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YAIR Tribute to Mayer Herskovics, z"l

On Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, Stephanie Gross, electronic reserves and scholarly communication librarian at the Mendel Gottesman Library, gave an online Lunch & Learn presentation jointly with the New York Metropolitan Area chapter of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) about the work of the Yeshiva Academic Institutional Repository (YAIR) to preserve materials vital to the intellectual and spiritual life of the University.

To illustrate her point, she focused on Mayer Herskovics, z"l, who, in 1950, wrote Halakah and Agadah in Onkelos as his Ph.D. dissertation at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Using a PowerPoint presentation, Gross detailed the purpose and advantages of the institutional repository in general, then led her audience through the steps it took to bring Hersokovics’ dissertation home to Yeshiva University. Along the way, Gross also gave her audience a pep talk about not only getting through these pandemic times but using them to thrive.

The following account of the event comes by way of Chaya Sara (Hallie) Cantor, acquisitions associate, Hedi Steinberg Library. Thanks to her for her work.



Ordinarily, Muggles might have sat at home, waiting it out while brooding over COVID-19. Instead, Stephanie seized and exploited a crisis for growth—a chance to “Reset & Retool & Rejuvenate.” Addressing fellow librarians (and shut-ins) on “Self-Directed Achievement,” she described opportunities for professional development and listed online resources available to those wanting to use the free time to hone their skills or to network. Among them is AJL’s mentoring program, in which Stephanie herself was involved. Funding and learning are also available through YU’s union.

Discussing the role of libraries as guardians of intellectual and historical content, Stephanie focused on the rise of repositories, in particular YAIR. Part of the strategic plan initiated by Paul Glassman in 2016 to broaden the library’s mission, YAIR contains uploads of numerous and diverse contributions from YU’s faculty, students, staff, schools and departments. The acronym yair—Hebrew for “light”—was Stephanie’s idea, “because the Hebrew name means that it will ‘give light,’ and we’re hoping this is what it will accomplish.”

Stephanie is proud of YAIR, which has received positive feedback from content creators—even a write-up in our student newspaper The Commentary. “It makes me all the more excited in wanting to work harder,” she declared.

Work of their Hands

What makes a good repository? Showing a variety of samples, Stephanie explained how items may be organized according to author or subject matter. Curation means deciding what photos, clippings, podcasts, recordings, articles and so on might be suitable or relevant and what might involve copyright issues.

Nowadays, Word, PDF, audio or video files can be easily deposited and integrated into YAIR. But what about a work that is 70 years old? A work in print only, appearing at a time when “high tech” was black-and-white TV?

Enter the Mayer Herskovics project. For Stephanie, it was truly a labor of love, created entirely and methodically from a home laptop and a golden opportunity to reconnect or engage purposefully with others beyond the screen.

The saga actually began earlier when Rebekah Shoemake, interlibrary loan coordinator, was trying to satisfy an ILL request for Halakah and Aggadah in Onkelos, Rabbi Herskovics’s 1950 YU dissertation. But ProQuest yielded the following message: “This graduate work is not available to view or purchase.” Rebekah then crowdsourced this query to Sandra E. Moore (head librarian), Hao Zeng (head of library web and digital services), Rebecca Malamud (head librarian) and Stephanie.

“We’re all in on this,” Stephanie announced. Time to make a YU work public.

Rebecca got the ball rolling. With an inkling that the author had passed away, she searched his name through the Geni website. Through another website, Geneanet, Tina Weiss (head librarian of Hebraica-Judaica) located the deceased’s daughter, Geulah Grossman, who is living in Israel. Stephanie looked up Ms. Grossman, a therapist, on the latter’s personal website and on LinkedIn. Stephanie introduced herself, asking for a consent form to release the dissertation. (Ms. Grossman herself was among the Zoom attendees.)

Stephanie and Ms. Grossman continued to communicate, the latter sending her father’s impressive bibliography and a general bio (plus head shot) via Hebrew Wikipedia. Stephanie even created an account on Hebrew Wikipedia to link the dissertation citation directly to the freely accessibly PDF in YAIR.

