Books. Some people love them; others claim they can do without them. For Zalman Alpert, they are essentially his life.
For the past 35 years, Alpert has served as a reference librarian at Yeshiva University (YU). Educated at Columbia University’s School of Library Services and New York University’s School of Education, where he attained a master’s degree in Modern Jewish History, Alpert is one of those individuals who knows a little (sometimes a lot) about everything. Over the years, he has contributed articles to such works as Encyclopedia of Hasidim; Jewish American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia; Encyclopedia of Jewish American Popular Culture; Midstream; and The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: In your three decades as a YU librarian, what would you say was your most interesting experience or encounter?
Alpert: Well, one recent one took place last summer when I noticed a Catholic priest in the library. I started talking to him, and through conversation it became clear that his mother was a little girl during the Holocaust, was hidden by non-Jews, and never came back to Judaism. She adopted the Catholic religion and eventually married a Catholic in Poland.
For some reason, however – I guess because of the pintele yid inside her – she and her husband moved to Israel in the 1960s or so. This young man was born there and attended Israeli schools, but the family later left Israel and moved to a Polish enclave in New Jersey. Subsequently this young man returned to Poland, studied for the Catholic priesthood, got a doctorate in Old Testament studies using the Hebrew he had acquired in Israel, and is now a professor at a Catholic theological seminary in Poland.
I couldn’t really get this priest to admit he felt Jewish although he knew the halacha and didn’t deny he was Jewish. He said he came to the library to familiarize himself with midrashic literature because he wanted to see how the Jewish rabbis interpreted the Bible.
Have you ever met people in the library who would otherwise never dare step in YU due to ideological reasons?
Absolutely. In fact, many of the more interesting people I have met over the years are chassidic rabbis from Williamsburg. The Pupa dayan, for example, was here, as was the spiritual head of the Organization of Young Satmar Chassidim.
They come because everything is in one place, and many of them don’t want to go to the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) for theological and halachic reasons. In recent years, though, there’s been a marked decrease in the number of chassidim who come here because of the availability of such databases as HebrewBooks.org, Otzar HaHochma, etc.
Many people claim JTS’s library is far better than YU’s. True?
If you’re doing research that requires use of old manuscripts, JTS is better. But if you’re doing research that involves books published in the last few hundred years, I would say YU compares favorably to JTS and in some areas is even better.
Why does JTS have a better manuscript collection?
They started building their collection a lot earlier than YU. When Solomon Schechter took over the seminary in 1902, he brought part of his library with him, which included a lot of Cairo Geniza fragments. Also, Schechter brought faculty members with him who were very interested in creating an academic library, and they went to Europe actively seeking manuscripts and rare books.
In contrast, YU’s college was first created in the 1920s and the Jewish studies graduate school only started in the late 1930s. YU’s library only really became very professionalized after World War II.
How many Jewish books does YU own?
I would say 300,000-400,000. We also have something like 50 incunabula, which are books printed before 1500.
You possess something of an interesting family background. Can you share?
My parents were Holocaust survivors from Lithuania/White Russia. In Europe, my father was part of the Lubavitch community, but my mother came from a misnagdic background. I attended Lubavitcher school in New Haven for many years growing up, and then went to YU later on.
Do you consider yourself Lubavitch?
The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, said there were three sorts of Lubavitcher chassidim: chassidei ha’geza, i.e., people descended from Lubavitcher chassidim; chassidei ha’nusach, i.e., people who live their lives according to Lubavitcher minhagim; and chassidei Lubavitch, which I imagine means people who study Chabad chassidus and have a personal connection to the Rebbe. I would put myself in the first two categories.