The following is the last in a series of posts by our 2010 class of Junior Fellows. It was written by Carrie Smith, a recent graduate of New York University.
For four years while a student at New York University, I went to class in a building on Washington Place, just to the east of Washington Square Park. Every year in late March, there would be flowers placed outside the building, near a small plaque. This is the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, an industrial disaster in which 146 garment workers lost their lives.
Having been so closely acquainted with this building and its story, I was excited to come across a related piece of sheet music. This summer, I continued the work of two previous Junior Fellows, digitizing items from the Irene Heskes Collection of Yiddish-American sheet music. In one of my last weeks at the Library, I found “Di Fire Korbunes”, written by David Meyerowitz and Louis Gilrod. The song is an elegy for the victims of the fire, many of whom were Jewish immigrants.
The sheet music in the collection varies in theme. Many pieces are from operas and plays from the New York Yiddish theater scene in the early 1900s. Other pieces were religious. Immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s began to assimilate into American culture, and that meant working on Saturdays when they used to be in a synagogue for Shabbat. The religious themes in theatrical works created a new kind of synagogue for many immigrants. The plays themselves often dealt with assimilation issues.
Still other music took on social issues. One piece I liked was “Di strayker” by Yankele Brisker. It was a worker’s rights song, often sung at rallies. And there was always humor, of course. “Mein griner kuzin Motke from Slobotkie” is just one of the many songs about a green or naïve relative. Whether it was a father, cousin, or mother-in-law, this was a common theme. When this song begins, Motke has set off from his native Slobotkie to find fortune and fulfillment in America, an action his cousins back home think is naïve. The song ends with Motke’s family arriving in America just in time for his wedding. “Green” comes to mean something other than naïve here—Motke has “made it”.
In addition to the sheet music, I worked on another project in the African and Middle Eastern Division. The Hebraic section has a collection of rare Hebrew miniature books that were poorly housed and somewhat neglected. When I got to the Library, around 60 books were in two large document boxes, in complete disarray. I sifted through the boxes and conducted conservation surveys on each book, determining whether they were damaged or needed preservation treatment. I then measured the books and fitted them into new acid-free boxes. Now each book is in its own clearly labeled box on a shelf in the Hebraic Section’s stacks. I also created a finding aid for the books so they would be more accessible to researchers.
The books were largely religious, either prayer books or Jewish writings, dating as far back as a Tanakh (Torah) from 1573. There were also a few more recent books (anywhere from 1974-1986) that contained travel information and children’s stories. They were printed in various locations, including Antwerp, Venice, Warsaw, Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, and Jerusalem. Their small size (a miniature is technically 3 inches high, wide, and thick) makes them easy to carry around. This convenience is probably why there are so many. People could carry prayer books around in their pockets and always have them when needed.
This project brought me to the Conservation Division, where I was able to work in the lab and learn about paper, binding, printing history, and so much more. The books are adorable and functional, and were a pleasure to work with.