Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

Mystery and a Family History at the Rare Book Library

Date posted: Tue, Apr. 28, 2020

One day last year, as I was working as a graduate student on the Judaica collection of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, a box of old Hebrew and Yiddish books was brought to my attention. Apparently, it had been in the library for quite a while, as there had not been anyone to process it. Many of the books contained in the box contained owners’ signatures and inscriptions, indicating that they had belonged to one family, and they appear to hint at an interesting 20thcentury Jewish family history.

The books in question are 19th and early 20th century religious and non-religious Hebrew and Yiddish books, and they belonged to a family named Edelstein. The earliest book in the collection is an arithmetic book: Ḥokhmat ha-mispar: ḥeshbon ha-pashuṭ (ariṭmeṭiḳ) ṿeha-algebra ha-peraṭi veha-kelali, by Nahman Tsevi Linder, which was published in Warsaw in 1854, and the latest is the first volume of an edition of the fundamental Jewish mystical work the Zohar, published in Montreal in 1924 (Sefer Zohar Torah). 

The inscriptions in the first books that I catalogued from this collection did not seem unique in any way, simply naming one or two family members. For example, one volume of Sefer ha-agadah (Odesah, 1916 or 1917) has the Hebrew signature “Yitsḥak Edelstein, Toronto,” and the 1854 Ḥokhmat ha-mispar has a signature: “Aba Edelstein,” and another: “...Edelstein 1925.”

However, the books I catalogued next reveal more information about this family. The Hebrew grammar book Sefer Maslul be-diḳduḳ leshon ha-ḳodesh (Vilna [Vilnius], 1858) has an inscription on the front cover: “Yizḥak Edelstein, 1925,” while the front fly leaf mentions Aba Edelstein and the back fly leaf: “Aba ʻOzer Edelstein” and has a sequence of mostly non-legible Latin letters beginning with “Adels...”. In the book Ha-Mesilot (Vilna [Vilnius], 1875) there is an autograph: “Aba Edelstein 1925;” and an inscription on page iii: “R. Aba Edelstein gishtarburn 18 April 1925, Itsḥ̣ak Edelstein zein zon” [=R. Aba Edelstein died 18 April 1925, Yitshak Edelstein his son”]. So now we learn that Yitshak was the son of Aba. Perhaps Aba acquired this book in 1925, just before he passed away later that same year. According to the dedication inscribed in another book, Paleśṭina in ṿorṭ und bild ([New York, 1901]), it was given as a gift by Yitzḥak to his parents and siblings for the Jewish New Year festival (Rosh Hashanah) of 1919, “Sept 25/1919 New York.” The book Fedon(Varsha [Warsaw], 1885), has various inscriptions by Yitshak: “Yitsḥak Edelstein 1923” on the title page; “Yitsḥak Edelstein mi-Minsk, br. Avraham Aba” [=Yitshak Edelstein from Minsk, son of Abraham Aba] on the back fly leaf; and “Yitsḥak Even Ha-Shoham Edelstein 1923” on p. 51 (this book also includes many other signatures, mostly illegible, but one is by a certain “Mordekhai Elyashiv Hacohen”).  

Yet another book, Kinʼah un taʼavah (Varshe-Nyu-York [Warsaw-New York], 1911), has the signature “I. Edelstein 1913 Toronto” on the front fly leaf, but also an autograph of one Harry Adelstien. According to a genealogical website one Isaac Edelstein of Toronto had a brother by the name of Harry (https://www.geni.com/people/Isaac-Edelstein/6000000010486840297). Finally, the latest book in the collection, Sefer Zohar Torah, has the autographs “R. Aba Edelstein 1924” and “Yitsḥak Edelstein” on the front fly leaf, and the verso of the title page contains the following handwritten Hebrew manuscript: “ze ha-sefer shayakh le-avinu hayakar R. Avraham Aba bar Meshulam Koyfman Edilstein, A. H. [alav hashalom] t.n.ts.b.a. she-met be-shnat trph [5685]. 24 Nisan. 18 April, 1925, Toronto Canada.” [=This book belongs to our dear father, R. Avraham Aba son of Meshulam Koyfman Edelstein, may he rest in peace…, who died in the year 5685, 24 Nissan, 18 April 1925, Toronto Canada].  

Thus, we can now reconstruct some of this family’s history. Meshulam Koyfman Edelstein had a son, Avraham Aba. Avraham may have also had the name Ozer. Among Avraham’s children were Harry and Yitsḥak [Isaac] (the genealogical websites name other siblings of Yitsḥak). At some point Yitsḥak apparently added the name Even Ha-Shoham. In Hebrew even means stone, and shoham is a specific kind of precious stone, probably onyx, the gemstone worn on the high-priest’s breastplate according to the Bible (eg., Exodus 39:6). Thus, this name reflects the meaning of Edelstein = gemstone. 

The family came to North America from Minsk (Belarus), probably around the turn of the 20th century. The specific time of their migration and the possible stops on their journey remain a mystery for now, as do their specific reasons for leaving Minsk, but the move was common for many East European Jews at the time, due to a rise in antisemitism and frequent pogroms. By 1913 Isaac was in Toronto. It is noteworthy that the Anshei Minsk (=”People of Minsk”), or “Minsker,” synagogue, was established in Toronto’s Kensington Market area in 1912. However, the rest of the Edelstein family, or parts thereof, were apparently in New York, at least as of the Jewish New Year of 1919, but, the father, Avraham Aba, was in Toronto, just a few years later, towards the end of his life in 1925.

While a great deal of this family’s history remains unknown, this collection illustrates the value of and what can be learned from owners’ signatures and inscriptions in the books housed in our rare book libraries.

- Nadav Sharon, Judaica and Hebraica Librarian