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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

Malka Margolies
November 07, 2012
Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author

When the UPS driver pulled into my driveway in August 2011 and opened the back doors to his truck, I gazed transfixed at the 32 boxes packed tightly from floor to ceiling, some toppled sideways, ready to tumble out into my garage. These were my boxes now. One by one, the driver took them into the basement and set them on the rug in my son’s playroom.

For months, I’d researched how best to get the boxes to my house in the Bronx from my parents’ new home in a long-term care facility in Overland Park, Kan., that did not have enough space for them. So, the delivery wasn’t a surprise, by any means. But as I collapsed on the pink, floral-patterned 1950s sofa, a gift from my aunt when she closed down her deceased parents’ furniture business, the tears that had eluded me for the past few years came down my cheeks. Mentally, I had worked hard to rationalize each sign of decline in my father’s health with the false hope he would get better. But seeing these boxes now in my home abruptly ended that illusion.

Over the course of the next several weeks, I wandered down to the basement and went through the contents very methodically—surrounded by Lionel trains, unfinished Lego buildings, oversized Muppets, and elaborate K’nex structures, often at odd moments like 3 a.m., when the house was quiet and everyone else was asleep. What I found were hidden gems.

Inside each box were books, a mere fragment of what was once my beloved father’s vast library of 7,000 books in eight languages: Hebrew, English, Yiddish, German, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. He had always claimed it was the largest private collection in Kansas City, and perhaps he was right. When did Abba, who worked seven days a week and put in brutal hours administering to his congregation of 1,600 families, have time to read so much? I asked my brother Jonathan. “Don’t you recall?” he said. “Until now, he never slept.” By this point, our beloved 90-year-old father, ravaged by illness, was sleeping most of the day.

My Abba can now no longer use what he spent his adult life collecting. But having a portion of his cherished collection under my roof brings me some comfort. When I randomly take one of his books in my hands and begin to read, I am reconnected with the father who has imparted so much knowledge, love, and wisdom to me throughout my life. I am reminded of his passion for Hebrew literature, ancient and modern, biblical scholarship, Jewish history, English literature, and a host of other subjects, none frivolous. I long to absorb the knowledge he has amassed from these books, and at a frenzied pace I’ve begun reading as many books of his as time allows.

Books defined my childhood. The house my parents just sold after calling it home for 44 years had an entire floor designated as “Abba’s library.” I vividly recall in 1968, when I was 8, the flurry of activity in our soon-to-be new home when carpenters arrived and ripped out closets on the designated “library floor” to clear the walls and maximize space for bookshelves. Beautiful custom-made wooden bookcases and cabinets were carefully installed, converting what had been an oversized guest suite into a magnificent sanctuary filled with books from floor to ceiling. It was there that my father spent his waking non-office hours reading his scholarly books into the night, and it was there that I would accompany him when he wanted to teach me about Festschrift, books honoring a scholar during that person’s life, or show me books that discussed the 1929 cuneiform discovery in present-day Syria that explained some of the esoteric biblical passages that became the foundation for the laws of kashrut. It was in that room, too, that together we read the great Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik and explored the varied opinions of the small American Jewish population during the Civil War. It was there that so many of the mysteries of the world were resolved with books, and questions that my schoolteachers did not answer to my satisfaction were clarified with the guidance of my father and his library.

Over the years, every inch of every shelf was filled, and Abba started laying books horizontally on top of others. As each one of the children moved out of the house, our bedrooms became library annexes, and when we returned to visit, our rooms would be overflowing with volumes of Shakespeare, multiple copies of Dickens, books on modern Hebrew literature, biblical criticism, Jewish history in an assortment of languages, and the occasional volume or two about baseball.

The potential to build a library had dictated my parents’ decision to purchase this house. Decades later, those very books became their excuse for not moving. As it became clearer each day that the house with all its steps was a potential disaster for my increasingly frail parents, they remained obstinate in their refusal to leave. Almost in unison, Mom and Dad would say, “But what would we do with all the books?” It was only when a builder said he could build bookshelves in a private villa on the nursing-home campus where all the children now wanted our folks to live that they reluctantly accepted the inevitable move.

Much of my father’s scholarly library had already been dispersed. A few years earlier, when his mind was still sharper than most anyone of any age, he sold a large part of his Jewish history collection to the University of Missouri in Kansas City. Before my parents moved to the villa, my brothers Daniel and Jonathan methodically went through the books with my father and asked him which books he wanted to take to his new home and which could be given away. My brothers found appropriate homes for many of the books, making sure they went to people who would appreciate and use them and not just put them on a shelf to collect dust. In the end, more than 1,200 books went to the new villa. The 1,000 homeless books (or so I thought) that remained in my parents’ home before it was sold were unceremoniously placed in my parents new, carless garage at the villa after their house surprisingly sold within days of being on the market. These are the books—mostly in Hebrew, my father’s first and favorite language—that are now in my house.

And so for the past year, with plastic gloves on my hands, I have gone through each box and opened each book, some more than 170 years old, and for those moments I am transported back into Abba’s library, imagining him sitting in his reclining chair at his desk or stretched out on the sofa devouring every word he read. Inside many of the books were personal inscriptions, often from the author, frequently in Hebrew. One book inscribed to “Abba” had a date of 1933; when I reread the inscription, I realized it was a gift from my father’s late eldest sister, my Aunt Rivka, to her father—the grandfather I never met—on the occasion of his birthday. When I flipped through the pages of another book, out fell a piece of paper and envelope, a thank-you note from my grandfather to the publisher, who had apparently sent him the complimentary copy. I smiled as I touched the piece of paper that my grandfather had forgotten to mail.

Each box contained secrets. Inside one was a pamphlet with the title “Harry Truman Commendation Award Dinner: In honor of Vice President Hubert Humphrey; December 19, 1965.” My father’s name was among those on the inside program. Growing up, I had seen photographs of my father and President Truman and heard my father several times tell how he and Mom went to dinner with the Trumans, years after he was president, and how over dinner my liberal father angrily challenged Truman on the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But now in my hands was proof of their tenuous friendship.

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.

Malka Margolies is a former publishing executive and is currently a freelance writer and publicist.