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Joe Fishstein and His Milieu
This was the historical setting of Joe Fishstein, an East European
immigrant who arrived on the shores of New York as a young man
in 1910. He was born in 1891 in the town of Kalarash, Bessarabia
(presently in the Republic of Moldova), which was "cleansed" of
Jews by the Nazis during World War II. (A large yizker
[memorial] book, to which Fishstein contributed, entitled Sefer
Kalarash [#2155], stands on a shelf in the Collection, beautifully
adorned and boxed, next to several other copies of the work.)
He married Lillie Deutsch in 1912 and had two daughters, Ruth
and Clara, and five grandchildren. He was a sewing machine operator
in the garment industry most of his life and an active member
of Local 66 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.
He was a worker of modest means, largely self-taught, with a passion
for poetry - not a typical portrait of a literary benefactor.
Fishstein's love for, and appreciation of, Yiddish poetry is evident
from the condition of his library. He treated his books with great
care and fashioned beautiful protective dust jackets and boxes
for them, with a natural eye for pleasing design. And he read
them, as witnessed by the dozens of bookmarks scattered among
the pages - often beautifully hand-made from scraps of textiles
- and by the strategic placement of abundant clippings of book
reviews, poems, authors' portraits, and other items. He copied
his favourite poems by hand into a special, decorated notebook.
Another thick notebook is devoted to a handwritten catalogue of
a large portion of his collection.
Joe Fishstein was indeed an unusual man. But so were his background
and cultural milieu. The early decades of the twentieth century
provided a setting in which many thousands of Yiddish-speaking
immigrants, including hundreds of poets and other writers, laboured
long hours in garment industry sweatshops and in other trades,
with little enough time and energy left to write. But the immigrants
were thirsty for education, attended cultural evenings and thronged
to the Yiddish theatre. They were avid readers of the prolific
Yiddish press, which acted as an instrument of education and acculturation
to its many thousands of readers. The newspapers included poetry,
serialized works of fiction by prominent authors, and literary
criticism along with news and other features.
In World of our Fathers, Irving Howe speaks eloquently
of the emergence of a new social type - "the self-educated worker"
(1976, p.244-249) - "who would become the carrier, and often the
pride, of Yiddish culture ... still bearing the benchmarks of
the Talmud Torah, ... yet fired by a vision of a universal humanist
culture" (p.22). The idealistic concerns and goals of the Jewish
Labour Movement played a central role at that time in inspiring
many young Yiddish writers and readers of the newly-formed Jewish
The socialist daily newspaper, Forverts (Forward), was
founded in 1897 and edited for almost 50 years by Abraham Cahan.
The Jewish trade unions and associations, like the still active
Arbeter ring (Workmen's Circle), fostered education and
a number of them sponsored or published books of poetry and fiction.
The funeral of Sholem Aleichem in New York City in 1916 was attended
by hundreds of thousands of his grief-stricken readers. Jewish
shops were closed throughout New York City, as workers escorted
their beloved author to his final resting place. [Cf. #1085]
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Jewish Studies Librarian
McGill University Libraries