The Yiddish Language’s Literal and Figurative Rescuer

December 13, 2012 5:32 pm 0 comments

National Yiddish Book Center founder Aaron Lansky speaks at the center in Amherst, Mass. Photo: National Yiddish Book Center.

AMHERST, MA—Aaron Lansky’s decades-long mission is typified by an “emergency” call he once received on a wintry night, summoning him to New York to rescue thousands of Yiddish-language volumes from a dumpster.

Lansky springs into action, barely gets to the city, and gathers a crew of volunteers. Despite the difficulties, he manages to safely remove the precious books—only to end up with a 104-degree fever.

That anecdote opens Lansky’s 2004 book Outwitting History—whose title is apt, given that this recipient of a McArthur “genius” grant is at least partially responsible for the fact that Yiddish is more secure now than at any time since World War II.

One can easily find Yiddish’s strengthening pulse at the National Yiddish Book Center (NYBC), which Lansky founded. The NYBC—housed at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where Lansky was a student in the 1970s—recently announced a partnership with The National Library of Israel to digitize 20,000 titles in Yiddish.

Lansky tells JNS.org that, thanks to this partnership, “Yiddish will become the single-most accessible literature in history, with virtually all of its titles available online.”

The NYBC has already collected, rescued, cataloged and redistributed vast libraries of printed Yiddish, recordings, movies and artwork. The center publishes a colorful quarterly called Der Pakn Treger (The Book Seller), offers fellowships for students of all ages, and has established collections at major libraries. Thanks to support from movie producer Steven Spielberg, the NYBC has created a downloadable, digital library of 11,000 (and counting) texts online, and made high-quality reprints available on demand.

While Lansky and the NYBC continue to collect and disseminate books for enjoyment and study, they are focusing more on opening the Yiddish culture and sharing it with what he describes as “a very eager and broad-based public.” He happily speaks of how “almost all major projects are being run by young people.”

“Here they get to take a leading role in very ambitious and quite focused work, and working with them is thrilling,” Lansky tells JNS.org.

One example is “Tent Encounters With Jewish Culture,” a new program made possible by donors Judy and Michael Steinhardt that offers free weeklong workshops for anyone between 20 and 30. The NYBC Fellowship Program, meanwhile, offers talented young college graduates who are passionate about Yiddish the opportunity to spend a year on the NYBC staff to advance their knowledge of Yiddish language, literature, and culture. With help from Spielberg, the NYBC has launched new translation fellowships to help train a new generation of Yiddish translators.

Lansky, a New Bedford, Mass., native, began to rescue Yiddish books from obscurity or destruction when he was a graduate student at Montreal’s McGill’s University in the early 1980s. Today, the Jewish cultural organization he founded boasts 17,000 members and is headquartered in a unique 49,000-square-foot building that is reminiscent of an old country “shtetl” synagogue. The center houses books, papers, documents, permanent and visiting exhibit space, a bookstore, performance center and oral history recording studios.

With an annual budget of $4 million, the NYBC is on target to meet its endowment goal of $40 million in time for its 40th anniversary in 2020. Although a return to the days when its speakers numbered in the millions and had a wide-ranging impact in daily Jewish life in Europe—and then in America—is highly improbable, a modest number of Jews and non-Jews are being introduced to and becoming familiar with the Yiddish language in schools and synagogues.

Many American Jews of a certain age and generation may have heard Yiddish spoken at home, but not beyond some expressions and a few words. Despite the strong commitment of resources to understand, preserve and transmit Jewish history and heritage through museums and education, it was not until recently that serious resources and attention have been devoted to Yiddish.

In a brief film on the NYBC website that documents his story, Lansky recalls his early experiences more than 30 years ago of literally rescuing endangered Yiddish volumes.

“Here I am, 23 years old you know, in jeans and a t-shirt and somehow it’s fallen on me to try to pick up the fragments of this world and save them for the future, because when people give you their books it’s a very candid moment in their lives,” he says. “They’re handing you the treasures they’ve accumulated in their lifetime that they know their own children and their own grandchildren don’t want. Invariably they’re crying. They tell stories with a candor that would probably be very rare in their lives. So it’s a very special moment. There was a sort of emotional understanding… what they’re leaving to you is a world that is very fast vanishing.”

