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
Search the Catalogue
Browse by Topic
Browse by Index
(Author, Title, Illustrator, Periodical, Series)


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The Collection

The Joe Fishstein Collection of Yiddish Poetry, presented to McGill University in 1981 by the family of the late Joe Fishstein of the Bronx, New York, consists of about 2300 volumes in Yiddish, mostly poetry. McGill University was chosen as the recipient of this extraordinary gift in recognition of the intensive Yiddish language and literature courses offered by its Jewish Studies Department. Dr. Ruth R Wisse, presently Professor of Yiddish Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill University, was instrumental in acquiring the Collection for McGill.

In the words of Zachary M. Baker, "The Fishstein Collection represents one of the finest single private libraries of Yiddish literature to be found anywhere ... What sets it apart is both its sheer size and the large number of rare or ephemeral items found in only a few libraries anywhere in the world"    (1).

The Collection contains both rare and standard works of well-known authors, generally in superb condition. Fishstein had established standing orders for Yiddish poetry from publishers all over the world, which included many limited, ephemeral editions. Most of the books were published in Poland and the United States, especially New York City, but there are also imprints from Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belorussia, Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Mexico, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine and Uruguay. There are a number of unusual imprints produced outside the Pale of Settlement (the area in czarist Russia in which Jews were allowed to settle), like St. Petersburg [#1061], Smolensk [#966], and Libau, Latvia [#1485].   (2).

Although the publications stem from far-flung locations, and may manifest local variations, they are united linguistically and culturally as the expression of a single people with a common history and sense of identity. There was frequent contact among authors, publishers and readers between different settlements. This was effected through mail, telegraph and sometimes by travel, and through the medium of the press and periodical literature.

Of particular importance is the presence in the Collection of a large number of pre-World War II imprints from the former Soviet Union and other parts of Eastern Europe. Yiddish books printed in pre-war Poland, Russia, Romania and the Baltic States were often destroyed during the Holocaust and are scarce or rare today. The Collection also contains complete runs of important Yiddish literary periodicals. Of interest to Canadian readers in particular will be the Yiddish books and journals printed in Montreal and elsewhere in Canada.

Graphic art was a prominent element in the production of many of the books, and the work of more than 400 illustrators may be found throughout the collection, including many of international renown, like Marc Chagall and El Lissitzky. Several binders of ephemeral and archival materials of the period, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are included in the legacy and offer opportunities for historical and sociological research.

The Joe Fishstein Collection of Yiddish Poetry, although remarkable in several ways, is not comprehensive. Indeed, the Yiddish collection in McGill's Humanities and Social Sciences Library houses works not included in the Fishstein Collection, as does the larger Yiddish collection at the Montreal Jewish Public Library. The Fishstein gift is eclipsed in size by the more comprehensive holdings of the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research in New York, and other great academic and special research libraries of the world, as it is by the sheer quantity of assembled titles at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Nevertheless, the Fishstein Collection is unique. Its importance lies chiefly in the fact that it contains a surprising number of works seldom found elsewhere and that most of its volumes have been preserved in vintage condition.

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Goldie Sigal
Jewish Studies Librarian
McGill University Libraries