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 Jewish Identity ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    JNS.org – “This is how I want to be—without fear. Independent. I want to be like a bird. I want to spread my wings.” So reads part of the description beneath one of the 30 paintings on display until the end of May at the ZOA House in Tel Aviv. The collection represents the first-ever art exhibit of its kind: an exhibit created entirely by Israelis in treatment for eating disorders. Dubbed “Tears of Color,” based on one of the [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    JNS.org – Rachel Ament noticed that she and her friends often shared humorous anecdotes that were typically variations on a theme: overprotective, worrying Jewish moms who smothered them with love. That included Ament’s own mother. “My mom is probably every Jewish stereotype scrunched into one,” the Washington, DC, resident tells JNS.org. “At the root of all these stereotypical, worrying, overprotective moms, is love.” A social media writer for Capital One, as well as a freelance writer, Ament decided about three years [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    Kosher Lust, by Shmuley Boteach (Gefen Publishing House, 2014). You really do want to find something positive to say about Shmuley Boteach. He is a phenomenon; very bright, an articulate bundle of energy and self-promotion. Anyone who has the chutzpah to describe himself as “America’s Rabbi” deserves ten out of ten for effort. I believe that along with most Chabad alumni, official and unofficial, he does a lot of good and is a sort of national treasure. In this world [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    JNS.org – In a throwback to the golden age of cinema, Hollywood has declared 2014 the “Year of the Bible.” From Ridley Scott’s Exodus starring Christian Bale as Moses, to Russell Crowe playing Noah, Hollywood is gambling on new innovations in technology and star power to revisit some of the most popular stories ever told. “It’s definitely a throwback to the 1950s and early ’60s,” Dr. Stephen J. Whitfield, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University, told JNS.org. Starting with The [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    A Passover themed cover of hit songs Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen has attracted tons of media buzz and a cool 65,ooo views on YouTube within days of going online. The work of Jewish a capella group Six13, the track is aptly named Chozen. We are celebrating “our freedom, our favorite festival, our fabulous fans, and aspiring Disney princesses everywhere” the group said. The Chozen music video tells the story of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    JNS.org – Many young Jewish artists struggle to define who they are personally, artistically, and religiously. Against the backdrop of that struggle, the recent Asylum Arts International Jewish Artists Retreat provided a space for some 70 young Jewish artists to explore Jewish ideas, to build community and a culture of reciprocity, and to learn skills to assist their career development. “We are trying to encourage and excite people to engage in Jewish themes,” says Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts. [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    JNS.org – Has the era of large-scale biblical epics returned? Not since “The Ten Commandments” has there been so much torrential water on the big screen (not counting weather-related disaster films such as “The Impossible”) than in “Noah,” the latest blockbuster from writer and director Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” takes the traditional tale and splices it in an eco-friendly and psychologically driven plot. After Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden of Eden and after Cain killed Abel, mankind [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.