Helen Sarna, 85, renowned cataloger of Hebrew text

By Padraig B. Shea
Globe Correspondent / December 28, 2008
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Helen Sarna stamped and cataloged numerous books during her 23-year tenure as a librarian at the Hebrew College in Newton. Despite her renown as one of the nation's leading cataloguers of Hebrew texts, she took special pride in sending corrections to the Library of Congress.

Mrs. Sarna will be remembered by hundreds of Hebrew College alumni as a compassionate counselor and adviser, her son, Jonathan, said.

"She helped some with their homework, others with family problems, still others with their love lives," wrote Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.

Mrs. Sarna, who also was a former librarian at the American Jewish Historical Society at Brandeis, died of natural causes in Newton on Dec. 18. She was 85.

She was born in 1923 in London, where she lived until being briefly evacuated during the Blitz of 1940. She met her husband, Nahum, there at a London Zionist youth meeting in 1939, when they were 16. They dated for eight years before marrying in 1947. He died in 2005.

Her husband became a prominent Judaic scholar and professor at Brandeis for 20 years. He never learned to type, so Mrs. Sarna transcribed for him, including some of his early books.

"She typed and edited all of his work," Jonathan said in a telephone interview. "She was very important in helping him achieve the scholarship that was central to his life."

After marrying, the Sarnas moved to the newly created state of Israel in 1949. In 1951, however, the Sarnas moved to Philadelphia with their 2-year-old son, David, because the Hebrew University campus where Dr. Sarna was studying was cut off from Jerusalem during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

In the United States, Dr. Sarna continued his education, and Mrs. Sarna taught at a Hebrew school. In 1957, they moved to New York City, where Mrs. Sarna realized her dream of attending college at Columbia University. She eventually earned a bachelor's degree in library science from Simmons College in Boston.

In 1965, the family moved to Boston when Dr. Sarna became a professor at Brandeis. The next year, Mrs. Sarna joined the Hebrew College's library, where she worked as assistant director under Dr. Maurice Tuchman, until she retired in 1989.

Mrs. Sarna was equally at ease with professors and graduate students at Hebrew College as with the 11-year-olds who attended an after-school program there, Tuchman said.

"She took a particular interest in students who were just starting out," he said. "Not only did she help them with the different studies, she would inquire about their private lives. They would open up to her that they were having this problem or that, and she would help them through. They would confide in her."

After her retirement, Mrs. Sarna spent the next three years volunteering.

She created the Hesed (righteous deeds) Committee of her congregation, the Shaarei Tefillah in Newton, to care for the poor and sick. She volunteered and translated at the New England Chasidic Center in Brookline, worked at Boston Children's Hospital, and visited senior citizens at Jewish nursing homes.

Mrs. Sarna came out of retirement in 1992 to become the director of cataloging at the American Jewish Historical Society, which was then housed at Brandeis, when the top librarian there died. Three years later, she retired for the final time and moved with Dr. Sarna to Boca Raton, Fla., where she worked pro bono to establish a Judaic studies section at Florida Atlantic University's library. After Dr. Sarna's death, Mrs. Sarna moved back to Newton, where she lived with Jonathan and his family.

Services have been held. Besides her sons Jonathan and David, of Teaneck, N.J., she leaves five grandchildren.

"Religion was very important; even at the end," Jonathan said. "Lighting candles on the Sabbath and singing various Sabbath prayers and songs, this was immensely important to her. Even on the Sabbath [last week] we noticed she wasn't there. Obviously one feels the loss of a parent deeply; it's a great void when a parent is gone."

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