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 our accomplishments of the past year, to share some of the lessons we’ve learned, and to give you a preview of our plans for 2022 and beyond.
At the start of the pandemic we were worried that our programs would come to a screeching halt. But thanks to the diligence of our staff and the generosity of you and other members, I’m happy to report that we’ve emerged stronger and more determined than ever.
Even with our doors closed we managed to recover more Yiddish books than we have in years. Many were surpassingly rare, such as Holocaust testimonies from liberated Poland printed on thin, fragile paper. “When I hold these books I think about how difficult it must have been, after the war, to procure not only Yiddish type but paper in general,” observed Rachelle Grossman, a Yiddish scholar who joined our staff in August. “It was so important for survivors to produce these books, and now, somehow, they have made their way to us.”
The influx of books was matched by a dramatic increase in demand. Although we can’t claim special prescience, our decision in the late 1990s to digitize our collection left us uniquely positioned to keep Yiddish literature seamlessly accessible online. Our books have now been downloaded close to five million times!
We assumed, when we closed our building in March 2020, that we would have to cancel our in-person performances, lectures, and educational programs. Instead, our ever-resourceful staff successfully recast almost every program online. In some cases, it was an upgrade: events that used to attract a few dozen people in person were suddenly reaching hundreds and even thousands on Zoom. We began offering one and sometimes two public programs a week, and by year’s end we had engaged tens of thousands of new participants around the world, in subjects that ranged from mah-jongg and Jewish food to endangered languages and social justice.
Our flagship summer programs continued uninterrupted thanks to online access and new technology that will strengthen our programs even after we resume in-person classes. Great Jewish Books for high school students was extended from a week in person to four weeks online, we increased the number of students accepted to our seven-week Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, and we leveraged our impact with sessions for classroom teachers, rabbis, cantors, and synagogue educators who are now sharing what they learned with students of their own.
Skyrocketing interest in Yiddish language took us all by surprise. In August 2020 we released In eynem, an all-new, lively, colorful, two-volume Yiddish textbook. Eight years in the making, it sold out in a matter of weeks and is now in its third printing, in use by more than 1,500 students in college and community classrooms around the world. In response to popular demand, we’ve also developed a new series of online Yiddish classes for adults, as well as training for a new generation of Yiddish-language teachers who are adopting our textbook’s groundbreaking approach.
Of course, effective as distance learning can be, it’s not a substitute for real-life. That’s why, as COVID morphs into a farshlepte krenk (a drawn-out malady), we’re implementing common-sense measures such as proof of vaccination, masking, and social distancing so we can safely welcome visitors back to the Center and resume in-person programs as early as this coming spring, starting with YiddishSchool and continuing through Yidstock in July.
Of course, we have no intention of turning our back on the thousands who joined us online during the pandemic and the many others who, for reasons of time, distance, and an abundance of caution, are unlikely to travel here anytime soon. For all those who can’t be here in person, we’ll continue to offer online programs, and we’ll also introduce a hybrid model that will allow us to film live programs at the Center and stream them to you and countless others, wherever you may be.
Although my colleagues and I at the Yiddish Book Center have always prided ourselves on running a tight ship, during the pandemic we’ve learned to accomplish even more with less. That was certainly the case with our Wexler Oral History Project. When borders closed and travel became impractical, Christa Whitney and her team figured out how to record interviews from a distance. True, remote interviews are not always as satisfying as those recorded in person, but they’re infinitely preferable to missing out on Jewish stories that might otherwise be lost forever.
In addition to recording interviews from a distance we’ve also found new ways to make them accessible. Thanks to major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we’re transcribing recorded interviews and putting software in place that allows users to log on to our website, type in the name of any person, place, or thing, and be taken to the precise spot in every interview where the term was spoken. With innovation like that it’s no wonder Christa was included in last year’s “Forward Fifty” for “making Jewish research remarkably user-friendly” and “creating a searchable index of living Yiddish history.”
Our efforts to translate Yiddish literature have also flourished over the past year. The seventy translation fellows we’ve trained before and during the pandemic are making impressive strides to bring previously untranslated titles to English readers. Our new publishing venture, White Goat Press, is picking up steam with previously untranslated titles by Avrom Sutzkever, Ida Maze, Peretz Hirshbein, Yoysef Kerler, and Rokhl Auerbach.
