The Librarian as Witness -Two
What a ponderous title" The Librarian as Witness"! Whatever does that mean?
In my nearly four decades as a librarian in one capacity or another I have come into contact with many remarkable individuals, some of whom have shared remarkable stories from their lives.
The second story came from John J. Tepfer (1894-1988), who was graduated from the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1927. After a brief stint as a pulpit rabbi, he returned to the J.I.R. to teach Talmud, and he remained on the faculty of the College-Institute until his death.
Born in London to a prosperous Orthodox Jewish family, he was a grandson of the Belzer Rebbe. Indeed, for several years before World War I, he lived in Belz, as his uncle's Hoyf (court). After the War he took a degree in economics and came to America to study at Wharton. But he heard Stephen S. Wise preach and he was so moved he abandoned his business studies to become a devoted disciple of Rabbi Wise.
The College honored him on the occasion of his 90th brithday at Founders Day inn 1984. He spoke of the three men who influenced him most: Rabbi Abraham Abba Werner (died 1912), a famous rabbi in London, his first Talmud teacher; Claude Montefiore (1888-1938), who taught him it was possible to balance being a Jew and an Englishman; Pinchas Rokeah, his uncle, an observant Orthodox Jew who was also a pacifist, who chose prison during World War I rather than serve in His Majesty's Army.
The unique story Dr. Tepfer told me cannot be found in any book.
Dr. Tepfer's parents, while strictly Orthodox, educated their daughter in Hebrew. (This daugher whose name I do not know, later moved to Palestine and married Pesach Ginzburg [1894-1947], a writer, translator, essayist, and literary critic.) As there were no schools in London at that time where they taught girls Hebrew, the Tepfers engaged the services of a young impoverished man who worked at a printing shop. His name was Joseph Haim Brenner (1881-1921), who would migrate to Palestine in 1909 and become one of the major Hebrew writers in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
"My mother," Dr. Tepfer told me, "insisted my sister take her lessons in the kitchen." She would not allow Brenner anywhere in the home outside the kitchen because he owned only one shirt, which was dirty, and he smelled."
Not a pleasant anecdote, I admit, but it sheds light on another time and another place.