Aaron Lansky's Year-End Letter (Nov/Dec 2023)

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

I had just started writing this annual renewal letter when the news arrived of the horrifying attacks in Israel. I wasn’t sure if I should continue writing. How could I ask you to help us save Jewish books when Jews themselves were in danger? As the full scope of the atrocities came into focus, however, I realized that postponing was exactly the wrong thing to do. With Jews in danger, antisemitism on the rise, and suffering of civilians increasing on both sides, it was even more incumbent on us to protect the books and culture that define us. So I resumed writing, and this letter is the result: a chance to report on what you’ve helped us accomplish during the year just past, a preview of our plans for the year ahead, and an urgent request to renew your Yiddish Book Center membership for 2024.

The good news is that the Yiddish Book Center is stronger than ever. After almost 44 years we’re still saving books. In July, a tractor trailer backed up to our loading dock with a huge wooden crate. It was so big our fellows had to crawl inside to unpack it. They pulled out more than a thousand volumes donated by a Brazilian Jewish educator and translator named Hadassah Cytrinowitz. There were many titles we’d never seen before, such as a treatise on the influence of Arabic on the Yiddish spoken by Ashkenazic Jews in Jerusalem in the 1920s and ’30s. Every day similar treasures pour in from around the world.

Demand for the books we’ve found continues to grow, thanks in no small measure to your help in digitizing them and placing them at the fingertips of every computer user on the planet. With new search tools, researchers can find names, words, or phrases in millions of pages of Yiddish literature in a matter of seconds, rather than the years it might have taken before. We continue to work with colleagues at the National Library of Israel, the New York Public Library, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research to pool our digital holdings into a Universal Yiddish Library that will make Yiddish the most accessible literature on the planet.

For those who can’t read Yiddish in the original we’ve stepped up our efforts to translate many more of the 98 percent of Yiddish titles that remain unavailable to English readers. Thanks to your support, the 100 translators we’ve trained over the past decade are working on full-length novels, plays, memoirs, short stories, and essays. Our publishing imprint, White Goat Press, has published 19 titles already, with more in the queue. Coming soon are Journey through the Spanish Civil War by S. L. Shneiderman; Samuel Kassow’s long-awaited translation of the memoirs of Rokhl Auerbach, who helped save priceless documents—including her own—by burying them beneath the Warsaw Ghetto; and The Adventures of Max Spitzkopf, the Yiddish Sherlock Holmes, a series of Yiddish detective stories that were said to have inspired the young Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Speaking of Singer, 32 years after his death we’ve just released the first of three volumes of his largely untranslated Writings on Yiddish and Yiddishkayt: The War Years, 1939–1945, edited and translated by David Stromberg. Appearing originally in the Jewish Daily Forward, they reflect Singer’s far-ranging interests, such as “What Is a Dybbuk?,” “Jewish Names and Yiddish Names,” “Famous Rabbis Who Spoke Out against Swinging Chickens as a Sacrifice before Yom Kippur,” and “Why Movies Aren’t Made about Jewish Life.” Also just published is The Forgotten Singer: The Exiled Sister of I.J. and Isaac Bashevis Singer, a memoir by Maurice Carr that tells the story of his mother, Esther Singer Kreitman, an important Yiddish writer living in the shadow of her famous brothers.

The crew of our Wexler Oral History Project are back on the road, racing against time to record interviews in London, Copenhagen, Vienna, Rio de Janeiro, and the Brazilian coastal city of Recife. At last count 1,293 people had shared their stories with us, in English, Yiddish, and seven other languages. Together the interviews chronicle the lives of Yiddish writers and cultural figures and capture the stories of ordinary people whose experiences would otherwise have been lost forever. We’re now transcribing those interviews and adding timecodes so they can be easily searched, with results from the original video appearing right on your own screen. Students, scholars, genealogists, and casual viewers are taking notice: as of today, excerpts of the interviews have been downloaded 9.5 million times! We can barely begin to imagine how important these stories will be to future generations.

Of course, we’re not only saving books and stories, we’re also offering innovative educational programs. Eighteen college and grad students spent six weeks with us last summer at our Steiner Summer Yiddish Program. Over the past decades this flagship program has introduced hundreds of students to Yiddish language and culture, many of whom have gone on to become fellows, translators, mentors, teachers, and leaders in the Jewish community.

Thirty-four talented high school students came to Amherst for the Great Jewish Books Summer Program, a weeklong residential program where they discovered, debated, and fell in love with works of modern Jewish literature that most had never encountered before. They showed a particularly strong interest in Yiddish this year. “My understanding of Jewish literature is forever changed,” one student wrote. “I am taking away a newfound desire to read, learn Yiddish, and explore Jewish literature.” Longitudinal evaluations suggest that the experience has a lasting impact on participants’ understanding of their Jewish identity, in ways that will profoundly influence the rest of their lives.

Our Great Jewish Books Program has proven so popular we’ve added opportunities for adult learners as well, building on the success of an earlier, six-week residential program for day school teachers. This year’s cohort included rabbis, cantors, and synagogue educators, most of whom are now sharing what they learned with students of their own. “I always felt that I had a responsibility to learn about the Holocaust, but no one has ever prompted me before to think about whether I have a responsibility to learn about Yiddish,” one participant wrote us. Another rabbi wrote to say she was dedicating her Yom Kippur sermon to talking about the Yiddish Book Center—and she donated $3,000 in support of similar programs in the future.

