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. I also want to bring you up to date on our accomplishments of the year just past, and to give you a preview of our plans for 2019 and beyond. (Not a member? You can join or give a gift membership now.)

But first I want to acknowledge recent events.  At a time when Jews are increasingly under attack, I believe that we have a greater responsibility than ever to safeguard our culture and deepen our understanding of who we are and where we come from.

Thanks to your help, we’ve been working for almost four decades to do just that, and the past year was no exception. Who could have imagined that after all this time we would still be saving Yiddish books?  A few weeks ago, our zamler Jack Hirschberg and his wife Linda arrived from Montreal in a rented van packed with 3,000 volumes.  That same day, a ship arrived in the Port of New York with 4,000 volumes from the library of the Jewish Folk Center, once the hub of Yiddish life in Sydney, Australia. Then our friends Marilyn Ellner and Jack Schier showed up with a box that contained the rare yizkor book (memorial volume) for Bilgoraj, Poland—the shtetl where Isaac Bashevis Singer spent his teenage years and where we traveled last April on the trail of his first-ever literary work, written when he was just nineteen and long since given up for lost. 

Even more important than the number of books we’re still saving is the number of people who are reading them.  In the nine years since you helped us post our titles online, full-length Yiddish novels, memoirs, and other works have been downloaded an astonishing three million times! We’re now working with three distinguished libraries—the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the New York Public Library, and the National Library of Israel—to pool our combined Yiddish holdings into a Universal Yiddish Library that will place virtually every Yiddish title at the fingertips of every computer user on the planet.

If you can’t read Yiddish yourself, we haven’t forgotten you. After six years of concerted effort, we’re about to release In eynem (All Together), a game-changing Yiddish textbook that has already been hailed as “a work of genius that will revolutionize Yiddish instruction.” Drawing on the latest research in second-language acquisition, the new textbook is lively, colorful, and rich in authentic Yiddish content, including an online supplement with Yiddish videos, audio recordings, interviews, digital books, and other treasures that you helped save. In advance of publication our lead author, Asya Vaisman Schulman, and her colleagues are offering intensive workshops to introduce the textbook and its new way of teaching to Yiddish teachers from around the world. So far, the consensus is that learning Yiddish is about to become quicker, easier, and a lot more fun.

Don’t have time to learn Yiddish? We still haven’t forgotten you. Until recently, 98 percent of Yiddish titles were inaccessible to English readers. Four years ago, we decided to address the problem head-on by training a new generation of Yiddish translators. In another month we’ll have graduated sixty translation fellows, with twelve more scheduled to begin training in February. Each fellow undertakes the translation of a full-length literary work, and the first fruits of their labors are now appearing. The latest is Ellen Cassedy’s translation of On the Landing by Yenta Mash; Mash was a largely unknown Moldovan Yiddish writer whose stories trace an arc across continents, upheavals, regime changes, and the phases of a woman’s life, from girlhood to old age. With so many new titles in the offing, we’re launching a multifaceted publishing venture to make sure they’re accessible to all. You can look forward to a steady stream of great reading in the months and years ahead.

Meanwhile Christa Whitney, the head of our Wexler Oral History Project, continues to race against time to film in-depth interviews with native Yiddish speakers and others before it’s too late. Her travels over the past year have taken her to Helsinki, Stockholm, Sao Paulo, and Rio. Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and matching support from you and other members, we’re now transcribing and time-coding many of the 900 interviews recorded to date. Soon you’ll be able to type names, places, or other search terms into your computer, and in a matter of seconds you’ll be taken to the exact spot in the video where the terms appear. 

Of course, we’re not only recovering Yiddish books and stories. We’re also expanding our educational programs to celebrate their content, context, and literary progeny. Never in our thirty-nine years have so many people been so eager to learn.

In 2019, our academic director, Josh Lambert, and an inspired faculty and staff will lead eleven major educational programs. For high school students there’s Great Jewish Books, a weeklong introduction to modern Jewish literature. College and grad students will spend seven weeks learning to speak and read Yiddish at our Steiner Summer Yiddish Program. Last year’s students loved our new Yiddish-speaking dorm, where mame-loshn could be heard from early morning till way too late at night. Even our beginners were conversing with one another in Yiddish by the time the summer ended. In Tent: Creative Writing, established and aspiring writers in their twenties and thirties will spend a week at the Center discovering Yiddish and other modern Jewish literature while sharing, reading, and talking about writing of their own. (One of our amazing alumnae, Molly Yeh, is starring in her own television show, and another, Emily Nemens, is the new editor of the Paris Review.)

