Rescuing My Father’s Library
I almost gave away my father’s legendary book collection—until I realized it held a priceless inheritance
My father had told us he was the editor-in-chief of his college yearbook, but I had never seen it. Now here it was in print, from 1943: editor-in-chief, Rabbi Morris B. Margolies. My father’s brilliance was renowned, but was he really the youngest student ever ordained from Yeshiva University—a rabbi by the time he was 21? Apparently he was, ordained before he graduated. There in bold letters on the yearbook was the title “rabbi” when he was just a senior in college.
Other boxes were filled with rare books in Italian, German, and Hebrew, some published in the early 1800s in Warsaw, Prague, and Vienna. Most of these were books by or about the subject of Abba’s doctoral dissertation: Samuel David Luzzatto, an Italian Jewish scholar born in 1800. For years, Luzzatto was like a mythical family member, as my father mentioned him almost daily and my mother joked that she should put a place setting at the dinner table for him. Over the years, Abba lamented that he could not complete his dissertation, which he had started at Columbia University, now that we were living in Kansas City. But after 14 years of thinking about it, he took a sabbatical and moved us temporarily to Jerusalem—where he was born and spent the first eight years of his life. He completed his research there and, much to my mother’s horror, bought several hundred more books, which he shipped back by boat to the United States. His renowned and by then retired professor, the late Salo Baron, came out of retirement to hear Abba defend his dissertation. So, at the age of 53 he finally got his Ph.D. from Columbia, and I started calling him “Doc.”
At first, I was consumed with what to do with the books, especially since so many were in languages I would never know. I contacted university librarians, scholars, rare-book collectors. Through the fall and winter, a parade of these people showed up at my doorsteps wanting to see the prized collection. The reference librarian at Yeshiva University spent hours combing through the collection and eventually took two boxes of valuable books, now happily housed in the same library where my father studied as a student more than 70 years ago.
But then I stopped looking for a home for the books. I decided that I wanted to keep them, even though the shelves in the library I share with my husband were already almost filled. I weeded out books of mine I no longer wanted and bought an aesthetically pleasing wooden ladder to access the few remaining top empty shelves. I realized the best place for the books is my home. Here they will be used, appreciated, and cherished. While I do not have the entirety of his collection, what remains I want to keep intact and use to continue my father’s legacy of teaching and learning. No one could teach like my father.
The other day, my brother Jonathan called me from Kansas City to tell me that he and his former wife retrieved another 20 boxes of books that were in my father’s office at the synagogue. “What should I do with them?” he asked. “Keep them,” I answered.
While Jonathan has been filling the shelves of his home library in Kansas (naturally all three of the Margolies children have home libraries), my husband carried the remaining boxes from our basement to an unused room in our finished attic. There we built more bookshelves, unpacked each box, and created a library annex in our home. Just as my father had some of his father’s books in his collection, one day my library and annex will belong to my son. More important, the love of learning, my father’s legacy, will continue with the guidance of his treasured books and continue on to the next generation.
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