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"HIPPOPOTAMUS": PROFILE OF A GREAT CUSTODIAN
The true story of the man who built up the Jewish Room of the New York Public Library
By Nathan Ausubel, Freedom: Morning Freiheit Magazine Section, October 28, 1944
Whenever people with a sense of humor looked at the late Abraham Solomon Freidus, custodian of the Jewish Room at the New York Public Library, they could not resist the temptation of a snicker. He was so funny! To his face they called him Freidusjust Freidus, without the mister before it, but behind his back they called him "hippopotamus."
He was short and terribly fat. When he walked he waddled like a ball of jelly, and his breath came quick and panting in gasps. Even with one's eyes closed one could hear his approach from the other end of the room because of the sound effects which accompanied it. His face with its big fleshy nose was an astonishing mask, expressionless like the bland face of a Buddhabearing upon it a fixed childlike grin, half shy and half inscrutable.
What bulbous eyes he had! They peered at one near-sightedly from behind spectacles of double thickness. They were like those of a child, simple and direct, unabashed in their candid watchfulness. Yet deep behind them, as if concealed in the depths of his skull, peered a profound gravity which made the smile over the eyes appear like the flimsiest of veils, a mere surface flicker.
His round head, round as a cannon ball, was almost devoid of hair and lent him a ghoulish air. He did not have any neck to speak of but he was plentifully supplied with chinstwo in front and one behind his neck, and they quivered when he talked with feeling.
The librarian was utterly scornful of appearances. He had only one suit of clothes as long as the memory of his readers could go back. It was soberly black and shone like a mirror from too thorough use.
If no one ever called Freidus "Mr. Freidus" it was because the general conception of the man was that of an institution. To scholars and students he represented Judaica, like an abstract symbol. In time perhaps he himself had come to regard his very substantial personality as something abstract and impersonal: an Idea.
A man of such a cast would be bound to have a cosmic conception of time. Freidus never looked at a clock, never owned a watch, and so never kept an appointment. He was a great admirer of the languorous Yiddish saying which runs: "If I will not come today I will come tomorrow." Tomorrow was a very flexible time concept for Freidus. Once, when rebuked for failing to keep an appointment, he retorted with stinging logic: "What am Ia machine?"
He worked according to his own laws and according to his own pleasure. He ate at unearthly hours, hardly slept at all, worked almost all the time in his eccentric fashion, handed in his 1907 report to his library chief in 1909, and when righteously reproached would smile his child-like, wondering smile, as if to say: "Tush tush! why all this silly excitement about nothing!"
For many years Freidus received the princely honorarium of $50 a month from the New York Public Library. It is no wonder then that he possessed only one suit of clothes, that his trouser cuffs became frayed and his seat highly polished. The poor man, a confirmed bachelor, needed someone to look after him, to darn his socks and to wash his shirts. Laundry bills take money to pay and on $50 a month Freidus could barely keep alive, and that he kept alive at all was the subject of universal wonderment. Just the same he grew fat, but it was not on his salaryonly because of a glandular disturbance.
An extraordinary man, this Freidus! It is hard to picture it, but he actually was a philanthropist, a patron of learning in a practical way, a modest donor of books and rare manuscripts to the permanent collections of the New York Public Library. He was always grieved by the inadequacies of the Jewish book collection caused by budgetary difficulties. Without telling a soul, he frequently would deny himself the merest necessities, even skip meals or abbreviate them, and with the money thus saved he would acquire some item of Judaica which he thought the library needed.
Quietly he would put his purchase on the shelves, handling it with the fragile care that a proud father gives his infant daughter. And when a reader would inquire for it he would beam like the sun and happily waddle off to the stacks. He would return panting and with shy casualness lay the inimitable treasure before the reader. Then he would stand by and goggle-eyed rivet his glance on him in order not to miss the slightest nuance of reaction on his face as he read.
That is why he was always in financial difficulties, harassed trying to make ends meet, and heaving deep muted sighs when asked about it. But the expression of his distress would always be accompanied by a wry smile and a deprecating lift of an eyebrow as if to say: so what?
The center of Freidus's existence was his library. He underwent a thorough transformation as soon as he entered his reading roombecame alert, smiled benevolently and impersonally, and yet remained grave with the dignity of a man engaging in a useful and superior occupation. But when ten o'clock came and the library closed he physically seemed to wilt. He then gave the impression of being fatter and clumsier than he actually was. A little dejectedly, swaying from side to side in his rotundity, he waddled off. But he did not go to his home, some dark hole in the wall in an East Side tenement, but instead took the Second Avenue street car to the Café Royal, where he ate his solitary dinner and felt the remote warmth of the other diners' presence.
