Preface / Ruth R. Wisse
Introduction / Goldie Sigal
The Collection
Historical Background
Joe Fishtein and his Milieu
The Yiddish Language
Soviet Orthography
The Flowering of Yiddish Literature
The Catalogue
The Indices
Archival Items in the Collection
Technical Aspects
Table of Name Equivalents

The Catalogue Entries
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(Author, Title, Illustrator, Periodical, Series)


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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 working class.

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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Goldie Sigal
Jewish Studies Librarian
McGill University Libraries