Aaron Lansky's Year-End Letter

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Dear Friends,

I’m writing to ask you to renew your annual membership in the Yiddish Book Center. But before I bring you up to date on recent accomplishments and share our big plans for 2020 and beyond, I want to take a minute to say mazl-tov and shehekheyonu: the Yiddish Book Center is about to turn forty, and we couldn’t have reached this happy occasion without you. (Not a member? You can join or give a gift membership now.) 

It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come in forty years. What started as a small but determined effort to rescue Yiddish books has grown into one of the liveliest and most optimistic Jewish organizations in America. We’re still saving endangered Yiddish books, and we continue to share their content through translation, education, oral history, public programs, and more.  

And now, just in time for our Fortieth Anniversary, four game-changing projects that we’ve been working on for years are coming to fruition at once. In eynem, our long-awaited Yiddish textbook, is almost complete. The two hundred students who are using it already, in a preliminary “beta” version, have been captivated by its immersive approach, as well as its recurring characters and charming illustrations. The lead author and the director of our Yiddish Language Institute, Asya Vaisman Schulman, is running workshops to introduce the book’s innovative pedagogy to Yiddish teachers. It will arrive in college classrooms everywhere by the fall of 2020, making Yiddish language learning easier, faster, and more fun for everyone.  

Our investment in Yiddish translation is also yielding big dividends. As you know, when we first started translating Yiddish books, fewer than 2 percent were available to English readers. For ten years, we co-published a translation a year through Yale University Press—an achievement we were rather proud of until we realized that, at that rate, we had 39,000 years to go. That’s when we decided to take a different approach by training a new generation of Yiddish translators. The first 72 alumni of our Translation Fellowship are already hard at work, translating novels, memoirs, poems, plays, and short stories by writers most of us have never heard of before.

To get their work to the world, we’ve launched our own publishing venture called (voden?) White Goat Press. Last year we published Seeds in the Desert, stories by Mendel Mann that reflect his life’s journey from prewar Poland to the Soviet Union to the new State of Israel. The translator was Heather Valencia, a Yiddish scholar in Stirling, Scotland. Now, from the university town of Tours, France, Irish-born Daniel Kennedy has given us Warsaw Stories by Hersh Dovid Nomberg. Many more titles are in the works, and the Yiddish Book Center itself was shortlisted for this year’s International Excellence Awards in the category of The Literary Translation Initiative Award at the London Book Fair, an event attended by more than 25,000 authors, publishers, and book lovers from around the world.  

We’re not only training and publishing new translators; we’re also cultivating new readers. Our books have been widely adopted in college courses, and our Great Jewish Books Book Club has been a runaway success, with 463 participants meeting online to read and discuss Yiddish translations, including many by our own Fellows. 

Our Wexler Oral History Project is about to mark two milestones. Next month, mirtseshem, we will record our 1,000th interview! When you consider that the interviews are filmed in high definition video, that they run anywhere from 1.5 to 7 hours each, that each requires, on average, eight hours of research and post-production, that a quarter are recorded in Yiddish, and that together they constitute a unique aural portrait of Yiddish and modern Jewish culture, then you begin to realize what an amazing accomplishment this is. I’m confident that a hundred years from now, the personal stories we’re capturing will stand with the books themselves as an indispensable resource for future generations. 

But time is of the essence. Last month Christa Whitney, the director of the Project, traveled to New Haven to interview the literary critic Harold Bloom. Who knew that the staunch defender of the Western canon was also a passionate champion of his first language, Yiddish? “A lot of the best poetry written in the United States is in Yiddish,” he observed. 

And not only poetry.  He told Christa that his first encounter with Shakespeare was through a Yiddish production of The Merchant of Venice, starring Maurice Schwartz as Shylock:

Schwartz was an enormous man. He had a gigantic black beard and a big booming voice. So there he is, waving an enormous scalpel, and he’s approaching Antonio, the trembling sheygets [non-Jew] who is stripped to the waist.  Suddenly, with a histrionic shudder that you could feel all through the Second Avenue Theater, Schwartz drops the scalpel and screams out ‘Ikh bin dokh a yid!’—[as though to say] ‘I’m Jewish and we don’t do this sort of thing!’ At which point the play stopped and everybody in the audience cheered. Schwartz ran from one side of the stage to the other, interrupting the performance, bowing and throwing kisses to the women in the audience. Women dashed forward throwing roses at him. It became a sort of general tumult. It was twenty minutes before the play could resume. I loved it.    

Three weeks after his interview, Harold Bloom died at the age of 89. “Harold Bloom dreamed in Yiddish until his death” announced a headline that went out over the JTA wire, quoting his interview with the Yiddish Book Center. It was likely the last he ever recorded. 