And that’s just a forshpayz—a sampling of what we’re up to. Every week, middle and high school students, many from inner-city schools, pour out of yellow school buses to tour the Center, learn about Jewish immigration, and make connections with their own journeys and experience. Our Yiddish-speaking graduate fellows—all alumni of the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program—are playing a crucial role in key projects, including bibliography, education, Yiddish-language instruction, oral history, and translation. Participants in our Great Jewish Books Book Club shared readings and engaged in spirited online discussions with 359 of their peers, and we’re expecting twice that number next year. Adult learners expanded their horizons through exciting weekend conferences on Yiddish women writers and Jews and photography.

Everywhere we look, interest in Yiddish and Jewish culture is on the rise, and we expect that demand to increase even faster in the coming year. We’re therefore working to leverage our programs beyond our own walls. This past summer, with a $1.1 million grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, we offered a monthlong Great Jewish Books program for teachers. Although many of the teachers were already well versed in Torah, Talmud, and other traditional texts, few had spent much time reading more recent Jewish literature. Their month in Amherst proved a revelation, and they’re now integrating what they learned into their own classrooms, where they’ll reach vastly more students than we could ever hope to teach on our own.

Similar leverage is at work in a program called Tent: Children’s Literature. Every month our friends at the PJ Library mail out 800,000 free Jewish children’s books, and they’re always in need of compelling titles with rich Jewish content. Our job is to offer weeklong workshops where published children’s book writers and illustrators can discover literary antecedents—including 1,200 children’s books in Yiddish—and delve more deeply into Jewish history, culture, and ideas. The participants so far have been eager and full of imagination, and the works they’re creating, informed by their newfound knowledge, will reach hundreds of thousands of children around the world.

I wish I had time to tell you more: about Yidstock, our annual Festival of New Yiddish Music; about our sold-out Isaac Bashevis Singer program at the New York Public Library, featuring Bruce Davidson’s seldom-seen film Isaac Singer’s Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko’s Beard, starring none other than Singer himself; or about plans for our upcoming Fortieth Anniversary, including a Decade of Discovery program that will involve major cultural institutions across the country. 

But all that will have to wait for my next letter, because there’s only so much I can squeeze into four single-spaced pages while still leaving room to ask you to renew your annual membership for another year. At a time of heightened awareness and unprecedented demand, we’re working harder, accomplishing more, and dreaming bigger dreams than ever before, and we can’t succeed without you.

That’s why I’m writing to ask you to renew your annual membership in the Yiddish Book Center for 2019. The cost remains $54 (3 x “chai”) and includes an annual subscription to Pakn Treger, our English-language magazine. Given how much we’ve accomplished this past year—and the magnitude of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead—I’m hoping you’ll consider increasing your annual support: 

  • For a tax-deductible donation of $100 or more, we’ll send you Radiant Jargon, our own beautifully printed, bilingual edition of six poems in praise of Yiddish, ranging from a folk ditty used to teach the alef-beys to the latest Bessarabian Yiddish YouTube sensation;
  • For $150, we’ll send you Radiant Jargon plus a pass that entitles you to a year of unlimited free admission at Jewish museums across the country;
  • For $360 or more, we’ll enroll you in our President’s Circle and send you the poetry booklet plus our latest translation: Seeds in the Desert by Mendl Mann. Translated by Heather Valencia of Stirling, Scotland, its forty short stories move from Israel in the 1950s to the Soviet Union immediately after the Holocaust and back further still, to the author’s childhood in Poland. (The book is so new it will take six to eight weeks to get to you, but I promise it will be worth the wait.)
  • For a tax-deductible contribution of $1,000 or more, we’ll proudly acknowledge you as one of our Brilyantn (Jewels). You’ll receive Pakn Treger, the poems, Seeds in the Desert, and we’ll honor you in Kvel. Plus, next time you’re in Amherst, I’ll be honored to welcome you in person, introduce you to some of our inspiring students and staff, and take you on a behind-the-scenes tour so you can shep nakhes over everything you’ve made possible.

However much you can afford, I want to assure you that your membership counts. For all our growth, we remain a practical, hard-working, down-to-earth organization facing a huge responsibility, and we’re counting on your membership this year as never before. Please—won’t you stand by us by renewing your membership right now, while it’s still on your mind?

A hartsikn dank (With heartfelt thanks),

Aaron Lansky