Great Shakes!

Help us replace our roof so that we can protect all of the priceless Yiddish books, art, and recordings in our keeping

Great shakes! The Yiddish Book Center needs a new roof, the price is $749,000, we’ve just secured a leadership gift of $500,000, and I’m turning to you and other friends to raise the rest. 

Why a new roof? Because the cedar-shake roof on our original building, built in 1996, has begun to leak. If you’ve been to the Center lately, you may have noticed the telltale signs: the checkerboard of replacement shingles, the stack of yellow plastic buckets, or the flowered oilcloth used to cover our computers.

What makes this situation so dire, of course, are the irreplaceable treasures the roof is meant to protect: the Yiddish books you helped save, priceless art and recordings, along with exhibitions, performance spaces, and classrooms filled with more students than ever before. 


If you’re like me, you’re probably shocked at how much the new roof will cost. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about that: we solicited bids from four reputable contractors, and they all came out essentially the same. There is, however, something we can do about how long the new roof will last.

As you know, our architecturally distinctive building resembles a shtetl, a traditional Jewish town, with double rooflines covered by natural red cedar “shakes,” or shingles. Not all that long ago, red cedar shakes (as opposed to the salt-seasoned white cedar shingles seen by the seashore) could be expected to last a lot longer than 23 years. But the first-growth western red cedars from which they were hewn are mostly gone now, and the shakes on our building, cut from second-growth trees, lack the natural oils that would have preserved them. Were we to replace the current roof with new red cedar shakes, the trees would be even younger, and life expectancy shorter still.

The solution? Like the advice given to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, every roofing contractor we spoke to had just one word for us: “Plastics.” Okay, the actual word they used was “polymers,” but the meaning was the same. I was appalled. 

“Polymers?” I sputtered. “You really expect us to re-roof an authentic building with fake shakes?”

“Have you ever actually seen a polymer roof?” the roofers asked.

I hadn’t. So our building manager, Ollie Schmith, arranged for me to see one—or two, to be exact—both manufactured by DaVinci Roofscapes, an industry leader, and recently installed at two separate sites on the eastern end of Long Island.   

I phoned a friend and Center supporter with extensive experience in real estate and construction and asked him to join me. Two weeks later, on a blustery winter day, I took the ferry from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson and rendezvoused with my friend near an abandoned airstrip that had been a proving ground for naval aircraft during the Cold War. A large portion of the sandy site was now being transformed into the largest treatment center for opioid addiction on the East Coast. Eventually it would comprise eighteen buildings, all clad in natural white cedar shingles and topped with polymer roofs by DaVinci.

We started out in the construction trailer. The super, unsurprisingly, was contemptuous of the fake shakes: he preferred doing things the old-fashioned way. But the project manager was a younger man, and he was enthusiastic as he led us through the sprawling site. All around us the bang bang of nail guns could be heard as workers affixed the polymer shingles to the roofs. From fifteen feet away, they struck me as almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

“The polymer shakes have a lot going for them,” he explained. “They go on quickly, they require no maintenance, and they’re warrantied for life.” Although the technology was too new to know for sure, the projected life expectancy of polymer shakes is a minimum of 50 years—a far cry from the 20 years that new natural red cedar shakes were expected to last.

With a stiff breeze blowing off Long Island Sound, we were pretty near frozen by the time the tour ended. Still, that didn’t stop us from forging on to the second field visit of the day, to a DaVinci installation at the Splish Splash Water Park, about fifteen miles up the road. “Turn right on Spllllish Spllllash Drive,” my GPS instructed, drawing out the syllables. There is something a bit eerie about an amusement park in the off season, with its shuttered buildings, motionless rides, and empty queues. Fortunately, the polymer roof we saw here was equally persuasive. Afterward, my friend and I drove to a diner where, over steaming mugs of coffee, we compared notes and agreed that polymer was the way to go.

There was, however, still one hurdle left to clear: securing the blessing of the Yiddish Book Center’s architect, Allen Moore. I figured it wouldn’t be easy. Allen had spent four years of his life designing and overseeing the construction of the Yiddish Book Center. He drew every square inch of it with his own hand, and he had been adamant in his insistence on “honest materials.” Now 85 years old, he remained a good friend and a dauntless defender of the aesthetic integrity of the building he built.

“Are you sitting down?” I asked when Allen answered the phone.   

He was, and I hoped my nervousness didn’t show as I explained the choice between natural cedar and polymer shakes.

Allen didn’t hesitate for a second. “That’s an easy one,” he said. “The polymer is cheaper to install, it will last more than twice as long, it won’t fade, it won’t cup, it won’t rot, it won’t grow moss, it won’t need much in the way of maintenance, and it will save you a boatload of money over the next fifty years. There’s no contest, go with the plastic.”

A short time later Allen drove out to Amherst to confirm the specs. Ollie climbed a ladder and held samples against the existing roof while Allen, his keen eye as sharp as ever, chose the exact color to match the existing cedar siding. 

That done, our executive director, Susan Bronson, and I met with two especially  generous donors at a restaurant in New York. (Characteristically, both have chosen to remain anonymous.) One had misgivings about the polymer shakes, until I pulled “Exhibit A” from my briefcase: a mossy cedar shake, splintered and sere, that had blown off our roof two days before. The potential donor took one look at it and conceded that polymer made more sense. By the time lunch was over, they agreed to make a leadership gift of $500,000 in support of the new roof. 

With that commitment in hand, we were able to finalize the agreement with the roofing contractor and order the shakes, which will be manufactured to order. Installation will begin on July 15, the day after Yidstock, and take roughly three months to complete.  

Between now and then, we still need to raise the remaining $249,000, and that’s why I’m turning to you and other longtime members and friends. I can’t pretend a new roof is the sexiest appeal I’ve ever made, but given the incalculable value of the treasures it will protect, it may well be the most important.

Will you help us? 

For a tax-deductible contribution of $5,000 or more, we’ll add your name to a commemorative plaque near the building’s entrance.

For $360 or more, we’ll list your name in an upcoming issue of Kvel, our donor newsletter. 

What matters most is that you donate. Whatever you can afford, I promise it will make a difference.

Installation is set to begin on July 15. Please, won’t you make your most generous, tax-deductible contribution today, while it’s still on your mind?

Mit a hartsikn dank,

Aaron Lansky

P.S. If, in a mazldiker sho, in the fortuitous event we raise more than the roof costs, we’ll use any additional funds for building maintenance, book preservation, and education.  Please, won’t you make your tax-deductible contribution right now, before you forget? A sheynem dank—my personal thanks!