Sharon Karmazin

Helping the Yiddish Book Center Expand Its Reach

Sharon Karmazin, the newly elected chair of the Yiddish Book Center’s board, began her relationship with the organization the same way so many others do: “I responded to one of Aaron Lansky’s inspirational direct-mail pieces,” she says, referring to the warm, conversational letters from the Center’s founder and president.

As Sharon recalls it, that particular letter sought support for a campaign to send Yiddish books to libraries and universities in Eastern Europe—an effort that was near and dear to her heart. Although she is perhaps best known as a producer of Broadway shows—among them Dear Evan Hansen, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Clybourne Park—Sharon spent thirty-two years as a librarian and public library director. “Things to do with books have always resonated with me,” she says. “The saving of these books, and also the redistribution of the books, appealed to me.” The Yiddish language also occupies a special place in her heart: it was the native language of her mother and grandparents, and although Sharon never became fluent, she can still understand some Yiddish when she hears others speaking it. 

Sharon responded to Aaron’s letter with a $36 donation. Over the twenty-seven years since, she’s become increasingly involved with the Center, joining its board and supporting its work personally and through her Karma Foundation. When the organization built its current home, in Amherst, Massachusetts, Sharon donated a window in memory of her mother. After her first trip to the Center, she suggested that a video be made to explain its history to visitors. Characteristically, she offered to cosponsor the production. The resulting short documentary, Bridge of Books, now plays in the Esther Ohsie Klein Welcome Gallery and can also be viewed on the Center’s website. Each year Sharon sponsors a student in the Center’s Steiner Summer Yiddish Program. And when the Center doubled the size of its Amherst headquarters in 2009 with the construction of the Kaplen Family Building, she funded the Karmazin Recording Studio, where the Center’s podcast, The Shmooze, is recorded and the Wexler Oral History Project films many of its interviews.

"We’re growing leaders, and we’re growing intellectuals. You can see the influence of the Yiddish Book Center going so far beyond the Center.”

This is an exciting time to be involved with the Yiddish Book Center, says Sharon, who previously served as the chair of the Center’s governance committee, a member of its development committee, and vice chair of the board. “I think one of the most wonderful things about the Center is that it’s never been afraid to reinvent itself, to look to the future, to what’s new and exciting and will engage new generations.” She points to the Center’s translation initiative, its ongoing digitization efforts, its forthcoming Yiddish textbook—and to the “tremendously bright and accomplished people” working on these projects. “It’s thrilling to be able to support that kind of activity and see the enthusiasm with which it has been received.

“I am continually impressed with the ways we have found to leverage what we do and make a difference in the wider world,” Sharon continues. She cites, for instance, this summer’s Tent: Children’s Literature writers’ workshop, offered in partnership with the PJ Library. “We really are the disseminators of rich intellectual content.” Programs such as Tent “give [participants] a greater understanding of the heritage, the literature, and the culture. I think that’s really exciting.”

It’s exciting, too, to see what the Center’s alumni go on to do with that knowledge, Sharon adds. “I’m so proud of the accomplishments of individuals who have participated in our programs during their formative years and have gone out in the Jewish world and now hold places of significant leadership. . . . We’re growing leaders, and we’re growing intellectuals. You can see the influence of the Yiddish Book Center going so far beyond the Center.”

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 2017)