At Rebecca’s urging, Stephanie included stock photos to dramatize the project being undertaken during the stringencies of the pandemic. Rachel Berliner (acquisitions associate), our own Indiana Jones, plumbed the “catacombs”—a.k.a. the Gottesman basement stacks—to retrieve the aging dissertation. Its fragile pages were photocopied and scanned. Avrom Shuchatowitz (catalog librarian) wrote up an abstract, which included background of the famed Aramaic translator Onkelos. Stephanie herself wrote up a LibGuide  (password: Herskovics).

Stephanie gave shout-outs to Shulamith Berger (curator of special collections and Hebraica-Judaica) and Deena Schwimmer (archivist) for their Yeshiva University Libraries Digital Collections, which she combed through to find tidbits for the “family album.” It was a (no pun intended) virtual goldmine. Stephanie also thanked Rabbi Herskovics’s grandson Menachem, who had interviewed his grandfather and even provided a thesis, complete with maps, about his grandfather’s life.

“Story for the Books”

The massive collaboration behind the family album not only aided Stephanie in her quest to track down the author, but to learn a lot about him as well.

By all accounts, Mayer Herskovics (1912-2003) was a remarkable man: rabbi, professor, Zionist, patriarch, Holocaust survivor and “thriver,” as Stephanie stressed (just like herself). Born in then Austria-Hungary, Rabbi Herskovics attended local yeshivoth, obtained a rabbinic degree and then entered the Czech army. Afterwards, he attended Gymnasium (high school) in Brno and subsequently the University of Budapest until the Nazi annexation of Hungary.

Always he remained committed to Torah observance and, despite the horrors of the concentration camp, even helped a fellow prisoner, the Klausenberger Rebbe, obtain matzah for Passover. (This story, translated from the Hebrew edition of the newspaper HaModia, is included in the archive.)

After the war and recuperation in refugee camps, Rabbi Herskovics married and lived in Paris. He emigrated to the United States in 1948, and in 1950, in memory of his mother, who perished in the Holocaust, he wrote this doctoral dissertation on Onkelos for the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He taught at various New York City schools, notably Yeshiva of Flatbush High School.

Rabbi Herskovics also taught at Yeshiva University for roughly 18 years before moving to Israel. Along with plaques, awards, letters and accolades, Stephanie included a moving eulogy from a former student, Rabbi Shalom Carmy (currently assistant professor of Jewish philosophy and Bible). Quoting Rabbi Carmy’s testimony about his former mentor and becoming “a link in his continuing legacy,” she paused: “Wow,” she exclaimed, “I think I’m becoming a link in his continuing legacy.”

According to his daughter’s email, Rabbi Herskovics was busy working on revising this dissertation just up to four days before his death. But, to Stephanie’s surprise, it was not his first. Back at the university, in 1943 or 1944, he had written an earlier one. Ms. Grossman described what was, in Stephanie’s words, “a story for the books.”

During the roundup of Jews, young Herskovics was captured on a train with the earlier dissertation in a briefcase on his lap. The Nazis tore it up, laughing, “Where you’re going, you won’t need this.”

Ms. Grossman wrote: “But he survived, wrote 5 books, had 3 kids, 13 grandchildren, 50 great-grandchildren, and half a year ago – the first great-great-grandson was born.”

For Stephanie, this revelation was the chance to make the story sharable, “to show how important our work is, not just to those who are reading some of the content, but those whom we contact ... and the process of connecting to the community.” Archivists can even have “a spiritual experience to come together and create a beautiful product.”

Stephanie ended with an overview of various software tools, websites and how-tos on creating repositories. “Leave your comfort zone” ran one slide as she urged her audience to learn new things wherever they were, whatever their situation in life. Finally, she provided a list of suggested topics for future Lunch & Learns.

When it comes to “workshare,” we have truly seen that there are no barriers. Thank you, Stephanie, for your immortal contribution to YAIR, and thank you, YU library staff, for doing your part.

A recording of the presentation can be found on YU Libraries’ YouTube page. In addition, the Slideshare is also available.