Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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...

  • Arts and Culture Theater Seth Rogen Unveils New Christmas Movie: ‘Will Open on Thanksgiving, Made by Jews’ (VIDEO)

    Seth Rogen Unveils New Christmas Movie: ‘Will Open on Thanksgiving, Made by Jews’ (VIDEO)

    Actor Seth Rogen on Tuesday released the trailer of a new Christmas film produced by Jews and set to be released on Thanksgiving. “Here’s the trailer for #TheNightBefore which was made by Jews, is about Christmas, and opens on Thanksgiving,” Rogen tweeted. The Night Before is about three “ride or die homies” celebrating one last debauchery-filled Christmas Eve reunion before they become too busy to keep up the tradition. In an effort to make the night as memorable as possible, they set out to find […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Art Can Inspire Faith; It Can Also Empower Destructive Ideologies

    Art Can Inspire Faith; It Can Also Empower Destructive Ideologies

    A June 2015 art exhibit, “The Transformative Power of Art,” at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, harnessed the universal language of art to convey an important message: “Our fragile Mother Earth faces the devastating consequences of climate change, a defining challenge of our time.” The exhibit also included sixteen portraits of people from all over the world who have “contributed to the common good of humanity in one way or another and have transformed the way we […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports Israeli Muslim Cage Fighter Says He’s Proud to Fight Under Jewish State’s Flag

    Israeli Muslim Cage Fighter Says He’s Proud to Fight Under Jewish State’s Flag

    A 32-year-old Circassian Israeli Muslim Mixed Martial Arts fighter from Abu Ghosh says he takes pride in fighting under the Israeli flag, Israel’s Walla reported on Sunday. Like most Circassian Israelis, Jackie “the Punishment” Gosh was born Sunni Muslim. He became observant about eight years ago, and is now scrupulous in following his religion’s tenets, praying five times a day and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Gosh is also very proud of his Israeli nationality, and sees no contradiction between […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music New Mark Skinner Documentary Explores Jewish, Arab Rap Scene in Israel (VIDEO)

    New Mark Skinner Documentary Explores Jewish, Arab Rap Scene in Israel (VIDEO)

    A new documentary explores the lives and work of Jewish and Arab rappers in Israel and how the ongoing conflict in the region has impacted their lyrics, the U.K.’s Jewish Chronicle reported on Thursday. Hip Hop in the Holy Land is a six-part series co-directed by Mike Skinner, the British frontman of hip-hop group The Streets, and produced by Noisey, a music channel published by Vice news. The first episode, published last week, shows Skinner meeting with Tamer Nafar, the founder of one of […]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada 49ers Running Back Jarryd Hayne Apologizes for ‘Hurtful’ Jesus Tweets

    49ers Running Back Jarryd Hayne Apologizes for ‘Hurtful’ Jesus Tweets

    New 49ers running back and Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne apologized on Wednesday for a tweet in which he raised the age-old myth that Jews were historically responsible for Jesus Christ’s death. Reaching out to his Jewish fans, and the chairman of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, Hayne tweeted: “To the Jewish community @DvirAbramovich #WeAreAllOne.” Underneath, he keenly included a screenshot of a text message to elaborate on his apology: “I sincerely apologize for my tweets on July 1. I […]

    Read more →
  • Theater Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Recalls Being ‘Extremely Surprised’ at Winning Miss Israel Contest

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Recalls Being ‘Extremely Surprised’ at Winning Miss Israel Contest

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot reminisced about her childhood in Israel during an interview published in this month’s edition of Vanity Fair. “I don’t remember this, but my mom told me that when I was three they threw a party on the rooftop of the house. They put me to bed, and I heard people coming into the house and no one came to me. I went to the rooftop and took a hose and I started to spray water on everyone, just […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Wounded Israeli Soldiers Unite With American Veterans to Help Their ‘Brothers for Life’ Heal (INTERVIEW)

    Wounded Israeli Soldiers Unite With American Veterans to Help Their ‘Brothers for Life’ Heal (INTERVIEW)

    An Israeli organization is helping wounded U.S. veterans move past their physical and psychological challenges by connecting them with injured Israeli soldiers who understand what they’ve been through. “What we discovered very early is that there’s no ‘professional, psychiatrist, social worker’ or anything like that [or] pills that can come even close to helping a soldier who fought in combat, who was wounded, who lost his friends. No one can help him like another person who’s been through exactly what he has,” Rabbi Chaim Levine, […]

    Read more →
  • Relationships World Researchers Say Women Less Likely Than Men to Kill Hitler, if They Could Travel Back in Time

    Researchers Say Women Less Likely Than Men to Kill Hitler, if They Could Travel Back in Time

    Women are less likely than men to want to kill Nazi leader Adolph Hitler if given the ability to travel back in time, a recently published research paper revealed. The paper analyzed 40 studies involving 6,100 respondents in a time-travel thought experiment, the New York Post reported on Friday. While 60 percent of men said they would theoretically be willing to kill Hitler, only 55 percent of women said they would be comfortable doing the same. The paper was published in the Personality and […]

    Read more →