Joe Fishstein was a garment worker in the Bronx. But his real passion was Yiddish poetry and he collected over 2300 volumes in that language. He combined his skill with thread and needle and his love of poetry by crafting beautiful handmade jackets for the works in his collection, considered to be one of the finest of its kind in the world. He made use of the materials of his trade: remnants of fabric, leather, rickrack and ribbon, as well as drawer lining sheets and wrapping paper, to create extraordinary book covers, often using gold- and silver-coloured materials, symbolic, perhaps, of how much he cherished these literary treasures.
The Joe Fishstein Collection includes not only poetry and other works of Yiddish literature—many of which are rare volumes, beautifully preserved—but also scrapbooks of early 20th century postcards and photographs, bookmarks and trade union memorabilia. (Mr. Fishstein, who lived from 1891 to 1978, was a member of Local 66 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union). Among the books are works that were published in many countries, including pre-revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union, Poland, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Israel, the US, and Canada, including of course a number of books and journals printed here in Montreal, which once had a thriving Yiddish literary community.
What brought this collection to McGill? It was donated by Joe Fishstein’s family, in 1981, in recognition of the Yiddish language and literature courses offered by the university’s Jewish Studies Department. In 1998, a catalogue of the collection, titled A Garment Worker’s Legacy, edited by Goldie Segal, was published by McGill University Libraries, and that same year an exhibition, curated by Goldie Segal, was mounted at the university.
On Wednesday, November 20, Alberto Manguel, author, editor, critic, all-round bibliophile, and currently leading a conversation series at McGill, will speak with Esther Frank, of McGill’s Jewish Studies Department, and Sebastian Schulman, writer, translator and Executive Director of KlezKanada, about Yiddish culture today, the Yiddish writers of Quebec and the Joe Fishstein Collection. There will be a reception at 5 p.m. to be followed by the discussion. This free event, presented in collaboration with the Friends of the McGill Library, will take place at Rare Books and Special Collections, McLennan Library Building, 4th floor, 3459 McTavish.
– Shelley Pomerance