Aaron Lansky's Year-End Letter
Learn About Our Work and Consider Renewing, Joining, or Giving a Gift Membership
Sholem aleykhem. 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 latest adventures and accomplishments, and to give you a preview of our ambitious plans for the year ahead.
As you know, the Yiddish Book Center has grown by leaps and bounds since the start of the pandemic, and demand shows no sign of abating. As the world grows more perilous and antisemitism more pernicious, it seems that Yiddish, a language born of marginality, has never had more to say, and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure it’s heard.
Part of that job, of course, is saving Yiddish books. Thousands of books continue to arrive each year, and some are so rare we’ve never seen them before. One recent arrival, for example, was Dovid ben dovid, a Yiddish version of David Copperfield published in Vilna in 1894—the first known translation of Dickens into Yiddish. The fellows who open each day’s boxes say they feel as though zey zenen arayngefaln in a shmaltsgrub—they’ve stumbled into a treasure trove.
It’s not just books we’re finding. As work continues on Yiddish: A Global Culture, our new core exhibit, artifacts are also pouring in: everything from Sholem Asch’s medicine ball to a battered leather travel trunk that went twice around the world with Yiddish writers Peretz Hirshbein and Esther Shumiatcher. Recent arrivals include an inscribed, 18-karat-gold cigarette case presented to Yiddish theater star and flamenco dancer Michal Michalesco by an admirer in Argentina – part of a unique collection of Yiddish theater memorabilia – and countless other one-of-a-kind objects that will allow us to showcase the full range of Yiddish creativity in a whole new way.
As collecting continues, demand is also skyrocketing. At last count full-length Yiddish books had been downloaded more than five million times from our online library. We’re continuing our behind-the-scenes work on the Universal Yiddish Library: our longstanding dream to combine our digital holdings with those of YIVO, the New York Public Library, and the National Library of Israel in order to make almost every Yiddish title available for free to everyone, everywhere, 24 hours a day.
Who’s reading all these books? Four decades ago, when I founded the Yiddish Book Center, Jewish leaders insisted that Yiddish was dead, and even if we could find Yiddish books no one would read them. Today, the tens of thousands who visit our website include college and grad students, scholars from every continent except Antarctica, and avid readers around the world.
Meanwhile, the number of people eager to learn Yiddish is off the charts. Last week a young man from India wrote to tell me he had mastered intermediate Yiddish on his own and was looking for materials to proceed to the next level. Thousands downloaded Duolingo’s new Yiddish-language app, and those ready for a deeper dive are flocking in record numbers to In eynem (All Together), our new Yiddish textbook. Eight years in the making, it’s already in its fourth printing, in use by Yiddish classes at Harvard, Yale, Michigan, Chicago, Toronto, Brandeis, Columbia, YIVO, the Workers’ Circle, and almost everywhere else Yiddish is taught. The textbook’s lead author, Asya Vaisman Schulman, continues to develop online tools to make Yiddish-language learning easier and more engaging, and she’s preparing an updated, online edition of In eynem that everyone will be able to afford.
We are, of course, expanding our own Yiddish course offerings. Our popular seven-week Steiner Summer Yiddish Program returned in person this year, as did YiddishSchool, our spirited weeklong program for adults. We’re leveraging our efforts by teaching teachers who, in turn, are sharing what they learn with students of their own. The same approach has proven effective for our Great Jewish Books program: originally intended to introduce Yiddish and other modern Jewish literature to high school students, it now includes sessions for rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators.
Although we love teaching Yiddish, we understand that not everyone has the time or leisure to learn it, so at the same time we’re ramping up our efforts to translate the best of Yiddish literature into English. It’s a rizike arbet, a Herculean task: as I write, more than 98 percent of Yiddish titles remain inaccessible to English readers. For ten years we co-published one new translation a year through Yale University Press—an accomplishment we were rather proud of until one of our fellows pointed out that at that rate we had 39,000 years to go. That’s when we switched to a bottom-up approach: training a new generation of translators and leaving it to them to decide what to translate next. So far, the program’s eighty alumni have completed thirty full-length works, with many more to follow.
One obstacle to new translations has been the difficulty in getting them published. Major publishers are rarely interested in older titles written in a “minor” language, and although academic presses tend to be more amenable, they usually price their books so high few students can afford to buy them. That’s why we decided to launch a publishing venture of our own called White Goat Press. Under the leadership of Lisa Newman, the fledgling enterprise garnered considerable attention this past year with new titles that included Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s translation of Dineh, an autobiographical novel by Ida Maze, and The Glass Plates of Lublin: Found Images of a Lost Jewish World.
