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December 13, 2012 5:32 pm

The Yiddish Language’s Literal and Figurative Rescuer

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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.

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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.

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