Ethel and Martin Taft

Supporting a New Generation in Honor of the Old

Both Ethel and Martin Taft have Yiddish in their bones. Ethel, born and raised in the Bronx, was the daughter of essayist, poet, and teacher Israel Gubkin. Yiddish was the language of their home, and of their neighborhood. In the afternoons, she recalled, she attended the Workman’s Circle school, where she first learned about social justice issues thanks to a bust of Eugene V. Debs that sat on her teacher’s desk.

For Martin, who grew up in Brooklyn, the environment was English speaking, but his parents made sure that he learned Yiddish, hiring a tutor to supplement his public school education. Later, both Ethel and Martin attended Kindervelt, a Yiddish-speaking summer camp, where Martin played the eponymous hero of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl Peysi the Cantor’s Son in a camp play. 

“My parents thought that I can always learn English, but Yiddish was an important language that we ought to know,” he said. “The literature, the songs, the history of it was important to them and they didn’t want to lose that.”

Later in life, after Martin and Ethel had married and moved to California, they saw an opportunity to pass Yiddish on to their children when Ethel’s father came to live with them. Unfortunately, he mostly wanted to improve his English, so their plans never came to fruition. But they continued to be deeply involved with Jewish organizations in Los Angeles, and through them became aware in the early 1980s of Aaron Lansky’s book-collecting efforts. When Ethel’s father passed away ten years later, the Yiddish Book Center was the obvious destination for his library.

For Ethel and Martin, the decision to include the Yiddish Book Center in their estate plans allows them to support the Center’s ongoing work. “The fact that [the Book Center] moved on from collecting books to making them available, to the translations, to the summer programs … it’s quite amazing to see it spread out and affect younger people,” said Ethel. “I know my father must be looking down happy.” 

For information on how you can support the Yiddish Book Center, please contact Zvi Jankelowitz at [email protected] or 413-256-4900, ext. 117.

From Kvel, the development newsletter of the Yiddish Book Center (Spring 2019)

The following is an excerpt from Ethel Taft’s interview for the Wexler Oral History Project.
View the full-length interview.

"Yiddish Talks By Itself": When English Fails Me