Garment Worker and
Book-Collector Extraordinaire

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Portrait of Joe Fishstein

Joseph Fishstein (1935)

Joseph Fishstein was born in Kalarash in March, 1891. After emigrating to New York in 1910, he earned his living as a sewing-machine operator in the garment industry and was an active member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

In 1912, he married Lillie Deutsch. At the time of the 1930 census, the Fishsteins and their daughters Ruth and Clara were living in Manhattan. By 1942, when Joe registered for the draft, they had moved to Brooklyn. When he died in March, 1978, Joe and Lillie were living in the Bronx. He was buried in the Kalarash landsmanshaftn plot in Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, NY.

According to an article by Joseph Einbinder, founding president of the Kalarasher Bessarabier Progressive Association, Joe Fishstein was present at the historic meeting on October 22, 1916, at which it was agreed that a landsmanshaftn society for Kalarash should be established. Joe served on the society’s board of directors and was editor of the 1935 Souvenir Journal published in celebration of the 18th anniversary of society’s founding. The portrait of Joe on the left is from the 1935 Souvenir Journal.

Joe Fishstein was a life-long devotee of Yiddish poetry and amassed a remarkable collection of some 2300 books, largely of Yiddish poetry. In 1981, his family donated Joe’s book collection to the McLennan Library at McGill University in Montreal. It is housed under the name “The Joe Fishstein Collection of Yiddish Poetry.” An on-line catalogue and exhibit relating to the Fishstein collection is available for viewing on the Internet. Many of the books are said to be “rare volumes, most of which [were] preserved in vintage condition by beautiful hand-made jackets fashioned by Joe.” [1] Some of the on-line material relates to Joe's participation in the Kalarasher Bessarabier Progressive Association.

In her preface to the 1998 catalogue of the exhibit, Ruth R. Wisse (Harvard University Professor of Yiddish Literature) wrote about how Joe had gathered his collection. She was told by his family that he "had put in a standing order with a Yiddish bookstore for every new poetry title published anywhere in the world, and for any book or journal about Yiddish verse. He had made weekly pilgrimages to the bookstores, and on Saturdays, with what feels very much like transferred religious awe, he had spent the mornings reading, decorating his acquisitions, and copying his favourite poems into a private album. [2]

Catalogue Cover

Zachary M. Baker, head librarian of the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research in New York, has said that the Fishstein Collection "represents one of the finest single private libraries of Yiddish literature to be found anywhere ... What sets it apart is both its sheer size and the large number of rare or ephemeral items found in only a few libraries anywhere in the world." [3]

Goldie Sigal, Jewish Studies Librarian at McGill University Libraries noted that Joe’s joy in his collection was reflected in the condition of his books: "Fishstein’s love for, and appreciation of, Yiddish poetry is evident from the condition of his library. He treated his books with great care and fashioned beautiful protective dust jackets and boxes for them, with a natural eye for pleasing design. And he read them, as witnessed by the dozens of bookmarks scattered among the pages - often beautifully hand-made from scraps of textiles - and by the strategic placement of abundant clippings of book reviews, poems, authors' portraits, and other items. He copied his favourite poems by hand into a special, decorated notebook. Another thick notebook is devoted to a handwritten catalogue of a large portion of his collection." [4] Sigal described Joe Fishstein as “a worker of modest means, largely self-taught, with a passion for poetry -- not a typical portrait of a literary benefactor.” [5]

Catalogue of the
Fishstein Collection


[2] Wisse, Ruth R., “Preface,” in A Garment Worker’s Legacy: The Joe Fishstein Collection of Yiddish Poetry (An On-Line Catalogue and Exhibit) at
[3] Baker is quoted in Sigal, Goldie, “Joe Fishstein and his Milieu,” Ibid.
[4] Sigal, Ibid.
[5] Sigal, Ibid.

Credits: Text and page design copyrighted © 2007 by Helene Kenvin. Page created by Helene Kenvin. Catalogue cover copyright © 2001 by McGill University. All rights reserved.