Irving Backman

Opening the Door to His Jewish Heritage

Irving Backman first learned of the Yiddish Book Center’s work in the early 1980s, when a young man knocked on the front door of his home in Newton, Massachusetts. Reluctant to open the door to a solicitor, Backman peered out the window to size up his visitor.

“He was as hippie as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Irving recalls with a laugh. But he answered the door and listened to what the young man, named Aaron Lansky, had to say. “He introduced himself and said he was looking for Yiddish books.” At first, Irving says, “I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. I didn’t know if this was a scam.”

But he listened on as Aaron explained that he was a graduate student struggling to find the Yiddish books he needed for his coursework, so he was seeking donations of old books that were no longer needed or wanted. Aaron was also seeking financial contributions to rent a loft to store the books he’d collected so far; he’d been so successful, he explained, that he’d run out of space at his house.

“He gave a very plausible story, and he was a very nice young man,” says Irving, who donated to the effort. More than thirty-five years later, Irving and his wife, Charlotte, remain loyal and generous supporters of what came to be called the Yiddish Book Center. In 2016 they established the Joan A. Backman Memorial Concert Fund in honor of their music-loving daughter. The fund supports a performance at the Center’s annual Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music. This year’s Backman Concert will be the festival’s opening-night show, featuring Eleanor Reissa & Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars.Irving Backman is the founder and leader of the DATT Group, which develops technology to improve the environment and counter the effects of climate change. One of the group’s projects—an inexpensive way to make polluted water potable without using chemicals—will be featured in a forthcoming PBS documentary. 

The Backmans support a number of educational and Jewish organizations in addition to the Yiddish Book Center. Over the years, Irving says, he’s enjoyed receiving the letters that Aaron sends to supporters updating them on the Center’s work and its latest projects. 

“His letters are beautiful and always about some new finding or something about our Jewish heritage that I didn’t know,” Irving says. “It’s awakened me to my heritage.” 

For information on how you can establish a named fund at 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 2017)