A Letter to Our Members

Dear Friends,

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 tell you about our exciting plans for 2018 and beyond. 

Al-regl-akhes, in a word, the Center is booming.  When we began in 1980 Jewish leaders routinely insisted that Yiddish was dead and dismissed everything we were trying to do.  Now many are approaching us, looking for cultural content that will engage a new generation who, increasingly, want to understand who they are and where they come from. 

As a result, we are forging partnerships to bring the books and other cultural treasures you’ve helped save to more people than ever before.  I’ll start with the books themselves.  As you know, demand has already exceeded our wildest expectations, with more than 2 million downloads from our online library.  We’re now building on that success by partnering with three prestigious institutions—the National Library of Israel, the New York Public Library, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research—to pool online resources and create a Universal Yiddish Library that will place virtually every Yiddish title at the fingertips of every computer user on the planet.

The same spirit of accessibility applies to yizker bikher, the memorial volumes that are often all that remain of Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust.  Many years ago, our friends David and Sylvia Steiner helped us digitize Yizkor books from our collection and the New York Public Library.  Now, for the first time, we’ve been able to make them freely available on our website, where our powerful search tools will prove a huge boon for genealogical research.  Better still, our colleagues at the New York Public Library are developing finding aids that will link the original Yiddish and Hebrew texts to crowd-sourced English translations from JewishGen, so you can access these crucial sources even if you can’t read them in the original. 

Along with books, we continue to collect indelible Jewish stories through our Wexler Oral History Project.  Christa Whitney and her team have now recorded 776 interviews—almost a quarter of them in Yiddish.  The most recent, for example, was with the writer and cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who has thought deeply about the influence of Yiddish on American art and comedy.  Together they provide a unique chronicle of Yiddish culture and modern Jewish experience.  The interviews are proving unexpectedly popular: full-length recordings have been viewed 346,641 times, excerpts (including many with English subtitles) have been seen two million times on YouTube, and short films based on the interviews are being screened in high school and college classrooms.  Now, thanks to a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we’re transcribing the interviews, embedding time code, and using new software to link search results to the precise spot in the video itself.  While all that’s happening, Christa continues to circle the globe—her itinerary includes trips to Rio, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, London and Paris—in a race to record native Yiddish speakers before it’s too late.

Meanwhile Eitan Kensky and his team continue to mine our own basement for forgotten treasures: cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes donated over the years, along with audio and video recordings of events at the Center itself.  You’ll soon be able to log onto our website and download recordings of concerts by pioneering Jewish performers; lectures by Sam Kassow, Ruth Wisse, David Roskies, Janet Hadda, Allegra Goodman, Andre Aciman, and other all-stars; on-stage interviews, such as Kenneth Turan’s conversation with Joan Micklin Silver; and entire weekend conferences, such as “Jewish Humor” and “Jewish Stories on the Silver Screen.”

We’re also making steady progress in solving another crucial problem: the fact that 98% of Yiddish literature has yet to be translated into English!  No one alive has read all 40,000 titles of Yiddish literature (not to mention serialized novels and stories in the pages of 3,000 separate Yiddish newspapers and magazines).  Although we don’t know what masterpieces are waiting for us, we’re starting to get a better idea, thanks to the 48 translation fellows we’ve trained and mentored over the past four years.  Exactly as we hoped, they’re identifying titles that most scholars my age have barely heard of.  Of our current cohort, Ze’ev Duckworth, is using his spare time as an active-duty soldier in the IDF to translate short stories by two little known Yiddish writers from South Africa.  (His mentor, Jessica Cohen, translated David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar, winner of this year's Man-Booker Prize.)  Jessica Kirzane, an alumna of our Steiner Summer Yiddish Program who completed her PhD in Yiddish at Columbia, is translating Miryem Karlipove’s Diary of a Lonely Girl, or The Struggle Against Free Love, a feminist novel set in anarchist circles in early twentieth-century New York.  And Sean Sidky, a Steiner alumnus from Sydney, Australia, is working on Aleksander Shpiglblat’s Shadows Knock Against the Windowpanes, a 2003 collection of short stories of Jewish life in Bukovina during and after the Second World War. 

More and more of the fellow’s translations are coming into print, such as Justice by Dovid Bergelson, translated by Harriet Murav and Sasha Senderovitch; and Pioneers: The First Breach by S. Anski, translated by Rose Waldman.  Rose is now working on The Rabbi’s House, a recently rediscovered novel by Chaim Grade.  With so many talented fellows at work, you can look forward to loads of surprises—and great reads—in the year ahead.

Of course, even with 48 translation fellows on the job (and 10 more set to arrive in February), we’ve still got 39,000 titles to go.  If you’d rather not wait, you may want to learn Yiddish yourself—a task that’s about to become faster, easier and a lot more fun with the imminent release of our all-new Yiddish textbook and its multimedia supplement.  Five years in the making and thoroughly up to date in its pedagogy and design, an early version is already being beta tested in Yiddish classes at Harvard by Mindl Cohen, an alumna of our Steiner Program.  Once the finished version is ready, the director of our Yiddish Language Institute, Asya Schulman, will run workshops to introduce it to Yiddish teachers around the world, and she’ll use it in YiddishSchool, our popular Yiddish program for adults, and in online courses. 