Of course, translation fellows are not the only Center alumni who are making their mark on the world. Since the Center began, we’ve taught 1,400 students and fellows—a remarkable percentage of whom continue to draw on what they learned to break new ground in Jewish scholarship, writing, filmmaking, theater, food, music, and more.
As the cultural historian Max Weinreich once observed (and as I paraphrased in the title of my 2005 book), “Yiddish has magic, it will outwit history.” The pandemic has been tragic and unsettling in so many ways, but it hasn’t stopped us. Gants farkert—exactly the opposite: it’s impelled us to work with even greater resolve to champion Yiddish culture at a time when it’s rarely been needed more. That’s why, as we look to the coming year, our plans are as bold as they are takhlesdik (practical):
- We’ll continue to work with colleagues at the National Library of Israel, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and the New York Public Library to consolidate our respective holdings into a “Universal Yiddish Library” that will make Yiddish—once in danger of extinction—the single most accessible literature on earth.
- We’ll continue to develop Jochre, a software program created in conjunction with Assaf Urieli that, even in beta, is allowing visitors to our website to type in any search term and, in the blink of an eye, see every instance in which it appears in millions of pages of Yiddish literature. (“Because of you I haven’t slept in two weeks!” a professor told me after the program went live on our website. It turned out she was staying up nights to pursue research that she could barely have dreamt of before.)
- We’re developing a brand new, state of the art, building-wide exhibition entitled Yiddish: A Global Culture that’s set to open in spring 2023. Funded by NEH and individual donors, the exhibit will use archival photographs, film clips, rare books, and material artifacts to allow visitors to see Yiddish culture as they never have before. As word of the undertaking spreads, people have been sending us astonishing artifacts, such as the 1920s traveling trunk carried on two world tours by Yiddish writers Peretz Hirshbein and Esther Shumatcher; a brass samovar that will be included in a re-creation of I. L. Peretz’s Warsaw salon; and a huge, hand-drawn map of the shtetl of Shershev, now in Belarus, drawn from memory by a survivor. Work has just begun on a 20-meter mural of “Yiddishland” that will run along the ramp to our book repository and offer a vivid introduction to the global reach of modern Yiddish culture.
There’s so much more I’d like to tell you about, like the fact that membership in our revamped online book club doubled to more than 900; that Ver vet blaybn? (Who Will Remain?), our recently released documentary about Avrom Sutzkever, is engaging audiences and winning awards in Israel and Europe; or that, according to our director of publishing and public programs, Lisa Newman, new titles from White Goat Press are garnering rave reviews and “selling like latkes” (which, presumably, are the Yiddish equivalent of hotcakes).
But this letter is only four pages, and I can’t squeeze in everything we’ve been doing during the past year. Instead I’ll summarize the rest by saying that, with your help, we’ve accomplished more under more difficult circumstances than any of us thought possible. Our 36 staff members are everything you’d expect—brilliant, talented, and devoted—and they’ll continue to work their hearts out to make sure Yiddish and Jewish culture survive and thrive.
But they can’t do it alone—which is why, given the urgency of the moment, I’m counting on you as never before.
- Annual membership in the Yiddish Book Center remains $54 (three times chai), and includes your annual subscription to Pakn Treger, our English-language magazine.
- If you can increase your donation to $100, we’ll renew your membership and send you From Marc Chagall to Diego Rivera, an exclusive set of eight colorful postcards featuring splendid illustrations from Yiddish books in our collection.
- For $150, we’ll renew your membership and send you the postcards plus a pass that entitles you to unlimited free admission at Jewish museums across the country.
- 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, send you the postcards and the museum pass, and—the moment it comes off the press—ship you an advance copy of The Glass Plates of Lublin. Published by our own White Goat Press, the large-format, hardcover book includes hundreds of stunning photographs made from glass plates unearthed from a trash pile in a tenement house in a former Jewish section of Lublin, Poland. From the dirty and sometimes broken tiles emerge the faces of Jews and Poles, children and the elderly, young couples flirting, workers, athletes, dignitaries in tails, and anonymous people who posed for a camera long ago, before the war, and never dreamed that their portraits would be of interest to anyone.
Whatever you can afford, I want to assure you that your renewal matters! The Yiddish Book Center could not have come so far at a time like this without your support. Please, won’t you continue to stand by us when we need you more than ever?
Mit a hartsikn dank—With heartfelt thanks,
P.S. We’re determined to work harder than ever during the coming year, but we can’t succeed without your help! Please, won’t you renew your support right now, while it’s still on your mind? A sheynem dank—my personal thanks!