Thursday, October 29, 2009

In Memory - Nathan Snyder, 1944-2009

Posted By Ann Rabinowitz



Nathan Snyder
1944 - 2009
(Photo Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin Libraries)



In life one meet may meet many people, some helpful, some not. However, several years ago, I met a gentleman and a scholar, who very generously and kindly helped me in my research. He went beyond the call of duty and located items for me, directed me where I needed to go and translated documents that I could not do myself. He was Nathan Snyder, for twenty-seven years, the bibliographer and cataloguer at the University of Texas Perry CastaƱeda Library. He was also the namesake for the Nathan I. Snyder Library at the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas.

Nathan, an only child, passed away on Sunday, October 25, 2009, after a frightful bout with a brain tumor. He will be buried in Sharon, MA, on Thursday, October 29, 2009.


He was a scholar and a zamler, a collector of books and other documents and incunabula of Jewish origins. He found unique ways to locate such things and bargained ferociously with the holders of these items until he had them donated to the University. His collection grew and grew and is one of the finest in the country. As a result, the university is now known as one of the few places in America with a large collection of South African Yiddish Judaica.


For many years, Nathan and I corresponded about research and I helped him obtain items for the library and he provided me with research materials I needed. The correspondence included many things and the story of his life was one of them. Perhaps the best way to remember him is to quote from some of his letters that he wrote.


Basically, he was a solitary, shy and lonely person, who never married and he expressed his situation in life in the following manner.

“There is no doubt that I am a Jew of intense feeling for my people and its culture. This does not bring me any closeness to my generation. Most of my experiences were with older people, who had the time and patience. It was very hard for all of us growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. We could feel that everything was changing and that we needed to struggle to adapt to the new situation, which would be of suburban life. All my life in Boston was spent in the inner city, which was disappearing as a Jewish quarter. Having left Boston, I would spend most of my life in school and libraries. The most important place was Texas, because that was where I got the keys to the kingdom of Jewish books. It is all here now in the library. When it is over, I will spend time with what I still love, books, as a private person. I don’t like computers too much.”
He went onto say about his life that . . .
“I don’t have much contact with Jews as individuals or a community. Even in Dorchester, there wasn’t very much. Each one of us was involved in our struggle to survive. It was a hard life without much pleasure and bare necessities."
His experiences in life provided him with many tools for research which he used wisely; among them was his love of Yiddish and knowledge of German. He had this to say after I had started him on a round of translations for letters and stories from Lithuania and South Africa.
“My first effort to try to read Yiddish was when I showed my grandmother, Bessie, a copy of the Yiddish Forward around 1960. I didn’t understand what cataracts were. She could read Yiddish, but couldn’t read anymore, because of cataracts, so she couldn’t answer my question. When I saw your letter, my feelings to read it were determined by that experience. I loved my grandmother and my desire to read Yiddish is connected with my memory of her.”
An understanding of Nathan Snyder can further be gleaned from additional correspondence as he attempted to explain his success at his job of locating materials for the library and finding the money to do this:
“When I was 59, there was a meeting in the library and the librarians asked me how I did my work. I said that I did what the Professors told me to do and I prayed to G-d to help me. They did not seem very impressed at my answer as they wanted details about how I got gifts or purchases of materials. However, this answer is a great part of how I did things here. I just was able to get for Professor Seth Wolitz here from the library in Potsdam in Germany 26 pages of a Yiddish translation of a play, Uriel Acosta by Israil Bercovici, whose 7,000 volume library Potsdam bought from the author’s widow.

The answer to what it means to be a Jew, I was able to try to find first through attaining as best a knowledge of Jewish religious and secular culture, as I could according to my ability and circumstances. That happened in Boston between the time I was 15 and 21. That was the most important part of my experience with Judaism and Jewish culture. Then, 14 years after I left Boston, leaving in 1966, I got this job in 1980 and have been able to do things that seem amazing, because I pushed these things through with the help of the Jewish studies Professors and Library Staff, and various other people.

All this is a very intense experience for me, because according to the circumstances of my birth, in a working class and not a business family, and my abilities to relate to the university cultural world, and also live in Texas, this is all truly amazing. I don’t like living in Texas, because I find this a very isolating experience, but the library gave me a platform to try to do Jewish cultural work. I am a witness that this library gave a great chance to add Jewish cultural materials to its collection.”
As a postmortem, his last words of correspondence to me were:
“My whole life was being with strangers, because I felt so strange having left Dorchester and so lost. I would always want to help people and have some hope that maybe people would help me. It didn’t work out so badly, but my life has been changed around in many ways.”
I will remember Nathan for his kindness and generosity of spirit and the help he gave unstintingly to myself as well as so many others in the academic and genealogy worlds. He is a prime example that whatever your circumstances, you can still contribute and excel with whatever skills you have at your disposal. He made his own opportunities and gave others theirs. He was a mensch.

I hope he is now at peace. Baruch Dayan Emes.

3 comments:

  1. Nathan and I were friends since the earlier 80s when I was a grad student in the Dept of Oriental and African Languages and Literatures. He was the most helpful person on the entire campus and one of the best persons I have even known. We go a long way back. Almost 30 years.

    He will be deeply missed.

    I have so much more to say than this, but sadness overwhelms at the moment.

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  2. I remember Nathan coming to a backyard party at our house in 1981 or 1982 in Austin, Texas. He was a sweet man. I'll tell the other ex-Austinites here in the Washington, DC area.

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  3. Shortly after meeting Dr. Seth Wolitz at the University of Texas in the mid-1980s when I was a student there, he told me that I must see Nathan Snyder, who I ran over to meet. Afterwards, I would drop by his cataloging desk whenever I was at the PCL library -- and I would find him there often late at night. He said the library did not care what hours he kept as long as he did his work. Nathan was friendly and even road his bicycle to my apartment once for a get together I was having for Jewish students. I remember him running over to the Chabad House, all full of worry, to see if they could help after spotting some Christian missionaries on campus targeting Jews. We kept in contact over the years and he graciously accepted a donation of much of my father's classic Hebrew library a couple of years ago - making sure to convey to us that if any were duplicates he would go to great lengths to find a new home for them. I'll miss him.

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