Wexler Oral History Project

A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.

Penina Glazer's Oral History

Penina Glazer, Hampshire professor and long-time Yiddish Book Center board member, was interviewed by Christa Whitney on June 16, 2010 at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Penina speaks about her family's life in Eastern Europe and their journey to the US. Her mother, from Belarus, was the daughter of a shoykhet, a kosher butcher. Penina explains how her grandfather landed in this occupation by convincing the rabbonim to certify him as well as arguing with them for three hours that Zionism would provide a better future for the Jews. Her family stayed in Eastern Europe during World War I and then through the Bolshevik revolution, until they were directly persecuted for Zionist organizing. In January of 1924, right before the United States shut down immigration, the family came to New York. Penina tells the story of her paternal grandmother, who after having many miscarriages before having Penina's father, greatly feared losing him to the angel of death. As a result, she didn't speak to her son for the first year of his life in order to "trick" the angel of death. Once the war came, Glazer's father left his mother at age 15 for the United States. Penina's father arrived in New York and began working at his uncle's seltzer factory. She says he was an intelligent man, but like many immigrants did not have access to higher education. Her parents were married in 1933 and began their own family. Penina remembers that they both were well read and multi-lingual, even though neither graduated high school. The family relocated to Roosevelt, New Jersey, and lived on a cooperative New Deal community. Penina talks extensively about the layout of the neighborhood, its Bauhaus architecture and the "hitching corner," and concludes that it was a warm and tight-knight Jewish community. Eventually the family would move to Elizabeth, New Jersey, prior to the co-ops closing. She compares the Jewish community in Roosevelt to Elizabeth, she found the later to be more religious than the culturally Jewish community at the co-op. Growing up, Penina's parents encouraged their daughters to pursue higher education. She would go on to receive her PhD and teach at Hampshire College for 35 years, eventually becoming the dean of faculty. She explains that it was at Hampshire College that she met Aaron Lansky, who would become the founder of the Yiddish Book Center. She remembers what the early days of the Yiddish Book Center were like, when it was a necessity to take out loans in order to keep the center running. Penina reflects on her career in higher education, from a feminist perspective, noting changes since she entered the work force. In specific, she looks back on the last 40 years of Hampshire College's history, marking the differences in administration and the general climate of the experimental college. Developing her knowledge of Jewish history over the years, she has found that much of her understanding comes from her father's initiative, who collected Forward articles for his children for many years. Penina concludes the interview with words of wisdom, emphasizing the importance of engaging with the greater world.

This interview was conducted in English.

About the Wexler Oral History Project

A photograph of two men

Since 2010, the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project has recorded more than 500 in-depth video interviews that provide a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience and the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture.

Tell Us Your Story

An illustration of a woman

Do you (or someone you know) have stories to share about the importance of Yiddish language and culture in your life?