Yiddish was inextricably intertwined with Jewish life and identity for a majority of Jews for centuries, and it blossomed into a remarkably vibrant and influential literary, political and cultural phenomenon—until it clashed with powerful forces of modernity that very nearly spelled its extinction. As with the effects of oxidation on many objects, there was both a slow and a rapid form of destruction. The slow form, or the “rust,” was immigration, assimilation, modernity, universalism, the desire to leave the shtetl and the ghettoized past, and Zionism’s primacy of Hebrew. The faster form was plain and simply that of “fire,” with the burning of its masses of speakers and of course its books during the Holocaust.

Still, a portion of Yiddish literature has been translated into English and is familiar to many, especially through Sholom Aleichim and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the Nobel Prize for his Yiddish writings. Additionally, a revival of teaching Yiddish can be seen in colleges and universities, in synagogues, and in adult education programs.

Giving JNS.org his inside perspective on activity in the Yiddish world in the U.S. and abroad, Lansky cites the work of Boston-based scholars Harry Bochner and Solon Beinfeld, who are on the verge of releasing a new Yiddish dictionary which Lansky says “will dramatically facilitate the reading of Yiddish literature.” He describes Assaf Urieli, a South African-born Israeli in the French Pyrenees who has created an open-source program that will scan all digitized Yiddish books and make them into searchable text, and points out how Yiddish is an elective in Israeli high schools.

Lansky’s role from that of a jean-clad book rescuer to a leading light in a major Jewish cultural revival has taken decades. While he is no longer that young graduate student himself, it is the interest of today’s youth in Yiddish that continues to excite him.

“For the most part my job today is more about setting young people in motion and empowering them to do what they want to do,” he says.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Music US & Canada Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Pop superstar Lady Gaga on Thursday accepted an award from Jewish human rights group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on behalf of her Born This Way Foundation, which strives to combat bullying among young people. “Your philosophies are so in line with ours,” she said of the ADL upon accepting the Making a Difference Award in a videotaped message, which was shown at a ceremony in New York City. “We want to help young people know that their feelings and who they are on [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    JNS.org – Eighty years young, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk. From his Jewish upbringing in Canada to the present day, Cohen has always explored his spiritual side. This month, the singer-songwriter released the CD (May 12) and iTunes (on May 8 of this year) formats of his latest album, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, which features live recordings from his world tours in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Cohen’s Popular Problems was voted by Rolling Stone [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    JNS.org – Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) head Sepp Blatter said during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that contrary to Palestinian complaints, Israel has not violated any FIFA statutes and should not be suspended from international soccer’s governing body. “We should not come to one federation saying we will exclude them,” said Blatter, the Jerusalem Post reported. “If the national association is fulfilling its obligations then there is no need to intervene,” he said. “I’m on a [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Middle East Sports Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish human rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) said on Tuesday it was “appalled” by a Palestinian Football Association initiative to suspend Israel from FIFA, calling it another “front waged in the context of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign.” “We are appalled at the temerity of the Palestinan Football Association (PFA) demand that FIFA suspend Israel at your forthcoming Congress in Zurich,” wrote the group’s international relations director, Dr. Shimon Samuels, in a letter to FIFA President Joseph [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    The lead actor in Son of Saul, an Auschwitz thriller featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, told the UK’s The Guardian that he believes God was “holding the hand” of each Jew who died in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. “I do not for one nanosecond like to pretend that God is off the hook. He could and should have stopped it at a much earlier stage,” Géza Röhrig, 48, said. ”But I would not be able to get [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys singer Howie Dorough took to Instagram on Tuesday to marvel about climbing the famed Masada fortress with his band during their visit to Israel, where they will perform this week for the first time. The group’s second day of sightseeing in the Jewish state included the Masada hike, and taking a mud bath at the Dead Sea. A picture from the band’s official Twitter page shows the five singers covered in mud. While relaxing in the Dead Sea, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews US & Canada ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    A new book and its upcoming film adaptation tell the true story of how three former yeshiva students who habitually smoked marijuana scored a $300 million contract from the U.S. government to supply weapons for the Afghan Army, the New York Daily News reported on Sunday. Arms and the Dudes details how the Miami Beach potheads became “the most unlikely gunrunners in history,” according to the book’s author, investigative reporter Guy Lawson. The tale begins with Efraim Diveroli, nephew of [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    JNS.org – Natalie Portman, who directs and stars in the new Hebrew-language film adaptation of author Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, says that despite Oz’s record as a vocal left-wing critic of Israel, her film is not political. Like the book on which it is based, Portman’s film is about a young boy at the time of the founding of the state of Israel. “I think the movie is very much about this very particular, specific family story. Of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.