Aaron Lansky's Year-End Letter

Learn About Our Work and Consider Renewing, Joining, or Giving a Gift Membership

I’m writing to ask you to renew your annual membership in the Yiddish Book Center. But first, I want to bring you up to date on what we’ve accomplished despite the pandemic, to share plans for 2021, and to explain why your renewed support matters more now than ever before. (Not a member? You can join or give a gift membership now.) 

Our staff members were quick to rally after we closed our building on March 13. Working from home, often at their kitchen tables, they showed real ingenuity in making sure the Center’s work continued uninterrupted. Our long-term investment in digitization allowed us to provide seamless access to almost every title in our collection, along with interviews, podcasts, translations, and more. Downloads of Yiddish books have skyrocketed by forty percent.

Surprisingly, the number of books arriving at the Center has also grown. Although our truck hasn’t budged in nine months, the post office, UPS, and FedEx continue to deliver boxes, and our bibliographer, who comes in to open them, has been astonished by what he’s found. A carton of cherished volumes belonging to the Yiddish writer Isaac Ronch included Akh, az ikh vel oysvaksn! (Just Wait Till I Grow Up!), an illustrated children’s book published in Odessa in the 1930s that’s so rare only one other copy is known to survive. A thousand-page yizkor book (memorial volume) commemorating Jewish communities on the Lithuanian-Belarus border arrived from Japan, and the son of the last owner of the Hebrew Publishing Company donated pristine copies of Yiddish sheet music.

With only two percent of Yiddish titles translated into English—and with more people than ever wanting to read them—we haven’t let up on our efforts to train a new generation of Yiddish translators. Sixty-nine current and former Translation Fellows are now translating Yiddish novels, stories, plays, memoirs, and other works, some of which we’re publishing through our new imprint, White Goat Press. Of all the world’s publishers, we received the 2020 London Book Fair’s International Excellence Award for Literary Translation Initiatives.

Another recent milestone was the release of In eynem: The New Yiddish Textbook. Eight years in the making, the richly illustrated, two-volume set has been acclaimed as “a work of genius,” “big, beautiful, stunning in its use of colors, thorough, methodical, and very user friendly.” It’s already been assigned to Yiddish students at sixteen colleges and universities, and sales are so strong we’re now in our second printing.
One key lesson we’ve learned during the past year is how to accomplish more with less. The crew of our Wexler Oral History Project, for example, recorded their one-thousandth interview and completed a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to make them fully searchable. They also released two critically acclaimed documentary films. Views of the interviews on YouTube jumped to a one-day high of 34,350, and total views have now topped six million. Before COVID-19, our crew used to fly halfway around the world to record interviews with older, Yiddish-speaking Jews; now they’re filming them online. Admittedly, it’s not the same as being there, but I think you’ll agree it’s a lot better than missing out on stories that would otherwise be lost forever.  

One of my biggest worries when we closed our doors in March was the fate of our residential summer programs for high school students, college and grad students, classroom teachers, and adult learners. How, I wondered, could we replicate the intensity and camaraderie of these immersive experiences online?

Fortunately, our education team sprang into action and successfully recast every one of them into a virtual format.  Our students, I’m happy to report, never missed a beat. They playfully redubbed the “Zumer [Summer] program” the “Zoomer program,” in tribute to its online platform. In some instances, remote learning proved an upgrade, allowing us to extend our usual one-week Great Jewish Books program for high school students into six weeks of online classes and conversations. “You adapted this program so beautifully and fostered a space for connection and growth,” one student told us. “I gained an appreciation for literature, Yiddish and other languages, and translation. Thank you, this program added to my summer and was a good anchor during all the chaos in the world.”

Yiddish, a culture born of marginality and adversity, has become an anchor for a great many people this year, which is why, instead of retrenching, we’re determined not only to continue our existing programs but to expand them in 2021. For example, the virtual Thursday-evening programs that we launched at the start of the pandemic have attracted thousands of viewers, far more than could possibly have attended in person. Favorite subjects have included Jews and baseball, Mah Jongg, dairy restaurants, summer camps, the Borscht Belt, Hollywood, cafés and coffeehouses, and home delivery of smoked fish, along with more challenging topics such as translation, immigration, and a timely forum on responses to racism in Yiddish literature and journalism.  

