Jolly Good Fellows

Catch Up with Our 2016-17 Fellows

Every fall the Yiddish Book Center welcomes a new group of graduate fellows, who spend the next year working as full-time staff members. Meet this year's fellows and get a peek at what they’ve been doing during their time at the Center.

Sadie Gold-Shapiro, Florence, Massachusetts

What are you doing during your fellowship year?
I've been lucky enough to work on a number of projects during my time here. Mostly, though, the work I do involves making our digital collections more accessible. This has included a number of metadata collections projects, as well as writing articles about some of the more interesting materials one can find in our collections. I also help organize the Translation Fellowship Program.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned during your fellowship?
Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to read through every single issue of our magazine, Pakn Treger. The stories in these pages are a testament to the growth and vivacity of the Yiddish Book Center. From a big dream to an even bigger building, the Yiddish Book Center would not have been possible without the help of many hands. Hearing these firsthand accounts inspires me in my own work. I'd be loath to pick just one interesting thing from these pages! 

What’s surprised you in your work?
The sheer number of things that happen at the Yiddish Book Center. From fundraising in the membership department, to the Yiddish Translation Fellowship Program; from the podcast, The Shmooze, to book cataloging; from special events and lecture series to Yiddish classes, the Center is never a dull place.

What’s been your favorite thing about the program?
Having the opportunity to speak/read/translate Yiddish while gaining professional skills (and making stellar connections).

Elissa Sperling, Dover/Sherborn, Massachusetts

What have you been working on during your fellowship year?
My main project here is to catalog books (we currently have quite a backlog). But, like the other fellows, I also give tours, help with tech during programs and events, teach during field trips, participate in the oral history project, and attend the weekly fellows’ yidishkrayz. Additionally, when cataloging a particularly fascinating work, I have the opportunity to explore it more depth and write a short piece about it on the website.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned?
As I analyze books one by one while cataloging, my knowledge of the Yiddish literary corpus has expanded tremendously. Thus far, I have cataloged Yiddish-language books published all over the world, from 1815 to 2015, and covering a diverse range of topics from shund [pulp fiction] to Einstein’s theories of relativity.

What’s surprised you in your work?
I was most surprised by how the Yiddish Book Center is a unique blend of museum, library, archives, bookstore, educational center, cultural institution, and events venue. The Center’s organization of and relationship to books therefore differs significantly from other institutions with book collections.  

What’s been your favorite thing about the fellowship program?
Further exploring Yiddish language and literature and making it more accessible to the public, both online and through in-person, educational programming. The field trips have proven to be a wonderful experience—it is so rewarding to have young people from all backgrounds walk through the doors knowing little to nothing about Yiddish and leave with smiles and a taste of yidishkayt.

Jordan Brown, Palo Alto
Senior fellow

What are you doing during your fellowship year?
I have the great pleasure of spending my (now two) fellowship years creating a new first-year Yiddish language textbook, under the expert guidance of the chief Yiddish teacher here at the Center, Asya Vaisman Schulman.

What’s something interesting you’ve learned during your fellowship?
Leaving aside the volumes of linguistic and pedagogical knowledge that have come crashing down upon my head (sometimes quite literally) as a result of this project, perhaps the most interesting bit of learning I’ve personally had to grapple with is just how complex (socially, politically, etc.) it is to teach a language. It is astounding the number of intricate (and sometimes unanswerable) questions this work poses on a daily basis. At the same time, I’ve come to appreciate the practical significance of the fact that language is fundamentally something that happens between people: no matter how much you bang your head against a particular theoretical question, the ultimate test is almost always the classroom.

What’s surprised you in your work?
Teaching Yiddish (as, I suppose, with any language) is a constant exercise in inventing slightly different versions of the wheel: any new grammatical concept or vocabulary set must be built upon existing foundations; any new language game or other activity must be familiar enough for the students to feel at home, but without effacing contextual differences in the language being taught. In fact, the entire exercise of developing situational language skills in the student is based on that same principle of building the most efficient bridges between the student’s native abilities and the strange new worlds of this unfamiliar language. This constant balancing of novelty and familiarity is a creative challenge that never ceases to fascinate me.

What’s been your favorite thing about the program?
This program has given me the unique opportunity to grapple with what it is to work in a modern Yiddish cultural organization, and to experience firsthand what possibilities there are in the world of Yiddish today. I doubt any other organization would have been able to give me such a clear sense of where I might potentially fit in in the Yiddish world. That, I suppose, has been for me the large-scale, personal-professional usefulness of being a Yiddish Book Center fellow. The particular day-to-day pleasure of all of this, however, has been quite simply to have the opportunity to meet and work closely with an astonishing number of talented, vibrant, and otherwise delightful people who share my enthusiasm for Yiddish culture, writ large.

Alexis Aaeng, Fort Collins, Colorado

What are you doing during your fellowship year?
I have so many projects here at the Center, all of which fall into the categories of communications and educational programs. I edit and post resource kits for teachgreatjewishbooks.org; create social media content for the Center (follow @Yiddish_Book_Center on Instagram—you won't be sorry); edit and produce our podcast, The Shmooze; and work with visitor services and the Field Trip Program, leading tours and interacting with our visitors of all ages.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned during your fellowship?
That Yiddish culture comes in all shapes and sizes, from tiny booklets to giant reel-to-reels, and my two favorite audio formats, cassette tape and DAT tapes. I have really enjoyed working with our very diverse collections and discovering new things that I didn't know about Yiddish. 

What’s surprised you in your work?
I think that the most surprising thing about working at the Yiddish Book Center is that Yiddish culture will never cease to surprise me. 

What’s been your favorite thing about the program?
Interacting with the many people who come to the Center to visit. I love leading tours and teaching students who come here for field trips, and I enjoy sharing my enthusiasm for Yiddish with others. It is fun to work here after having participated in so many of the Center's programs, and I only hope that people who come here for programs take away as much as I have over the past two years. 
(My least favorite part of the fellowship has been finding out that the world does not consider DAT tape storage more of a priority.)

Michael Yashinsky, Detroit
Applebaum senior fellow

What are you doing during your fellowship year?
This year, I’m working with Asya Vaisman Schulman, director of the Center’s Yiddish Language Institute, and fellow Fellow Jordan Brown on the development of a new Yiddish textbook. My domain is creating units focused on Jewish holidays, as well as finding, researching, and writing exercises drawing on “authentic texts” that will appear throughout the book: songs and stories and poems and films and recipes (and greeting cards! and folk remedies! and bus schedules! the list goes on) that put the learners’ growing language skills to work in encountering actual artifacts of Yiddish culture, both past and present.

What’s something interesting you’ve learned during your fellowship?
Recently I learned that akeydes yitskhok, the Binding of Isaac, was a popular theme for Purim-shpiln. I had the great joy of drawing on various sources in our collection to prepare such a play, and, in honor of Purim, directing our YiddishSchool students in it. They applied all the schmaltz that one could hope for in such an entertainment, particularly in a tearful scene of Yitskhok parting from his mother, the holy Sore.

What’s surprised you in your work?
That a funny sort of hoedown tune blares between class periods at the Colegio Israelita de México, which makes for a nice dance break between long hours of poring through mountains of Yiddish books (as I had the great privilege of doing there during my first Fellowship year).

What’s been your favorite thing about the program?
I enjoy being called “Mikhl” and embodying all the characteristics of this second self of mine: Yiddish-speaking, book-imbibing, finding keys to darkened passageways of Yiddish lore and literature and—as they have been opened for me—opening the doors for others, that we may share in the delight of exploring.

All photographs by Ben Barnhart