The Pleasures of Meeting the Sachs Family - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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The Pleasures of Meeting the Sachs Family

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Some stories are better told from the end. Being an avid reader of stories, I know that the good ones reveal what you had hoped for as they unfold: a great plot, fascinating characters, and amazing chapters that make up the book of life as they take you on the journey back in time.

Here is “the end” of this story: I am standing in a warehouse in Panorama City surrounded by 18,000 books neatly packed in boxes. This is a gift from the estate of the late Elliot Sachs of Santa Barbara, generously donated to the Frances-Henry Library by the executrix, Ms. Doris Sturgess, through the mediation of a few good people (another amazing story to be told another time).

About a month before my first “visit” of what is now the largest gift this library has ever received, I knew nothing about Elliot Sachs or his family, and when the initial contact was made, I did what every cautious librarian would do: I researched the subject.

In addition to the fact that he was a professor of Political Science in the UC system, I was told by Ms. Sturgess that his father was a rabbi in Santa Monica, having moved there in the early 50s from Toronto, Canada. My initial research revealed a family saga fit to be “treated” and produced as a mini-series in this tinsel-town of ours: a young immigrant from Lithuania, Samuel Sachs, arriving in New York at the beginning of the 20th century, possibly with his parents, with a good probability that the father, Yehudah, was a rabbi in Lithuania. Samuel is ordained by JTS in 1916, and after receiving his B.A. from Columbia University, he is invited in 1926 by congregation Goel Tzedek in Toronto to serve as their rabbi. Somewhere on this time-line he marries Florence [later “find”  her cookbook and recipes], and they have two children. One of them, Elliot-Elijah, is born in 1933 [later “find”: Bar Mitzva Book of the Jewish National Fund, 1946]. After twenty years of service and social justice activism [later “find”: hundreds of pamphlets on issues of Labor relations, Zionism, Pioneers in the Land of Israel, Antisemitism, Communism, Socialism, Nazism, Jewish Philanthropy], they move to Santa Monica where Rabbi Sachs serves as the rabbi of Mishkan Tefilah (1952-1964).  Elliot studies Political Science and begins teaching in the UC system… and by now I am hooked…

I tell Ms. Sturgess that I need to come and see the collection before I make a decision, but my hunch tells me that there is a very good chance that the collection encompasses the lives of 3 Jewish scholars.

One week later I am standing in the middle of a townhouse in Santa Barbara that is empty, except for book shelves everywhere; entrance, hallway, kitchen, bedrooms, and a whole second floor that is designated as a library. Wall to wall book cases, hundreds of books meticulously protected by wrapped dust jackets, and in the middle of the room – about a hundred boxes ready to go. I ask for permission, and once given, I start pulling out books at random. I glimpse title pages of books dating back to the 1920 & 1930s from Great Britain, European imprints of early Christianity scholarship, an occasional commentary in Hebrew, published in Europe in the 19th century. The “kid in the candy store” feeling intensifies…Ms. Sturgess mentions a guesthouse in the front. I open the door and the studio apartment is filled with more boxes…I’m sold!

Fast forward: It is now the end of April, the first month of my Sabbatical leave. Assisted by my host’s, Eric Klein, staff, and by my old friend Liz, we have managed to unpack half of the collection. My initial hunch is proving to be right: I have scanned, researched and processed books and pamphlets that belonged to three generations of this family. More than the large number of items we do not own that will be entered into our collection, I am touched and overwhelmed by the care given to them; from rare imprints dealing with the Spanish Inquisition to Responsa literature published in Eastern Europe, from thinly published warnings against the meaning and the rise of Nazism in Germany AND in the USA, to texts of radio broadcasts urging the British government to honor its Balfour Declaration. From fund-raising programs for Goel Tzedek Memorial Park, to a Hebrew primer for children, published in 1945 and using a young boy’s description of the war from inside the Warsaw Ghetto as a vocabulary teaching tool.

For my own “professional development” I have learned that books in Hebrew were published in Johannesburg in the 1850s; that a “Pro-Palestinian Federation of America”, whose members were Christian clergy and academics, advocated on behalf of Jews in Europe in the late 1930s and against Anti-Jewish propaganda; that a small anarchist-atheist publishing house, the Haldeman-Julius Company of Girard, Texas, was publishing Big Blue Books and Little Red Books that were affordable to all and promoted social justice.( and

There is really no defined or planned “ending” to this story. I have 400 more boxes of books to unpack and more to learn about the Sachs family. The Library staff is busy cataloging, processing and conserving these new additions to our collection. We are planning an event that will recognize the Sachs gift and the people that helped to bring it about during the upcoming Jewish Book Month, so stay tuned.

And, if you are curious about the items from this gift that were designated “Special” or “Rare”, you can do a keyword search for “sachs collection”. And for more pictures, go to our Facebook page.