Education is much on our minds these days.  As I write, the Jim Joseph Foundation in San Francisco has announced a major grant to the Yiddish Book Center to fund an annual, month-long program in modern Jewish literature and culture for high school teachers, and to provide them with rich online resources.  The initiative builds on Great Jewish Books, our game-changing summer program for students that’s doubled in size twice in the past three years and still can’t keep up with demand.  Two years ago, we added a weeklong workshop for teachers.  Now we’ll be able to expand that session to a full month—enough time to give teachers a solid grounding in Yiddish and modern Jewish literature, which they can then share with hundreds and eventually thousands of students of their own. 

Leverage—finding ways to reach beyond our own walls—is also the driving force behind our recent collaboration with the PJ Library, a non-profit group that distributes 250,000 free books a month to Jewish children.  Their challenge is not finding enough children who want to read the books, but rather coming up with enough compelling titles.  Many of the best writers and illustrators of kids’ books possess only cursory Jewish knowledge—which is why PJ asked us to design a weeklong workshop for them.  This past summer, 19 published writers and artists (chosen from 130 applicants) spent a week at the Center, where they were amazed to discover the breadth and depth of modern Jewish creativity, including 1,200 children’s books in Yiddish!  The program was such a success PJ has already signed us on for another year. 

One more example?  Last month, Reboot, another forward-looking Jewish organization, brought a group of young producers, directors, screenwriters, performers, authors and publishers to Amherst for a four-day introduction to Yiddish literature and culture.  Like the children’s book authors, they too were amazed by what they found.  “Before I came here I thought Yiddish was something niche,” one participant told us.  “I now realize it’s actually a key to understanding who we are.” 

After almost four decades it feels as though our time has come.  On every front, we’re doing everything in our power to respond to growing interest and demand.  I hope you’ll be able visit us in person this year to feel the excitement first hand, meet our amazing students and staff, and learn about all of our programs and activities.  For now, with space in this letter running short, I’ll limit myself to just the headlines:  Almost 500 middle and high school students, many from inner cities, came to the Center this past year to learn about Jews and the immigrant experience.  Two hundred and sixty adults participated in the pilot year of our Great Jewish Books Book Club (we expect to double that number in 2018).  Many of the 1,600 alumni of Great Jewish Books, the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture, and our fellowship programs have gone on to further study and are distinguishing themselves in the world of Yiddish and beyond.  Elana Kuczynski Arnold, a participant in last summer’s children’s literature program, was shortlisted for the National Book Award.  Ruby Elliott Zuckerman learned Yiddish in last summer’s Steiner Program and is now hosting a late-night Yiddish radio show in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Thousands of tourists came to the Center to enjoy the traveling exhibits in our Brechner Gallery.  And last July’s Yidstock: Festival of New Yiddish Music was our liveliest yet, with foot-stomping music and a mind-bending multimedia oratorio inspired by I.L. Peretz’s 1908 surrealist drama, A Night in the Old Marketplace.

In short, thanks to your support the 42 members of our staff are working harder than ever, with energy, ingenuity, optimism, and vision, and I think you’ll agree that they’ve accomplished more this past year than anyone thought possible.  As this letter makes clear, we have even bigger plans for 2018 and beyond.  But we can’t succeed without you.  Which is why I’m writing, to ask you to renew your annual membership in the Yiddish Book Center for 2018. 

The cost is still $54 (3 x “chai”), and includes your annual subscription to Pakn Treger, our English-language magazine, discounts in our on-site and online store, and invitations to member events.  But given how much we’re doing and how much is at stake, I’m hoping you’ll consider increasing your contribution this year:

  • For a tax-deductible donation of $100 or more, we’ll renew your subscription and send you an exclusive set of eight colorful postcards featuring distinctive cover images from our collection of vintage Yiddish sheet music;
  • For $150, we’ll send you the Yiddish sheet music postcards 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 welcome you as a member of our President’s Circle, include your name on the Honor Roll in the next issue of Kvel, and send you the postcards, the museum pass, and a hardcover edition of The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David Fishman.  Beautifully written, the book tells the stirring and often heart-pounding story of Yiddish writers and scholars who risked their lives to rescue Jewish books and manuscripts in Nazi-occupied Vilna.  Of all the premiums we’ve offered over the years, this book is my personal favorite!

Of course, whatever you can afford, your membership will make a difference.  We’re a scrappy organization that’s undertaken a huge responsibility, and we’re can’t continue without you.  Please—won’t you renew your membership by making your most generous, tax-deductible contribution today?

A hartsikn dank (With heartfelt thanks),


Aaron Lansky