Strange man that Freidus! He suffered from a striking lack of self-esteem. Therefore, he chose to be the midwife or wet-nurse to other people's creations. A brilliant scholar and an indefatigable researcher, yet he chose with the prodigality of an archangel or a fool to give away all his learning to other and lesser gifted men. They buzzed around him like flies over honey, fed on his ideas, and rode on his fat back to fame. He toiled and moiled for them, dug up facts and quotations, and showered them with ultramontane authorities. He followed the wispiest clues to knotty research problems with the obstinacy and perseverance of an ant or a detective. How many thousands of random research items and ideas, tossed off with the ease of virtuosity by the "hippopotamus," found their way anonymously into the twelve fat volumes of the Jewish Encyclopedia and into hundreds of works of Jewish scholarship?
Sometimes he would find his reward of ego-balm in the casual mention of his name in an author's perfunctory Acknowledgment. Not that he cared very much. Freidus had none of the vanity of the mediocre scholar. What difference did it make to him if his name appeared or did not appear in print? The anonymous sculpture masters of ancient Egypt did not possess a more refined modesty than Abraham Solomon Freidus. He smiled his child-like open smile, goggled his bulging eyes at his readers and stood panting, like a little fat puppy dog before them, eagerly waiting for their requestto serve.
Freidus never grew tired, or at least never seemed to. Always he preferred fetching a book from the stacks to delegating the task to an assistant. He handled a book like a lover. It was the old Yeshiva Bocher, the Talmud student in him. He thumbed and caressed it with his pudgy fingers as if it were a living thing and capable of responding to his amorous touch. People smiled amused but he did not see it and if he did he pretended not to.
The man was utterly devoid of any kind of vanityexcept perhaps one. He had a phenomenal memory, and he knew it. Like a little boy he delighted in astonishing people with it. Although he himself had established a catalogue file system for all the books, pamphlets, journals and newspapers under his care, he scorned to consult it. With a nonchalance, real or feigned, he would straightway amble off to the stacks, relying wholly on his memory to find the book requested. A clue, a hint, a suggestion from a reader would immediately result in an extraordinary flurry on his part. He would come back loaded like a camel with books, for he not only knew the titles of books but, oddly enough, he had also taken the trouble to read them. Because of his photographic and retentive memory he never forgot anything he read. So he would guide, advise, and assist his readers as if he were not a librarian at all, but their devoted teachereven an entire University faculty.
One of his witty beneficiaries later wrote of his memory as being "a perpetual Resurrection Dayupon inquiry, it gives up the Dead and Gone of Literature." He also prepared for his readers bibliographical lists on innumerable subjects, such as: Jewish women, Jewish marriage and divorce, anti-Semitic and conversionist periodicals, Yiddish folk songs, the history of Jewish music, Hebrew grammars and dictionaries, etc.
Some people found his attentions too persistent for their lazy peace of mind; he haunted them like a guilty conscience, pestered them constantly with books and articles whose existence they had never suspected. You have not read Zunz on this subject! Tsts! Look into this Steinschneider and you will find what you are looking for!
Freidus was absolutely free of all Philistinism. A man's reputation or position in the world did not matter to him at all. He would regard Dr. Billings, his library chief, with the same impersonal fishy eyes that he would turn upon some ragged tramp or crank who came into the Jewish room as "a cash customer." Alike he served them, with the same fidelity and the same distant courtesy. Aloof and yet warm simultaneously. Buddha smiled a universal smile, impersonal and yet so kind, embracing all men.
Many looked upon him as a freak. But that did not make the slightest indentation upon the thick spiritual hide of the "hippopotamus." He had found his emotional center in his work and in the knowledge that he was serving others, and it immunized him largely against the poisoned barbs of the world. As one discerning writer remarked about him posthumously: the cultural traditions of the Jewish people and the Ethics of the Fathers lived unostentatiously in him and in his every day tasks.
Yet on one occasion he came pretty near to disaster. The smiling Buddha's smile curdled. He became agitated. His fat face turned sallower and lines of care began to crinkle in the corners of his eyes. What had happened was that an avenging angel had suddenly appeared in the Paradise of his reading room, brandishing a sword of wrathand determined to drive him out. Terror seized Freidus.
It was an enemy of hisone of his reading room enemies who had good connections and who nurtured a fine Old Testament hatred for him. So he hatched a plot against the librariana vicious, conscienceless plot. The nature of it is not known and may never be known. Whatever it was, Freidus could not fall asleep. He lost his appetite and perceptibly began to thin. He was convinced he was going to lose his job. He assured acquaintances at the Café Royal that if that took place he doubted whether he would be able to survive at all: the humiliation of being fired, the loss of his economic independence, and especially the destruction of his intellectual and emotional center, which the library was to him.
