Zachary Baker, recently retired curator of Stanford's Judaica and Hebraica collections
Zachary Baker, recently retired curator of Stanford's Judaica and Hebraica collections

Curator retires with a ‘wow!’ Judaica legacy at Stanford

Rare books and other remnants of centuries-old Judaica. Volumes in Yiddish and Hebrew. Thousands of black and white photos of Israeli pop stars from the 1950s through the 1980s. Scripts from 67-year-old Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai.

All have found a home in the Stanford University Libraries and are part of the legacy of Zachary Baker, who retired in January after 18 years as Reinhard Family Curator of the school’s Judaica and Hebraica collections.

Along with the precious religious and secular antiquities, Baker showcased modern Hebrew and Israeli culture by acquiring what he calls “aspects of Israel that are not necessarily well-reflected in other library collections.”

When Baker arrived at Stanford in 1999, the library system was still absorbing some 20,000 books in the Taube-Baron collection, including several rare works. Baker helped complete the cataloguing of that collection, which was funded by local philanthropist Tad Taube and came from the personal archives of Salo Baron, considered one of the 20th century’s leading Jewish historical scholars.

Baker, 67, acquired many more works of Judaica and Hebraica, including the Samson/Copenhagen Judaica Collection in 2003 that covers close to 2,000 works printed from 1517 to 1939. But he also focused on more contemporary and popular works for the libraries’ special collections on Jewish studies.

With the assistance of Tel Aviv bookseller Eliasaf Robinson, Baker developed a comprehensive collection of contemporary art exhibition catalogs, “not just from major museums,” he said, “but also from kibbutzim and Arab galleries. Some of the art is dreadful, but some of it is really interesting and good.”

Robinson also sold Stanford his personal collection of books, magazines, posters, postcards and other material from Tel Aviv’s early days prior to 1948.

“The aspect of Israel in that pre-state era that I concentrated on was not the pioneering spirit but more the urban petty-bourgeois aspect of setting up the first Hebrew city, the practical aspects of creating a Hebrew society,” Baker said in an interview at Stanford’s Cecil H. Green Library.

Some of the art is dreadful, but some of it is really interesting and good.

In 2014, Stanford acquired the photo morgue of Lahiton, a now-defunct magazine that for decades focused Israeli popular culture. And last year the libraries became home to the archives from six projects by Gitai, whose films include the 2015 historical docudrama “Rabin, the Last Day.”

Baker, who grew up in Minneapolis, developed an affinity for Yiddish from a young age. He learned it when was 18, received a summer of Yiddish tutoring from his paternal grandfather and spent the next summer focused on the language at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

When he returned home, a family friend, Rena Coen — the late mother of filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen — told Baker he needed to do something with his Yiddish proficiency.. After getting degrees in American history and library science, Baker did exactly that — taking an internship in Judaica librarianship at YIVO and then a job there for five years cataloguing Yiddish books.

He moved to the Jewish Public Library in Montreal for six years before returning in 1987 to YIVO and spending 12 years there as head of the library. In 1999, he came to Stanford as the Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections, his first job outside a Jewish institution.

From July 2010 until January 2018, Baker also served as assistant university librarian for collection development for the humanities and social sciences. Now he helps bolster those collections; since retiring, he has been culling publications from his personal library and giving them to Stanford.

During his 18 years at Stanford, Baker’s job evolved as tech became an ever greater part of library work. His last major publication was released online only, quite a journey for someone who hadn’t even heard of Google when he arrived in 1999.

“When I first led a course for grad students in 2002 — in search methods in Jewish studies — I [used] a book truck [a cart with shelves] for every session,” Baker said. “By the last time I did this, I got rid of the books, even though for me they’re sacred texts.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.