The Librarian of the West End: Fanny Goldstein

By Jessica A. Kent
Jan. 5, 2019

The Boston Globe Archives

The Boston Globe Archives

It’s 1933. In Germany and Austria the campaign to burn literature – any literature that opposed the ideas of Nazism, especially Jewish literature – began, with Goebbels pronouncing that the era of Jewish intellectualism had ended. But in Boston, a woman who made it her life’s work to promote Jewish literature and educate the world about it had only just begun.

Fanny Goldstein was the director of the West End branch of the Boston Public Library from 1922-1957 – the first Jewish woman to direct a BPL branch – and in her time there she curated the second largest collection of Judaica in the state, founded Jewish Book Week (which became the Jewish Book Council of America), compiled “must-read” lists of Jewish authors, and more. Outside of her time at the West End branch, she was the first librarian at Temple Israel in Brookline, helped foster the Saturday Evening Girls Club in the North End, visited and educated incarcerated populations, among other services to the community. In a time when the written word was being eliminated half a world away, Goldstein became a literary activist and promoter of the work of the Jewish people.

Early Years and the Saturday Evening Girls Club

Born in Kamenets-Podolsk, Russia (now Ukraine) in 1895, Goldstein immigrated with her family to the North End of Boston in 1900. At that time a predominantly Irish neighborhood, the North End had shifted to be mostly Eastern European Jews, and as Goldstein grew up in the North End she would have lived among a mix of European nations. A staple of her young life became the Saturday Evening Girls Club, a social and intellectual community created by North End branch librarian Edith Guerrier, artist Edith Brown, and patron Helen Osborne Storrow (of Storrow Drive renown). Meeting weekly to discuss books, art, politics, and culture, the Saturday Evening Girls Club created not only a place for young immigrant women to feel at home, but gave them encouragement and confidence to pursue careers beyond the home. Fanny Goldstein, an attendee who eventually edited the S.E.G. News from 1912 to 1917, wrote that the Saturday Evening Girls Club:

…offered a happy refuge and contrast. Here the doors of America literally opened up for them [the young women attendees]. They sought refuge from growing pains. They sought compatibility and understanding and companionship. They groped for the opportunity which America offered, without knowing and without understanding. Thus they drifted into the Library. (Larson 197)

Working with immigrant communities and bringing diverse people together would become one of her missions. In 1913, Goldstein became the assistant librarian at the North End branch under Guerrier, and began her career with the Boston Public Library.

Tyler Street Reading Room

Goldstein worked at the North End branch until 1919, when she transferred to the Tyler Street Reading Room, or the old Chinatown branch. Again, Goldstein found herself amidst another diverse community of immigrants, and in her annual report for 1920-21, she cites that “As an example of the ingredients of our Tyler Street melting pot, the different nationalities using the library are cited as follows: American, Armenian, Chinese, French, Greek, Hebrew, Irish, Italian and Syrian. The district is particularly rich in social, political and educational activities.” In the early 20th century, the library became a hub of immigrant populations, and Goldstein was committed to honoring each people group as they were. At the Tyler Street Reading Room, she once received a gift from the Syrian community thanking her for her “unceasing services to our people” (“Library Life”). Above all, her life would be marked by, what Rabbi Benjamin Grossman would note at her funeral, “the spirit of brotherhood” (“Throngs at Goldstein Rites…”).

After three years, in 1922 at the age of twenty-seven, Goldstein was appointed the director of the West End branch of the BPL, the first Jewish woman ever to direct a branch library. She would serve in the position for 35 years.

West End Branch

Before its razing in the early 1960s to make way for Mass General, North Station, and other “superblocks,” the West End was another community of immigrants, like the North End. The West End branch of the Boston Public Library was originally housed in the Old West Church. Still located on Cambridge Street today, the Old West Church was established in 1737, and the current building was constructed in 1806. After the congregation disbanded, it was turned into the West End branch library in 1896, and would remain so until 1960 (Goldstein would be the branch’s last librarian in that location), when it was temporarily housed until moving into the current building in 1968. Ironically, Goldstein’s office was the former minister’s study, but she relished the location and its Biblical connection, writing:

In the great high-ceilinged reading room hang the paintings of four divines. Among these Jonathan Mayhew, whose utterances were instrumental in firing the first protests in the Revolutionary War, and the Rev. Charles Lowell, whose son James Russell Lowell became a U.S. Ambassador. All the preachers of the church had been united in one theme: The Brotherhood of Man. The gospel and the power of the spoken word, as revealed through the Bible was fearlessly preached. In this work, they relied on the traditions of the Puritan Fathers who in Colonial times staunchly upheld the teachings of the Hebrew Law and Prophets. (“The Story of Jewish Book Week…”)

Goldstein used her time well while at the West End branch, championing and furthering literary cultures. She created book exhibits that promoted the literature of the various nationalities of the community of the West End. A 1933 Globe article described the community as such: “…her library is eagerly sought by hundreds, they finding a medium of understanding between the cultures of the old and new worlds.” In 1924, she was appointed to the Massachusetts State Library Club’s Committee on Work with Foreigners.

