards include clippings from newspaper reviews or summaries of the book. A blue stamp reading “Library of Samuel E. Judin, New York,” centered around a Star of David, is emblazoned on the front of each card.
Samuel Judin was born in Dvinsk in the Russian Empire in 1885 and immigrated to New York in 1905. Census records reveal that he married Ethel Judin and they had two sons. He was naturalized in the 1930s and worked as a tailor. Over the years, the family lived in the Bronx and then Brooklyn, where he died in 1961.
This painstakingly created catalog reflects a diverse and intellectual book collection. Judin devoted himself to Jewish learning, maintaining many religious books in his library. When we interviewed his surviving grandchildren, they told us that Samuel and Ethel Judin regularly attended the Jewish Center of Hyde Park; he even built their Torah ark. From his catalogue we could tell that Judin also enjoyed reading popular Yiddish literature, from the playwright Jacob Gordin to the poet Avrom Reyzen, and world-famous writers such as Sholem Asch and Sholem Aleichem. His grandchildren told us that he was particularly fond of the stories of Tevye, and often read them to his grandchildren.
Samuel Judin’s library also includes translations from many classics of world literature, including the works of Jules Verne, William Shakespeare, and Leo Tolstoy. Reflecting his status as a relatively recent immigrant to the United States, he had a handful of books aimed at new English speakers: Harkavy’s guide to letter writing, English dictionaries, and even some religious books in English.
Looking through this catalog, we imagined the books Judin read and cared so much about.
We didn't have to imagine for long, however, because one day the books showed up at our front door.
In January 2022 we received a book donation from Michoel Rotenfeld, a librarian at Touro University in New York. Among the many volumes, we came across several books with numbered tags that were attached with strings to the books’ spines. At first, we were surprised. Some of the books that we receive contain bookmarks or labels, but we had never seen an organization system like this. Upon closer inspection, we noticed a familiar-looking stamp inside the book covers: Library of Samuel E. Judin New York.
What were the chances that just as we began researching this card catalogue, the actual books would show up? Matching the numbers on the tags to the numbers on the card catalog, we confirmed that these books belonged to the same library. We contacted Michoel Rotenfeld, who told us that he bought these books from a used bookseller in the New York area. Rereading Claire’s letter, we concluded that these books, which were once in storage, must have found their way to the used bookstore.
Thanks to Michoel Rotenfeld’s research, Samuel Judin’s grandchildren, Jerry and Hilary, heard that we had his books and contacted us. Over zoom, they recounted their grandfather’s struggles as an immigrant and his meticulous devotion to literature. Illuminating the story behind the letter from their mother Claire, they helped us understand the person behind the catalogue, sharing bits of his biography and telling us stories about their time living with him when they were children.
Somewhere along the way, these books and their card catalog became separated. It took decades, but they are now safely reunited at the Yiddish Book Center. We hope that our visitors will treasure them as much as Claire and Samuel clearly did.
–Emily Mazza and Sarah Biskowitz, July 2022
Sarah Biskowitz works as the Richard S. Herman 2021-2022 fellow in bibliography and exhibitions at the Yiddish Book Center. A native of Milwaukee, WI, she graduated from Smith College in 2021 with a degree in French and Jewish studies.
Emily Mazza works as the 2021–22 Phyllis Pasker Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center. Since graduating from Smith College in 2018, she has taught as a Fulbright fellow in Lithuania and completed her MA in comparative history with a specialization in Jewish studies and archives at Central European University.