That’s not all. Several thousand people have signed up for our online Great Jewish Books Club. Thousands more tune in to our weekly podcasts, featuring interviews with cutting-edge writers, artists, and culture makers. Our weeklong Bossie Dubowick YiddishSchool continues to attract adult learners from across the country. Our rollicking Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music reached a larger audience than ever this year thanks to our first-ever livestream. We’ve begun using the cameras and broadcast equipment you helped install to stream in-person educational programs to learners far beyond our walls.

As interest in Yiddish itself continues to grow, In eynem, the colorful, two-volume Yiddish textbook we released in 2020, has emerged as a gold standard for Yiddish-language classes around the world. Its lead author and director of our Yiddish Language Institute Asya Vaisman Schulman is following up with a more affordable, digital version of the textbook, resources for intermediate students, and a game-changing training and certification program for Yiddish teachers.

I never cease to be amazed by how much forty brilliant and hard-working staff members can accomplish in a single year, and I only wish I had room in this letter to tell you more. I can’t sign off, however, without telling you about what may well have been our proudest moment of the past year: the opening of Yiddish: A Global Culture, our new permanent exhibition. Its bright, airy displays smash familiar stereotypes and present Yiddish as a complex, cosmopolitan culture that, in the late 19th and 20th centuries, made its way from the shtetlekh and cities of Eastern Europe to the far corners of the Earth. You’ll discover all manner of modern Yiddish expression, from prose and poetry to film, theater, music, art, and more. Among the jaw-dropping artifacts are Sholem Asch’s medicine ball, the leather traveling trunk of writers Peretz Hirshbein and Esther Shumiatcher, and a 500-ruble Imperial Russian banknote that fell out of a Yiddish book and would be worth over $30,000 today if there were still a country where one could spend it. All in all the exhibition features hundreds of objects, including rare books, artwork, photographs, sheet music, Yiddish typewriters, and all manner of memorabilia. Global in scope yet deeply personal—with many prized heirlooms donated by you and other members over the past 40 years—the exhibition tells the stories of both the creators and the consumers of Yiddish culture. According to a recent review in the Forward, “Wandering through the exhibits was an act of homage . . . I’ve rarely felt more intimately connected, to Yiddishkeit in all its wonder and variety.”

The opening of the new exhibition took place on October 15, just eight days after the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust. As with this letter I thought at first of postponing it until I realized that this was no time to close our doors. Instead we pressed forward—and 500 people showed up. Although it was an emotional time, our visitors were clearly comforted to be there with others and, I think, proud and inspired to view display after display of the resilience of Jewish creativity in the face of adversity. Looking out at all those members and friends who made the Yiddish Book Center possible, I fought back tears as I recalled the words of the Partizaner lid, the most famous Jewish anthem of the Holocaust: “Mir zenen do—we are here!”

I am incredibly grateful to you for your past support—we couldn’t have come this far without you. I’m also mindful, however, that our needs are likely to be even greater during the coming year. Unless we know our own history, we leave it to others to define it for us. That’s why I’m writing to ask you to renew your support now, so we can continue to work with heart and soul during the difficult days ahead.

I’m writing to ask you to renew your support now, so we can continue to work with heart and soul during the difficult days ahead.

Annual membership in the Yiddish Book Center is still $54 (the price of a few cups of chai) and includes an annual subscription to Pakn Treger, our English-language magazine, discounts on gifts and books, and invitations to special events.

Given the urgency of the moment, however, I’m hoping you’ll consider increasing your contribution this year:

  • For a tax-deductible donation of $100 or more we’ll renew your membership and send you A Bridge of Books, with full-color prints of 49 Yiddish book covers from around the world as featured in our new exhibition. They include unlikely Jewish tales of polar exploration, the lives of Jewish gauchos on the pampas and ostrich farmers in South Africa, and even Norse legends.
  • For $150 we’ll send you A Bridge of Books 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 in the next issue of Kvel, and send you the book of color prints, the museum pass, plus Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Writings on Yiddish and Yiddishkayt: The War Years, 1939–1945, the latest translation from White Goat Press. Covering the period from 1939 to 1945, the essays offer a window on Singer’s evolving perspective from across the sea as the Yiddish-speaking world of his youth was destroyed. With foresight, hope, and a scathing critique of demagogues and fascism, these previously untranslated essays remain as relevant today as when they were written.
  • For a contribution of $1,000 or more, we’ll proudly acknowledge you as one of our Brilyantn (Jewels). You’ll receive all of the above premiums, we’ll honor you in Kvel, and the next time you’re in Amherst I’ll be pleased to welcome you in person, sit with you over a glezl tey (a glass of hot tea), and give you a private tour of the new exhibition.
  • At this fraught and challenging time our work has never mattered more, and whatever you can afford will make a difference. Please—won’t you renew your support by making your most generous tax-deductible contribution today?

    Mit a hartsikn dank (With heartfelt thanks),

    Aaron Lansky