What’s next? A revealing memoir by Maurice Carr, the son of the Yiddish writer Esther Kreitman and the nephew of I. J. and Isaac Bashevis Singer; a three-volume anthology of Bashevis Singer’s largely unknown nonfiction work, edited and translated by David Stromberg; three plays by Sholem Asch, translated by Caraid O’Brien, an Irish-born Yiddish actor, playwright, translator, and director; Samuel Kassow’s long-awaited translation of the memoirs of Rokhl Auerbach, who helped bury documents—including her own—beneath the Warsaw ghetto; and S. L. Shneiderman’s courageous reporting from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, translated by Deborah Green.
We’re working hard to make sure new translations find the readers they deserve. Lisa has been offering a regular “Lunch in Translation” series where hundreds of people discuss new titles, meet the translators, and enjoy readings and dramatic productions. Fourteen hundred people have signed up for our Great Jewish Books Club, which features online programs, podcasts, a private Facebook group, and real-time discussions. Last month we offered “Di froyen / The Women,” a weekend exploration of the colorful, profound, and too-often-neglected role of women Yiddish writers. And thousands have been attending our robust series of virtual public programs, which feature lectures, readings, and performances by some of the greatest figures in modern Jewish literature and culture.
I wish I had room to tell you about the rest of our exciting programs this past year—like the CBS news crew that flew a drone over our book stacks as part of a story about the Center, or the triumphant return of Yidstock in person. I’d be remiss, however, if I ended this letter without telling you about our Wexler Oral History Project, which just celebrated its bar mitzvah. It’s hard to believe that thirteen years have passed since a young woman named Christa Whitney graduated from Smith College, joined our first group of fellows, and persuaded us that it wasn’t enough to collect Jews’ books, we needed to capture their stories as well. In the years since she and her stalwart team have recorded more than 1,100 interviews, most of them several hours long. It would take a year just to view them all!
With help from NEH and individual donors we’ve managed to catalog and transcribe most of the interviews, and we’re now perfecting powerful search tools. Excerpts from the interviews have attracted millions of views on YouTube, and they’ve been embedded in films, cited in books and articles, and on one occasion featured on the digital front page of The New York Times. I think the best way to convey the significance of our oral history work, however, is to tell you a story.
A few years before the pandemic, Christa received a handwritten letter in Yiddish from a retired physician named William Good who lived in the mountains east of Los Angeles. He was in his 90s and wanted Christa to interview him. “Come soon,” he urged her, “I’m not sure how much time I have."
It was several years before Christa was able to get there. Their interview lasted four hours. Dr. Good described his childhood in a shtetl in the border region between Lithuania, Poland, and Belarus. He told how he had survived the war, moved to the States, became a doctor, and spent his long career helping Mexican and Central American immigrants and refugees. Though he knew English well (one of the 11 languages he spoke fluently), Christa encouraged him to record the interview in Yiddish.
By the end of the interview—the longest we ever recorded—Dr. Good was exhausted, but also elated: he had told his story at last. When Christa attempted to contact him again, less than a year into the pandemic, she learned that he had died of COVID.
The story has an epilogue. Dr. Good’s children, who don’t speak Yiddish, wanted to listen to his interview and share it with their children, so they made a donation to support the translation of the entire interview into English. It was a vivid reminder of how important oral history can be—and of the urgency that underlies all our work at the Yiddish Book Center.
When Isaac Bashevis Singer accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in Stockholm in 1978, he observed that “Yiddish has not yet said its last word.” I couldn’t agree more: in a time as ruptured as our own, Yiddish echoes more loudly than ever. But it can’t continue to speak unless we do our part. If you’re pleased with what we’ve accomplished during the past year, if you share our plans for the year ahead, if you want us to save more books, capture more stories, place more titles online, translate more works into English, teach more teachers, and reach more students, then it’s crucial that you renew your support for another year.
- Despite inflation, annual membership in the Yiddish Book Center remains $54 and includes a subscription to Pakn Treger, our English-language magazine, as well as discounts on programs and in our onsite and online store. But given how much work remains to be done, I’m hoping you can increase your contribution for the coming year.
- For a tax-deductible donation of $100 we’ll renew your membership and send you a reprint of the Yiddish-English Manual, compiled in 1905 by the “English Evening Classes Committee” in London. The 221-page bilingual booklet contains phrases and conversations for the Jewish traveler or immigrant—from salutations and directions to letters and business transactions;
- For $150, we’ll send you the Yiddish-English manual 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 manual and the museum pass, and, as a very special gift, a signed copy of The Letters Project: A Daughter’s Journey, a “funny, heartbreaking, and ultimately transcending” memoir by Yiddish singer and actress Eleanor Reissa.
Whatever you can afford I want to assure you that your contribution will make a difference. Please, won’t you help us continue the work we’ve begun by sending your generous, tax-deductible contribution right now, while it’s still on your mind?
Mit a hartsikn dank—With heartfelt thanks,