A Yiddish Book Rescue in Mexico City

In the fall of 2015, two Yiddish Book Center staff members flew to Mexico City to oversee the packing and shipping of thousands of books to the Center.

The books were given to the Center by the Colegio Israelita de Mexico, which was looking for a new home for Yiddish volumes from the library at its day school, where Yiddish is no longer taught. In October, Christa Whitney, director of the Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, and Michael Yashinsky, a graduate fellow, traveled to the school, where they found about 245 boxes filled with Yiddish books, as well as twenty-five full garbage bags—back-up storage after the school ran out of boxes.

Christa and Michael spent five days at the school sorting and packing books alongside Liora Zyman-Rapoport and Estela Stern-Aizenman, who organized the donation at the school. As they worked, Christa noted, their conversations moved from Spanish to Yiddish to English and back. They also took a few breaks from their rizike arbet—massive undertaking—to fuel up on quesadillas fritas and talk with students at the school about Yiddish literature and oral history.

Throughout the week, Michael and Christa stayed in touch, via email, with Catherine Madsen, the Center’s bibliographer, sending along photos and asking questions about unusual books they found. Among the books that will come to the Center are Yiddish titles published in Latin America; an edition of the poetry of Soviet Yiddish writer Dovid Bergelson, with a metal relief of the writer on the cover; volumes of poetry by Mexican Yiddish writer Yitskhok Berliner; and children's poetry by Montreal writer Ida Maze, the subject of a recent short film by the Wexler Oral History Project.

The week ended with a special celebration at the Colegio Israelita de México. While the evening got off to a shaky start—a power outage left organizers contemplating illuminating the proceedings with cell-phone flashlights—in the end, power was restored and the event went on, with Christa giving a talk about the Yiddish Book Center and the Wexler Oral History Project, and the Colegio Israelita de México presenting gifts of thanks to her, Michael, and the Center.

In the end, Whitney and Yashinsky organized and packed about 8,600 pounds of boxes to send back to the Yiddish Book Center. As with all donated books, the Center will scan and add to its digital library any titles not already there. Books that the Center already has in its collection will be made available to the public.

With the book rescue concluded, Christa remained in Mexico for another week to conduct nine interviews for the oral history project, including interviews with beloved teachers of the Jewish schools where Yiddish was taught, the niece of the founder of the Yiddish-Mexican newspaper Di shtime, and a native Yiddish-speaking cantor who grew up in the Jewish agricultural colony of Manigotes in rural Argentina. Meanwhile, back at the Center, the staff eagerly awaits the arrival of the new books.

The book rescue trip to Mexico was made possible thanks to the support of the Benjamin and Seema Pulier Charitable Foundation.

—Maureen Turner