Joe Silverman

A Love of Books and History

Reading, says Joe Silverman, is his greatest pleasure, which helps explain why the 87-year-old currently has 75 books in his reading queue—and also why the Yiddish Book Center is so important to him.

A former defense contractor from Chicago who spent much of his long career with a Navy research laboratory in San Diego, Joe grew up, like many Jews of his generation, with parents who were fluent in Yiddish but spoke it only when they didn’t want their children to know what they were talking about. As a result, Joe tells us, his own Yiddish is restricted to “a short selection of swear words.” Still, he maintains a strong connection to his Yiddish heritage through genealogical research—an interest that’s allowed him to trace his father and mother’s Jewish ancestry all the way back to the 1700s, to places as diverse as China, Australia, Argentina, and Brazil. He is especially interested in reading about the Warsaw Ghetto—much of his family lived in Warsaw at one time—and he is currently finishing In Those Nightmarish Days, a book co-published by the Yiddish Book Center as part of the New Yiddish Library Series at Yale University Press. The book contains harrowing, first-person accounts by the ghetto journalists Josef Zelkowicz and Peretz Opoczynski.

Joe’s connection to the Yiddish Center began when he read a profile of Aaron Lansky in his hometown paper 25 or 30 years ago, and it provides yet another link to his family history. The Center’s mission of rescuing and redistributing Yiddish books written in what was considered at the time to be a dying language initially got Joe’s attention. Over the years he’s enjoyed seeing the Center’s work evolve into saving not just books but other aspects of Yiddish arts and culture and offering educational programs for learners of all ages. As Joe notes, “The Center doesn’t simply preserve and display Yiddish artifacts in a static way but brings Yiddish to life and actively works to keep it alive.”

Joe’s enthusiasm for the Center’s educational programs has led to his support for the Great Jewish Books Summer Program for high school students. He also sponsored a bench in our Yiddish Writers Garden. Though he has yet to visit the Center in person, Joe is heartened to imagine his bench during “normal” summers at the Center, when Great Jewish Books students gather there for lively discussions of the literature they’re reading.

We eagerly look forward to welcoming Joe at the Center when the pandemic has passed, but in the meantime Joe has enough reading to occupy him. In addition to his current reads, he’s looking forward to the forthcoming translation of the memoirs of Rachel Auerbach, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto who was instrumental in recording its history. And if that’s not enough to keep him busy, he has an astounding 500 films—no doubt many of them also about history—waiting for him on Netflix.

We’re familiar with the Yiddish expression “biz hundert un tsvantsik” (“may you live to be 120”), but for Joe we may have to change it to 130 to give him time to get through all the books and films that are waiting for him.

—Faune Albert

For information on how you can make a qualified charitable distribution from your IRA or support the Yiddish Book Center in other ways, please reach out to Zvi at [email protected] or 413-256-4900, ext. 117.

From Kvel, the development newsletter of the Yiddish Book Center (forthcoming Fall 2020)