Rita Gordonson

A Zamler Honors Her Sister's Memory

It’s been a while, says Rita Gordonson, so she can’t remember the exact date when she learned of Aaron Lansky and the Yiddish Book Center. “But even though I can’t remember when I first heard about it,” Rita says, “I know that as soon as I heard the word ‘Yiddish’ I was ready to go.”

“It was my first language.”

Gordonson grew up in the late ‘30s and '40s in a Yiddish-speaking household in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. In those years, there was a Yiddish theater across the street from her family’s apartment. “I spoke Yiddish at home,” she says, “and I learned English on the streets.”

Her instruction in English became more formal when she entered the New York City school system. “As a child in elementary school,” Gordonson remembers, “I always loved being around books. I would volunteer to help the teachers in the library. I also loved everything Jewish. I went to Yiddishe Folkshule and Hebrew school. I enrolled myself; I was the only girl. I just wanted more things that were Jewish. And we are a people of books.”

In Rita’s case, books gave her a profession. After she graduated from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute Library School in 1963, she went to work as a librarian in the same school system where she’d been educated. Marriage and a family landed her in Great Neck, Long Island, and it was there that she heard that somebody named Lansky was going to donate three hundred Yiddish books to the local library. “I volunteered to catalog them,” Rita says. “Then, once I knew about the Center, I offered to be a zamler (volunteer book collector) for the Queens and Long Island area. I would be the one people would call when they had Yiddish books they wanted to get rid of.”

Her most recent trip to the Center with a load of books was this past summer. She also brought a Yiddish typewriter that had once belonged to an author in Great Neck. 

Arriving at the Center, Rita walked through new glass front doors that were installed thanks to the donation she made in honor of her younger sister, Linda Iris Werb, who died in 2017. “It was a big loss,” Rita says. “And it’s strange, my sister was a yeshiva girl, and of course we grew up in the same household. But she never learned to speak Yiddish.” Yet now, in some small way, Linda’s memory is helping to welcome students and visitors and keep the Yiddish language alive. 

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 2018)