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Rescuing My Father’s Library

I almost gave away my father’s legendary book collection—until I realized it held a priceless inheritance

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(Courtesy of the author)

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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This is a really beautiful story. Books mean so much. Thank you for sharing.

Such a wonderful story! My parents and I still grieve for all the books we abandoned when we moved to America from Russia 16 years ago.

Lilithcat says:

Imagine an eReader giving rise to such sentiments, such memories. It would never happen.

I read this as someone looking into the future and having one of my children talking about my library. Yes, I also have a large library, about 10,000 books — and I keep buying more. Now I am still in viably good health (for an octogenerian) with the usual ‘qvetches’. I had always avoided being a rabbi though many people urged me to gain ordination. There is an old saying, “It’s no job for a Jewish boy.” Having witnessed the harsh treatment of several rabbis, some where “the punishment did not fit the crime,” I realized that there was more than a gem of truth in that matter. However, I was tempted to look in the boxes in the pictures accompanying the story.

Instead, I became a bookdealer, so I am already accustomed to having a great many books around me. In fact, a change in the ownership of the building my shop was in forced me to close without liquidating my stock. I still have an additional 50,000 book on my property to dispose of before I can think of going to the “retirement home.” I’m open for offers.

However, for my personal bookshelf, it started with my building a bookcase along one wall of a bedroom I requisitioned as my “study, and today, there is no room to study in it, but it is filled with bookshelves along all walls and down the center of the room. Then I put up a long bookshelf in a hallway. Then I ran into a “tritych” kind of built-in which the previous owner ripped out of his wall and sold me, and then there was an antique bookcase with glass doors that I acquired that I put in my living room. I also have some “lawyers bookcases” with glass doors that open by sliding up over the individual shelves.

So I live very happily in a “house of books.” Additionally there are the 50,000 books from my shop, and they’re stored in storage buildings on my property, and what I’m going to do with them in this day when so many people are reading ebooks on ereaders is a question I have not resolved, but that’s OK. The books don’t rot, they don’t get “out of date. They’ll be there when some still unknown fellow “bookaholic” will show up wanting to go into the book business. But as an octogenerian, I do hope that he or she will be showing up sooner rather than later.

thanks for sharing this personal story.

I pray that one of your children becomes that “bookaholic” you are waiting for.

Michelle Chesner says:

A copy of your father’s dissertation is actually sitting on the shelf in front of me, as I used it in my research on Shadal in preparation for an exhibition of Hebrew manuscripts at Columbia that opened in September. As someone who often gets calls from children regarding the disposition of their parents’ libraries, I truly appreciate this piece. Thank you.

Michelle Chesner
Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies, Columbia University

afdfc sdfdsf says:

I remember reading Rabbi Margolies articles in the KC Jewish Chronicle every week. I just heard that he passed away friday/shabbos. baruch dayan haemes

My condolences to you Malka. I forwarded this amazing article to some people in my life originating from KC and as I heard back from them they mentioned how much your father meant to them. Then I heard the news today of his passing from them. Baruch Dayan.

Pradip Kumar Mukhopadhyay says:

Great…absolutely great. I find no word to give vent to my feeling on reading the article. How books are adorable still even in the age of computers..I simply am overwhelmed.

Malka Margolies says:

Thank you, Ross, for your kind words. My father was my greatest teacher and friend. I miss him every moment of every day.

Malka Margolies says:

Thank you. I just came across a file full of my father’s KCJC articles.

Malka Margolies says:

Thank you, Jane. There is nothing like a great book. My home is overflowing with them and they provide me much comfort.

Malka Margolies says:

Indeed! It is hard to curl up in bed with an eReader and experience the same feeling as a real physical book.

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Rescuing My Father’s Library

I almost gave away my father’s legendary book collection—until I realized it held a priceless inheritance

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