What can we offer for an encore in 2021? We’ve already booked an all-star lineup for the Thursday night programs, and we recently debuted a new weekly “radiocast” program that features serialized dramatic readings of Yiddish literature in translation. The first radiocast—based on the memoir of Jewish revolutionary Klara Klebanova—is currently underway, and more are in the works. Meanwhile, publications like Pakn Treger, our Digital Translation Issue, our online Weekly Reader, The Shmooze podcast, a growing collection of recorded programs, and our content-rich website will continue to bring you even more of the books and culture you helped save over the past forty years.

Last winter we celebrated our fortieth anniversary by launching the “Decade of Discovery”: a ten-year initiative to advance understanding of Yiddish and modern Jewish culture. We partnered with public libraries from Burlington, Vermont, to Little Rock, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, White Salmon, Washington, and beyond to create community book groups around the theme of immigration. (A hundred and twenty libraries applied for twenty available slots). After COVID-19 arrived, most found ways to pivot to virtual formats. As the country roiled, participants from all walks of life found relevance and inspiration in writers like Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Kadya Molodowsky. In the coming year we’ll continue to respond to the cultural moment by enlisting new partners, presenting new translations, and forging new opportunities for cross-cultural discovery.

Another forward-looking project for the coming year is the development of a new core exhibition for our Amherst building entitled, “Yiddish: A Global Culture.” Funded by NEH and individual donors, the interactive, multimedia exhibit is slated to open in the spring of 2022—in time to welcome back visitors from around the world and wow them with just how rich, diverse, and enduring Yiddish language and culture really are. 

As you can see, even at this difficult time the Yiddish Book Center has no shortage of energy, imagination, and conviction. Our challenge now is to find the funds we need to seize the day. Early in the pandemic, experts warned that a quarter to a third of America’s cultural institutions would be out of business before it was over. Thanks to your prescience and generosity we were better prepared than most, with a balanced budget, a solid endowment, and zero debt. But that doesn’t mean that the Center has been spared difficult decisions. On September 1 we trimmed our budget by 28 percent, eliminated several positions, and cut salaries for senior staff. Thanks to support from you and other longtime friends we managed to end the fiscal year with a balanced budget—and we fully intend to do the same again next year. 

But we can’t do it alone. That’s why I’m writing you with greater urgency than ever before to ask you to renew and, if possible, to increase your annual contribution for 2021.  

  • Annual membership remains $54 and includes a year’s subscription to Pakn Treger, our English-language magazine. 
  • For a tax-deductible gift of $100 or more we’ll send you an exclusive reproduction of How To Take Out Your First Papers, a colorful, 28-page, bilingual English-Yiddish manual for Jewish immigrants, published in the 1920s.  
  • Increase your contribution to $150 and we’ll send you the English-Yiddish citizenship guide plus a year’s pass for free admission to Jewish Museums throughout the country. 
  • For $360 or more we’ll enroll you in our President’s Circle, publish your name in Kvel, and send you our latest book from White Goat Press: Sutzkever Essential Prose by Avrom Sutzkever, translated by one of our Translation Fellows, Zackary Sholem Berger. Although Sutzkever is considered one of the greatest Yiddish poets, this is the first time English readers will be able to read his prose as well, which have been described as “a fusion of biographical reality with the mysterious realm of the imagination.”  
  • For a contribution of $1,000 or more we’ll include you in the list of our Brilyantn (Jewels) in the next issue of Kvel and send you the English-Yiddish citizenship guide, the Jewish museum pass, the Sutzkever translation, and an enchanting fine-art poster created in honor of the Center’s fortieth anniversary by the renowned artist Mark Podwal. Impeccably printed, the 24x36-inch poster is suitable for framing.

Whatever you can afford, your support will make a difference this year. This is one of those times that tries men’s and women’s souls, and we’re counting on you as never before. Please, won’t you stand by us by renewing your membership today?

A hartsikn dank—my heartfelt thanks,

Aaron Lansky

P.S.  As I write, the pandemic is still raging. Even if, mirtseshem (God willing), an effective vaccine comes soon, we’re still facing another tough year ahead. We’ve worked our hearts out for forty years to save Yiddish books and culture, and I think you’ll agree that we’ve come too far to give up now. So please, won’t you renew your support right now, while it’s still on your mind? A sheynem dank—my personal thanks!