What would life be to him without his reading room? Day in and day out, year in and year out, the library had served as his complete universe. It even extended to his table at the Café Royal after working hours where he would sit eating his dinner and simultaneously clip newspaper items for his readers with a tiny pair of scissors.
It finally turned out that the library stood in greater need of him than he needed it, for he was the foundation stone on which rested the Jewish Divisionand what an inexpensive foundation stone! Who else but the "hippopotamus" would have been content to work for starvation wages?
Those who knew him well said that he had only himself to blame for his financial plight. He was utterly impractical and displayed a morbid contempt for money. He did not have the slightest talent for living or getting on in the world. On one occasion, when he was summoned to a meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Library and was commended for his brilliant bibliographical work and then told that his salary was being raisedhe looked grave and answered with pontifical dignity: "Gentlemen: I will take the matter under consideration." On another occasion when an appreciative individual whose reading he had guided wished to help him financially the librarian looked sad and distressed. "I am a librarian, not a schnorrer!" he mumbled.
Freidus was almost as complete a clipping bureau as the late Romeike's. This function he assumed not because he had an odds and ends type of mind, a five-and-ten cents store repository of learning, but because of his overflowing generosity. He was eager to be likedit was a secret passion with him which he could not express forthrightly. He was by nature a shy person. And inasmuch as he could not show kindness to others in any other way than to serve them with reading matter, he initiated a gargantuan project to supply all his readers with clippings out of magazines and newspapers they might have missed. His baggy pockets fairly bulged with clippings. Like a magician drawing rabbits out of his hat, he could pull out soiled, crumpled clippings for every one of his "steady" customers.
One of the puzzling things about Freidus was that he never married. Not that he did not want to. But no woman ever cared for him. And yet women attracted him no end. As soon as he saw a pretty girl his goggle-eyes bulged even more. He flushed and underwent a complete transformation, became more alert, more personal, even youthful in a hippopotamus sort of way.
There was a great deal of emotional warmth in Freidus but nature had been unkind to him and made him unattractive to women. The wags were in nine stitches when they saw him playing the gallant before the ladies. The poor man was unaware of the amusement he was causing. Had he but known he would have died out of morbid sensitivity. Some of the lady-wags even encouraged him with mock seriousness just to see him make a fool of himself, which he obligingly did without much urgingrushing on to his downfall in head-on collision as if he really were enjoying it.
Many of his "customers" made places for themselves in the world, basked in the incandescence of honor, and grew sleek on good salaries. But he, the "hippo," grew shabbier and heavier from year to year, heavier not only in bulk but in despondency, for after middle age he seemed to have caught on at last that he had produced nothing tangible with all his prodigious energy, painstaking research, vast learning and astonishing memory, that he was to face his declining years empty handed and empty pocketed, practically friendless, even the butt of other people's wisecracks. So his smile grew slightly more wry, the sombre look in the back of his filmy smile grew darker, and he was noticed to have increased and amplified his usual quota of sighs, groans, wheezes, puffs and snorts.
The doctors told him that he was suffering from arterio-sclerosis. They advised him to take life easy, not to over-work and to stop exciting himself. Excite himself! Who would have thought that it was possible for the "hippopotamus" to get excited about anything? No one had ever heard him discuss any controversial matter. For all Freidus knew and cared nothing existed in the universe except Judaica, bibliography, lokshen soup which he liked, and newspaper clippings about excavations in Palestine and Mesopotamia. Once, when he was asked whether he was a Zionist or a Socialist, he smiled his cryptic smile and answered: "I am a librarian."
But the doctor's advice went unheeded. It was not possible to change Freidus or his life-long habits. He worked night and day at his tasks and what leisure time remained to him he spent in the Café Royal among his newspaper clippings.
On the morning of October 2, 1923, while he was on his way to his beloved "bondage," as he used to call his work, he collapsed and died almost immediately at the foot of the Library stairs.
His funeral took place the following day. Almost over night he had become a celebrity. The Yiddish and the Anglo-Jewish press carried editorial eulogies, prominent scholars and writers issued statements to the press mourning his loss, and a host of people followed his hearse to the foot of the Williamsburgh Bridge.
One well-known scholar, who had been among Freidus's best "customers" in the research and "clippings" line, was even inspired to break into an In Memoriam sonnet. He did not fail to inject into his eulogy that touch of quaintness and raillery which the librarian's personality always seemed to have aroused in all people who knew himso that even in the solemn moment of his death he was made to assume the cap and bells of Jester, the capering schlemihl.
At last, at last, transfigured and serene,