She was also a frequent contributor of content to The Boston Globe, The Jewish AdvocateB’nai B’rith Magazine, and more, and often appeared on WBZ radio covering topics from Purim to children’s literature. Considered a “dynamic speaker” (“Miss Fanny Goldstein to Give Chicago Address”), she gave lectures around the area about literature, but also about Boston history. Goldstein also traveled to give lectures, one of her most notable being an address at the American Library Association Round Table in Chicago in 1933, entitled “America and Its Racial Literatures.” For another ALA event, in 1917 she kicked off the annual book drive for soldiers and sailors with a speech at Faneuil Hall.

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Good Fellowship Parties

Feeling that “the library had not measured up to hospitality towards its neighbors” (Shapiro), Goldstein held the first “Good Fellowship Party” in 1928. Every year after, the library opened its doors, welcoming anyone who needed a place to spend Christmas Eve (the date would later be moved to a time between Hanukkah and Christmas). A 1954 article on the Party describes a packed West End library, 200 guests that included rabbis and reverends, doctors, poets, teachers, librarians, social workers, and more. Goldstein created the event and hosted it, and even made the food. Of her and that night, the article states:

Hostessing such parties is not new to Fanny Goldstein. She started 25 years ago doing her bit to promote good will, fellowship, brotherhood and observance of the Golden Rule. … And so it is that the Colonial brick front building, formerly the Old West Church, with an imposing history, is serving, because of Miss Goldstein’s devotion to the true brotherhood ideal, to spread the idea that one can respect another person ‘without apology because he is different.’ …those attending the functions are gaining a lot of information and insight into the other person’s point of view, be he Christian or Jew, Negro or white. (Shapiro)

Of the event, a friend described the light of Hanukkah candles and candles on the Christmas tree shining together (Baker).

Beyond the West End

It was during this time that Goldstein, a congregant at Temple Israel in Brookline and teacher there during the 1910s, became the synagogue’s first librarian. In 1923 she created the Booklovers Society at the Temple, and would write a “Miss Goldstein Recommends” column in the Temple Israel Bulletin. Later on, she wrote a number of religiously-themed plays that were performed at the Temple. Goldstein would frequently open her home in Beacon Hill, hosting what a friend likened to a literary salon of the day, describing that “at her table, side by side, for her Friday night dinners have sat Hebrew poets, Boston’s social leaders, art lovers, great medical authorities, scholars, and all who love the humanities—and humanity” (Baker). She was also known to visit local prisons with Rabbi Benjamin Grossman, in order to instruct incarcerated members about Jewish customs and celebrations, to conduct Passover Seders, and more. She would also send them books, and gifts.

Jewish Book Week

Of all the work she did in the city, though, Goldstein’s concentration was on her own community. She found a disconnect in the Jewish community’s sense of cultural identity and their lack of consumption of literature by Jewish authors. Especially in such a time as the 1930s, Goldstein believed that the Jewish community should be doing all it could to support each other. She observed that “It is true that students and scholars do appreciate the value of reading Jewish literature, but the great mass of our Jewish people is not particularly interested to choose from the books it does read those written by Jews, for Jews, or about Jews” (“Buy and Read Good Jewish Books”).

It was a small act, but Goldstein acted. In 1925, just before Hanukkah, Goldstein put together a display of books by Jewish authors, and as far as history knows, it was the first collection of Jewish books to be displayed in a public library in the U.S. The Jewish Advocate newspaper took note at the onset, and when Goldstein repeated the act a year later, The Boston Globe wrote that “Miss Fannie Goldstein, librarian of the West End branch, Boston Public Library, Cambridge st [sic], which caters to a large Jewish clientele, has made a display of books of interest to Jewish readers.” This small collection of books in the West End branch during December 1925 would eventually evolve into Jewish Book Week.

