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University reading room named for local librarian

By Tonyia Cone
Special to The Jewish Outlook

In 27 years as Hebrew Studies bibliographer at the University of Texas at Austin, Nathan Snyder went above and beyond the duties of a typical librarian.


Robert King, Audre and Bernard Rapoport Chair of Jewish Studies at UT and a former colleague of Snyder's, said, "Nathan Snyder is one of the great unsung heroes of Jewish Studies at UT. In his quiet librarian way, with a little help from his friends like me, he built up the finest collection of Judaica in the Southwest."


Born in 1944 in Boston to Eastern European immigrant parents of modest means, Snyder received B.A. and M.A. degrees cum laude in classical Greek with a minor in Latin from Boston University. He earned bachelor and master's degrees from Hebrew Teachers College, where his studies included Bible, Biblical and Talmudic, Aramaic, Hebrew language and literature, Jewish history and Jewish philosophy.

Snyder received an M.A. in Semitics from Yeshiva University in 1968 and in 1967-72 did post-graduate work in the modern Middle East, with courses in Arabic language and institutions, Hebrew language and the state of Israel at Dropsie University.

After receiving his M.S. in library sciences from Drexel University in 1972, Snyder served as librarian at Spertus College of Judaica's Asher Library in Chicago until 1980, when he accepted a position with the UT General Libraries as professional librarian in the Hebrew and Jewish Studies Program.

"His first love was always books," King said.

Josh Goodman developed a deep, lasting friendship with Snyder when the two met in 1997 while Goodman was a graduate student at UT.

Goodman said that Snyder's love of books began as a young boy. Instead of playing outside or with friends, Snyder studied with his Hebrew school teacher, Rabbi Ben Zakkai.

"(Snyder) was in the same apartment for 27 years. It was filled with books," Goodman said.

Even after finishing his workday, Snyder spent most of his time at the library, Goodman said. Snyder, who never learned to drive and got around town by public transportation, often remained in the stacks reading the newspaper and listening to National Public Radio until it was time to take the last shuttle bus home.

"He was always there," Goodman said. "He didn't have much to go home to, but he had his books."

Snyder had no choice but to retire in 2007 after he was diagnosed with a debilitating brain tumor. With no remaining family, the lifelong bachelor and only child now lives in a North Austin apartment, cared for by friends, colleagues and round-the-clock caregivers.

Al Rogers, head of monographic cataloging in the Cataloging Department of the UT Libraries until he retired in 2008 and Snyder's supervisor for the last three years of his tenure at UT, explained that as a professional librarian Snyder was a cataloger and bibliographer. But he spent most of his time working with faculty to build the Hebraica and Judaica collection at the university's libraries.

Rogers said it is impossible to quantify how much Snyder built up the Judaica, Hebraica and Yiddica sections of the library during his tenure at UT, but his chief contributions were increasing the breadth and depth of the university's collections in those areas.

Before Snyder was hired, most of UT's acquisitions in his fields were obtained through a federal program in which foreign nations that had received aid from the United States reciprocated by sending to select American universities copies of many of their publications. Upon his arrival, Snyder began an aggressive acquisitions program that added microforms, archival materials and more books to the school's collection.

"Thanks to him, his areas in the UT libraries are simply a lot richer than they would be otherwise," Rogers said.

King said Snyder tracked down the collection's most valuable piece during his tenure, a Torah from Poland or Lithuania that miraculously survived World War II. Snyder also secured funding for its purchase and arranged to obtain the Torah.
Uri Kolodney, manager of digitization services at the university, explained that the collection includes many Yiddish materials, one of Snyder's passions.

"He was really interested in Yiddish because of his family's background," Kolodney said. "He collected anything he could put his hands on in Yiddish."

Snyder's acquisitions include a collection of Old Yiddish books from the 16th to early 18th centuries -- almost every book in the Old Yiddish field -- as well as early printed Hebrew books once owned by Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston.
Kolodney said that a large part of Snyder's success was due to unique relationships he developed with people around the globe, such as a South African book dealer and a researcher in Paris.

Rogers said that Snyder's understanding of the major Western European languages made him an even greater asset, since he was able to work with not only Hebrew and Yiddish but also Spanish and all the Germanic languages.

Snyder's translation of "Window of the Soul: the Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria: Selections from Chayyim Vital" -- a major anthology of the sayings of the 15th-century Jewish mystic Rabbi Luria collected by his disciple, Vital was the only published translation from the original Hebrew text.

"He has a broad educational background, which contributed greatly to his value as a cataloger and also as bibliographer," Rogers said. "There seems to be little that he doesn't know something about."

Over the years, Snyder received wide recognition from an international community of scholars, Rogers said.

A Canadian scholar commended Snyder for his "vast experience and broad and deep mastery of the often quite esoteric and abstruse subject matter." The chair of the Department of Bible, Archaeology and Ancient Near East at Ben-Guron University in Israel once wrote to Snyder thanking him for his dedication and selflessness, and a rabbi at Centro Comunitario Chalorn in Buenos Aires praised him for the breadth and scope of UT's Judaica collection and Snyder's generosity in sharing his "extensive and in-depth knowledge of Judaism, of Jewish history, and of today's Jewish academic world."

Snyder also worked to raise funds to buy material for the collection. Thanks to Snyder's work, Rogers said, the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation contributed $10,000 in 2006 to an endowment fund to buy Judaica and Hebraica.

In addition to his other fundraising efforts, Snyder established the Rabbi Ben Zakkai Endowment in honor of his former teacher. Along with his aunt, Snyder also established the Frances Wasserman Endowment in Memory of Dr. Harry Wasserman. Both endowments support the purchase of Judaica, Hebraica and Yiddica materials for the university's libraries.

Despite Snyder's physical condition, he has continued to contribute to the academic community. In early 2008, he donated his personal book collection to the Schusterman Center for Judaica Studies at the university. Many of the thousands of books donated are in the fields of Judaica, Rogers said.

In recognition of the gift, the Schusterman Center celebrated the opening of the Nathan I. Snyder Library in May.
In his remarks at the library's dedication, Robert Abzug, director of the Schusterman Center, called Snyder the "unsung hero of Jewish studies at the university." Abzug credited Snyder with "making possible advanced research and comprehensive teaching in the broadest fields of Jewish history, culture and religion."

Abzug said, "Nathan's vision, his knowledge of all things Jewish, and his persistence in finding the means to collect books and other material, have made all that we do at the center possible."

Goodman said that Snyder was known for his generosity, and King -- who is not Jewish -- said Snyder, who kept kosher and attended Thanksgiving dinners and Passover Seders the King family held in their home for students, was a mensch.
Although King said Snyder did not draw a large salary, he gave generous gifts to King's children and regularly dropped off bags of groceries to those in need, people King did not even realize were Snyder's friends.

Goodman said, "He's touched so many people's lives. He always did what he could to help."

Outside of work, King said, Snyder never really connected to Austin's Jewish community. When he first moved to the city, Snyder disliked Austin, which lacked the strong Jewish culture of the Northeast, and did not want any part of belonging to a synagogue or the broader Jewish community.

Goodman said, "Although his work was recognized internationally, the fact that it was never recognized locally by the Austin Jewish community was, in later years, a disappointment to him."

Those who wish to view the culmination of Snyder's nearly 30 years at the university, Goodman said, can find the collection he worked to gather for the school at the Harry Ransom Center and Perry-Castaneda Library. Snyder's personal collection is housed at the Schusterman Center.

"It's a treasure to the community," Goodman said.
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Tonyia Cone ( This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it ), an Austin-based freelance journalist, is a regular contributor to The Jewish Outlook.
 
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