The festival Sukkot is associated with rain. According to the Mishnah, there are four times during which the world is judged, on Sukkot it is “judged in regards of rain” (Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:2, BT Rosh Ha-Shanah 16a). Just as the academic year began, New York was hit by Hurricane Ida, which had made a landfall in Louisiana a few days before and continued on across the land making a turn toward the North East and New York, retaining, quite unusually an incredible amount of water. As it hit the New York tristate area on September 1, 2021, it caused catastrophic damage, homes were destroyed and lives were lost. Fordham was not spared. And the Walsh Family Library in the Bronx campus suffered most devastating damage of all university buildings.
According to the director of Fordham libraries, Linda Loschiavo, as Sebastian Diaz reported in the Fordham Ram, “Everything in the staff areas (Cataloging, Acquisitions, Serials, the EIC) was under four plus feet of water and destroyed.” Michael Wares, Assistant Director of Technical Services in Fordham University Libraries, took a photo from one of the offices.
Some of the books lost were from the growing Judaica collection, one cart, waiting to be catalogued was lost in the water. A number of recent facsimile acquisitions generously donated by Dr. James Leach over the summer were irreparably damaged, among them a facsimile of Megillat Esther. Other lost manuscript facsimiles included a copy–numbered 3–of The Skevra Evangeliar, which is the fine facsimile edition of the so-called Lemberg Gospels (original residing in the Biblioteka Narodowa of Warsaw, Poland, Rps 8101 III).
Astonishingly, the library remained open. Staff, now displaced by the flood, moved to other parts of the library, including the back offices of the Special Collections and Archives, which are the home of Fordham’s growing Judaica Collection. And even in the midst of this crisis, on September 12th, the Special Collections and Archives accommodated the visit of 54 undergraduate students in two of our classes UHC 1851: Jews in the Modern World and ICC HIST 4312: Antisemitism and Racism (team taught by me and Professor Westenley Alcenat).
Vivan Shen, of the Special Collections and Archives, made sure that our students would not be denied the incredible experience of learning with historical artifacts. In those two classes, students were able to see and touch history: the transition from the medieval manuscript era to early printing technology, to more complex sixteenth century printing, and on to the 20th century. They were able to see the development of Jewish culture in conversation with the environment and societies in which they lived through books printed in sixteenth and seventeenth century Italy, even nineteenth century India and Iraq, and some amazing artifacts from the Jewish communities in the Bronx. They were also able to see how hatred is manufactured and disseminated and how it is possible to push back. (In 2019 students from my course on antisemitism co-curated an exhibit “Media Technology and the Dissemination of Hate” using special collections).
In this difficult time, days after a catastrophic flood and after a very difficult year, being together in person, in the library, touching and experiencing history, was indeed uplifting and inspiring. It could not be possible without the support and commitment of the library director and staff.
Magda Teter is Professor of History and the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies at Fordham University. In Fall 2021, she teaches HIST 1851: Jews in the Modern World and, with Professor Westenley Alcenat, HIST 4312: Antisemitism and Racism.