But Jewish Book Week wasn’t going to be contained in Boston. Goldstein passionately promoted it in the American Library Association bulletin. She reached out to libraries, school, synagogues, and more to encourage them to have their own Jewish Book Week. She wrote articles about it, and gave talks about it. She would put together an annual collection of writing entitled Suggestive Material for the Observance of Jewish Book Week. This hand-typed compilation would include an introductory letter from her, a guide on how to host a Jewish Book Week, and informational articles. The bibliographies went worldwide; her personal letters show requests for more copies from rabbis and leaders both here and abroad.

In Boston, Jewish Book Week activity centered around both the West End branch and the main BPL branch in Copley, which launched the week with lectures, presentations, book discussions, exhibits, and cultural programming. The Boston Globe ran an article each year detailing the events of that week. And Goldstein was always a speaker. Jewish Book Week would eventually evolve into Jewish Book Month in 1943, hosted by the Jewish Book Council, which continues today. Annually, the month before Hanukkah is designated as Jewish Book Month, and the Council prepares the same kinds of promotional material Goldstein compiled herself years ago. 

The Boston Globe Archives

The Boston Globe Archives

Beyond Book Week

Jewish Book Week was only part of Goldstein’s championing of Jewish literature. After the 1933 book burnings, she spoke out about the Nazis’ actions, and wrote about it in an article for The Globe. She also created a display for the library of books that the Nazis had burned. In May 1934, Goldstein published an article in the Globe entitled “Long List of Books Written by Boston Jews,” highlighting Jewish authors of Boston – both men and women – and the titles of their works. She was also known to mentor Jewish writers, including Reba Paeff Mirsky, who went on to become a Guggenheim Fellow, and Charles Angoff, whom H. L. Mencken called “the best managing editor in America.”

In 1954, Fanny Goldstein was given the title of Judaica curator for the Boston Public Library, the first person appointed to that position in Boston, and the first woman appointed to such a position in America. During Goldstein’s time, the Boston Public Library’s collection of Judaica became the second largest in the state. Upon her retirement in 1957, she donated her own personal collection of 6,000 volumes to the library.

Upon the occasion of Goldstein’s retirement in 1957, an article in the The Globe about the event opened with the line “The West End changed a little last night.” The BPL newsletter told of retirement activities stretching across January and February of that year, including parties, teas, and presentations to Goldstein, including a personally inscribed Tanakh gifted to her from the staff of the BPL, and an illuminated scroll given to her by the West End Branch alumni. At her retirement, she voiced excitement over getting to do things that “a busy life has never permitted me to do” (“West End Branch Librarian…Retires”). But her retirement wouldn’t last long. Having been in and out of the hospital for various reasons for most of her life, she passed away on December 26, 1961 after a year-long illness.

Her funeral was presided over by Rabbi Benjamin Grossman, who said of her that she was “more than a good librarian. She translated the Spirit of the Book into actual life and made of the library a spiritual center.” He talked about her desire to help the less-fortunate and “the lost soul,” and that “she deserved the crown of her good name.” In attendance were members of the Boston Public Library, clergy, teachers, medical professionals, community members, and even former Mayor John B. Hynes.

Legacy

Goldstein never married or had children, yet she created a family of the communities around her, becoming in a way their teacher and spiritual guide. An immigrant from Russia, she became a known name in the Boston area, and her passion and determination to raise the profile of Jewish authors still has its effects today not only in the form of Jewish Book Month, but in all the individual lives she influenced. 

In its internal publication “The Question Mark,” the Boston Public Library wrote in 1954 of Goldstein’s legacy in an article entitled “Judaica’s First Lady,” perfectly summing up Goldstein life work:

In connection with the observance of its centennial anniversary, the Boston Public Library this week announced the establishment of a separate Judaica Section to eventually be permanently housed in the proposed addition to the Library at Copley Square when it is erected. This is an action of national cultural significance. Since such Collections now exist only in the Library of Congress and in the New York Public Library, Boston bids well to become a major seat of Jewish scholarship and information. Curator of the Judaica Section will be Miss Fanny Goldstein, Librarian of the West End Branch Library, who becomes the first woman to ever have been so honored. No choice could have been more fortunate, for few people have labored more to advance Jewish writing and Jewish books. The community pays thanks to the trustees of the Library for its forward and most welcome move and congratulates them on their sagacious choice of Miss Goldstein as keeper of the books for the People of the Book.


Bibliography

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“Buy and Read Good Jewish Books!,” Jewish Advocate, 3 May 1928.

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Goldstein, Fanny. “Autos-de-fe for the Jew and His Book.” The Boston Globe. 12 May 1933.

--. “Long List of Books Written By Boston Jews.” The Boston Globe. 23 May 1934.

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--. Suggestive Material for the Observance of Jewish Book Week. Boston: BPL. 16 Dec. 1940.

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