For my father and the JTS library

A number of people (not enough) have reacted to the Jewish Theological Seminary’s decision to warehouse the majority of its library collection, rare books included, while it demolishes the 30-year old library building and builds a small dorm/library complex. People have bemoaned the closure of the signature open stacks, the loss to scholars who relied on the JTS library as a place to work with rare Hebraica and Judaica, and the fact that air rights have been sold to a condo developer. It is a sad statement that this singular institution, which welcomed everyone seeking access to centuries of Jewish knowledge and experience, was evidently insufficiently valued by its constituency to be saved.

I, however, am most indignant about the top-down and secretive nature of the decision-making process. My father, Menahem Schmelzer, was librarian at JTS between 1965 and 1988. He tended the library’s world-class collection for decades and was deeply involved in building the current library building only 30 years ago. He found out about the Board’s plans for the library from my son, who had read about it in the Forward.

This makes me angry — as the library’s most veteran, most knowledgeable, and most passionate custodian, my father deserved to be informed in a respectful manner.

I was strongly tempted to use this blog to elaborate on my resentment, but decided that sharing library memories would be a greater tribute to my father and his work.

I was no more than 5 years old when I first remember visiting the JTS library. I remember the huge, echoing reading room, with its marble tile floors and long leather topped tables with reading lamps. I remember my father’s office with the mysterious Dictaphone that could actually repeat back to you whatever you said to it! And behind his big desk, the door opened to an enchanted realm. That’s where the books were, the books he so loves. My 5-year old eyes took in the BIG HUGE books and teeny tiny books.

Abba in Rare Book Room August 2015

Along with my mother, the three of us — my husband, my son, and I — trooped into the rare book room, following my father. We spent a wonderful — and difficult — hour seeing the Rambam’s handwriting, the beautifully illustrated manuscripts, books saved from the Holocaust and books signed by JFK. My scholarly husband and son honed in on treasures of Hasidut. But I mostly soaked up watching my father with the books — his cherished, familiar, wonderful books.

This picture captures what I love most — my father’s evident passion, excitement and pleasure in sharing the beauty and specialness of the books.

We stayed until my father, physically and emotionally exhausted, said “Enough.”

My mother, in her inimitable way, reacted to the experience by quoting Scripture: הַצֳּרִי אֵין בְּגִלְעָד, אִם-רֹפֵא אֵין שָׁם
“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?,” she asked.

While I hope this was not a final visit, it may have been. I am so grateful to have captured these moments. And I want to make sure that with all the real estate dealings, the push for modernization, the constraints and exigencies, the hurt and loss, we will also remember the books that hold so much history, so much scholarship, so much beauty, and how they were cared for and loved for so many years. May it be so again in the future.

About the Author
Naomi Stillman is Associate Director of the internationally used NETA-CET Hebrew language program for grades 6-12. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with her husband. She loves books.