The Yiddish Book Center was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky, then a twenty-four-year-old graduate student of Yiddish literature (and now the Center's president).
In the course of his studies, Lansky realized that untold numbers of irreplaceable Yiddish books—the primary, tangible legacy of a thousand years of Jewish life in Eastern Europe—were being discarded by American-born Jews unable to read the language of their Yiddish-speaking parents and grandparents. So he organized a nationwide network of zamlers (volunteer book collectors) and launched a concerted campaign to save the world’s remaining Yiddish books before it was too late.
Watch Bridge of Books, Sam Ball’s award-winning documentary about the Yiddish Book Center:
When the Center began, experts estimated that 70,000 Yiddish books were still extant and recoverable. The Center’s young staff surpassed that number in six months and went on to recover more than a million volumes—some lovingly handed to them by their original owners, others rescued at the last minute from demolition sites and dumpsters. We’ve found books in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, England, France, South Africa, Australia, and other countries around the world. And we continue to collect thousands of additional volumes each year.
We never envisioned the Yiddish Book Center as a genizah, a static storehouse for old books. Rather, our goal from the outset was to place old volumes into the hands of new readers. We’ve drawn on our vast duplicate holdings to distribute books to students and scholars and to establish or strengthen collections at more than 600 research libraries in twenty-six countries. In 1997 we took a giant step forward with the establishment of the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, where complete digitized works can be accessed online, free of charge. The digital library today contains 12,000 titles, which so far have been downloaded an astounding 1.6 million times.
We’ve found Yiddish books in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, England, France, South Africa, and Australia.
The majority of Yiddish books are now safe and accessible. (In an article about our work, the New York Times observed that “proportionally, Yiddish is now the most in-print literature on the planet.”) So while we continue to rescue and digitize books, we’re undertaking a challenge that is more formidable still: sharing with new generations the language, content, context, and literary and cultural progeny of the books we’ve saved. Our initiatives include education, translation, publications, oral history, exhibits, and public programs.
When we founded the Yiddish Book Center in 1980, most Jewish leaders insisted that Yiddish was dead. Fortunately, 30,000 people disagreed: they signed up as members and built the Yiddish Book Center into one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish cultural organizations in the world today. In 1997 we opened the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building, set on a ten-acre apple orchard at the edge of the Hampshire College campus in Amherst, Massachusetts. Twelve years later we made room for our growing education programs with construction of the adjacent Kaplen Family Building. Architect Allen Moore’s design for both buildings echoes the rooflines of an East European shtetl (Jewish town). Unlike their architectural forebears, however, our buildings are bright, airy, and green, heated and cooled by geothermal power.
In 2014, the Yiddish Book Center was awarded a National Medal for Museums and Libraries, the nation's highest medal conferred on a museum or library, at a White House ceremony.
As we approach our fortieth anniversary, our optimism and determination have never been greater.
Today the Yiddish Book Center is attracting unprecedented numbers of young people, including students, interns, and fellows. It’s now a truism that if you want to hire Yiddish-speaking staff, you look for people under the age of thirty. That’s an astonishing transformation in just thirty-five years, and it reaffirms the Center’s commitment to bringing the “flip side” of Jewish life—the too-often overlooked constellation of modern Jewish literature and culture—to new generations. As we approach our fortieth anniversary, our optimism and determination have never been greater.
The website of the Yiddish Book Center is made possible through the support of Walter, Arnee, Sarah, and Aaron Winshall.