Stories like these—there are many—explain why our 43 staff members and fellows are working so hard, and why the world is responding in turn.  Enrollment in our eleven educational programs continues to grow among high school students, college students, twenty-to-thirty-year-olds, writers, teachers, and adult learners. There is nothing antiquarian about what we do. Gants farkert, to the contrary, we recognize that new Jewish creativity can’t flourish ex nihilo, without access to the vast literature and culture that came before.

That’s why, now that most Yiddish books are safe, we’re working so hard to excavate, explicate, and celebrate the treasures they contain. Forty years ago we couldn’t have imagined that technology would one day allow us to make electronic copies of every title in our collection and share them for free with eager readers everywhere. At last count, they had been downloaded more than three million times!

Now, after a decade of concerted effort by a brilliant computational linguist named Assaf Urieli, we’re about to take another giant leap forward by making every page of every title instantly searchable. Beginning next month, you’ll be able to log onto our website (yiddishbookcenter.org), type in any name, place, word, or phrase, instantly search 2,780,468 pages of Yiddish literature, and receive a list of every instance in which the term appears. Click an item that interests you and plutsem, in the blink of an eye, the entire book will appear on your screen. Research in Jewish history, literature, linguistics, ethnography, and genealogy that used to take years will be completed in seconds instead. 

We’re now working with colleagues at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the New York Public Library, and the National Library of Israel to share our Yiddish holdings so that a single text search will generate results across all our collections at once. Once in danger of extinction, Yiddish is about to take its place as the most accessible literature in history!

After forty years we have good reason to shepn nakhes—to take pride in what we’ve accomplished. But our work is still far from over. “Loy olekho hamelokho ligmoyr,” the Talmud tells us: “It’s not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Among other initiatives, we’ve decided to mark our Fortieth Anniversary by launching A Decade of Discovery: a program designed to foster a deeper understanding of Yiddish and modern Jewish culture. Beginning now and continuing until our Fiftieth Anniversary, we’ll join forces with others to sponsor events, courses, conferences, exhibits, and performances around a common theme.  This coming year, for example, we're partnering with public libraries around the country using Yiddish literature as a portal to the immigrant experience, since we too were once strangers in a strange land. Stay tuned as the Yiddish Book Center’s Decade of Discovery brings programming to New York, Boston, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a city near you.

In short, after forty years we’re working harder than ever to preserve the treasures of Yiddish culture and share them with the world. But we can’t do it alone.

That’s why I’m asking you to renew your membership for the coming year. We depend on this campaign for much of our annual income. If you believe in our mission, if you’re proud of what we’ve accomplished over the past forty years, if you want our work to continue, then it’s crucial that you renew your annual membership now.

The cost is still $54 (3 x “chai”) and includes an annual subscription to Pakn Treger, our celebrated English-language magazine, discounts on gifts and books (both here and online), and invitations to special events. Given how much we’re doing—and how much is at stake—I’m hoping you’ll consider increasing your contribution this year:

  • For a tax-deductible donation of $100 or more, we’ll renew your subscription and send you a copy of Joe the Waiter, a newly-translated collection of humorous vignettes by Y. Y. Zevin (1872–1926) depicting New York Jewish life at the turn of the twentieth century. The stories are a lot of fun.
  • For $150 or more, we’ll send you Joe the Waiter plus a pass from the Council of American Jewish Museums that will grant you free admission to Jewish museums nationwide.
  • For $360 or more, we’ll welcome you as a member of our President’s Circle, include your name on the Honor Roll in the next issue of Kvel, and send you Joe the Waiter plus our latest title: How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited by Ilan Stavans and our academic director, Josh Lambert, and published by Restless Books. Drawn in part from four decades of Pakn Treger, the 500-page, English-language anthology highlights Yiddish voices in America—some radical, dangerous, and seductive but also sweet, generous, and full of life. Authors include Isaac Bashevis Singer, Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, Chaim Grade, Michael Chabon, Abraham Cahan, Sophie Tucker, Blume Lempel, Irving Howe, Paula Vogel, Liana Finck, and dozens more. “For readers unfamiliar with Yiddish writing, [the book is] a revelation,” said a starred review in Kirkus, “and for readers and aficionados of the language, a treasure.” The book is so new it will be another four to six weeks before it’s off the press, but I promise it will be worth the wait.  
  • For an anniversary contribution of $1,000 or more, we’ll proudly acknowledge you as one of our Brilyantn (Jewels). You’ll receive Pakn Treger, the two books and the museum pass, we’ll honor you in the next issue of Kvel, and, next time you’re in Amherst, I’ll welcome you in person, introduce you to our remarkable students, fellows, and staff, and give you a personal tour of all the magic your support makes possible. 

Of course, whatever you can afford, your support will make a difference. Over the past forty years we’ve accomplished more than any of us could have imagined, and we have even bigger plans for the years ahead, but we can’t continue without your support. Please—won’t you renew your membership by sending your most generous tax-deductible contribution today?

A hartsikn dank (With heartfelt thanks),

Aaron Lansky
President