Eugene and Elaine Driker

A Financial Safety Net for a Historic Cultural Rescue Effort

Eugene and Elaine Driker’s first encounter with Aaron Lansky and the Yiddish Book Center occurred roughly 27 years ago. As Elaine remembers it, she had seen a magazine ad for one of the Center’s Yiddish “camps,” as they were referred to in the early days, and suggested to her husband that they attend. Eugene, who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household—Elaine’s grandparents spoke Yiddish, and she picked up bits and pieces—was enthusiastic about the opportunity, and they drove up together from Michigan to Mt. Holyoke College where the program took place.

“The first sign we saw was equestrian camp this way, and the next sign said tennis camp this way, and the third sign said Yiddish camp this way,” she recalls. “We drove in and checked into our dorm. We went to dinner, and this hush kind of went across the room, saying, ‘Aaron Lansky’s here, Aaron Lansky’s here.’ And this smiling man bounced into the room, and it was love at first sight. And that was how it all started.”

Leaving Yiddish “camp,” they knew they had stumbled upon something special. Eugene says, “We drove out of there on the way home just kind of overcome with the deep resonance that this had caused in us . . . remembrances of things past, right? This was a Proustian moment; it just rang a bell for us.”

This experience led the couple to become more involved with the Center over the following years, with Eugene eventually joining the board and becoming its chair. Their family name was memorialized in the construction of the Center’s Applebaum-Driker Theater, home to many of our educational programs, film screenings, and talks. The theater is named after the parents of Eugene and his friend Eugene Applebaum; both Eugenes’ fathers came from Zhitomir, Ukraine. The two men originally planned to name the theater in honor of their fathers. However, as Elaine tells it, “My husband, being well trained by his wife and daughter, said, ‘Let’s do it in honor of our mothers also.’ And that’s how it came to be.” 

Like her husband, Elaine has developed a great affection for the Yiddish Book Center over the years. “I have been there many, many times,” she notes. “You can't walk out of that place without this sense of excitement about what’s going on there and the knowledge that an almost-lost culture is being revived.”

This feeling of regeneration, along with the Center’s capacity for innovation and smart risk-taking—Eugene describes it as “adventuresome” and “cutting edge”—is what keeps Eugene and Elaine excited about the Center’s work as it heads into its 40th year. “Bashevis Singer said, ‘Yiddish has been dying for a thousand years and it will be dying for the next thousand years,’” remarks Eugene. “It’s lived a precarious existence, and we have the good fortune to be in this time and place to preserve it . . . This is a historic cultural rescue effort of which I’m sure there are very few parallels in the history of the Jewish people. And so we’ve got to make certain that this continues, and one essential ingredient is the financial safety net. That’s why Elaine and I are so committed to helping the Yerushe Campaign and to supporting the Yiddish Book Center now and in the future.”

While we often think about the connections that Yiddish helps build to the past, the Yerushe Campaign, Elaine says, connects thing going forward. “We have an obligation,” she adds, “to plant the seed from which trees will grow to shelter the Yiddish Book Center and all that it will accomplish in the years to come.”

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 (Fall 2019)

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

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