Help us build on lessons learned during the pandemic to expand virtual programs featuring some of the foremost scholars and artists of our generation.
Sholem-aleykhem—I hope this letter finds you well. I’m writing to ask you to help us build on lessons learned during the pandemic that will allow us to bring Yiddish and modern Jewish culture to more people in more places than we ever dreamed possible.
As you know, the Yiddish Book Center made it through the worst of the pandemic thanks to our longstanding commitment to innovation and change. By the time COVID forced us to close our doors in March 2020, almost every title in our collection was already online, and we were able to provide uninterrupted access to an unprecedented number of readers around the world.
Similar foresight kept our educational programs alive. We recast our major residential programs online, including offerings for high school, college and graduate students, translators, teachers, and rabbis and synagogue educators.
Unable to travel, we figured out how to record oral history interviews remotely. We expanded The Shmooze, our longstanding podcast series, and introduced The Weekly Reader to showcase treasures from our collection for those who couldn’t get here to see them in person.
Perhaps our greatest breakthrough, though, was with public programs: lectures, performances, book clubs, film screenings, and more. Before the pandemic, when our programs were still in person, we were sometimes hard-pressed to attract a minyan; now, on Zoom and Facebook, we routinely attract three hundred to three thousand viewers a week.
How do we account for the meteoric increase? Clearly those of us who were stuck at home had more time to watch. I believe, however, that there was also a deeper reason: confronted by a daily torrent of bad news, many of us found that Yiddish, a culture born of peril and adversity, spoke to us more powerfully than before.
Our most popular programs were those that touched in some way on unfolding events. They included a radio drama of a newly translated Sholem Asch play about survival amid destruction; “The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902”; “Yiddish in a Time of National Reckoning”; “The Times They Were A’Changin’: Jewish Protest Singers of the 1960s”; and others that presaged our own renewed yearning for civil rights and social justice.
There were, of course, also more lighthearted programs, like “Crack, Bam, Dot: Mah Jongg and Its Jewish-American Roots” with Melissa Martens Yaverbaum and “Cooking in Yiddish: Highlights from the Yiddish Book Center Collection” with the inestimable Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. They allowed us to escape, at least for a moment, from the drumbeat of despair.
Even Yidstock, our annual Festival of New Yiddish Music, went virtual this past summer. True, we had to curtail it from four days to ninety minutes, and we had to forgo the dancing in the aisles and the falafel and ice cream carts outside. But the Yiddish Book Center is nothing if not optimistic, and here too we found a silver lining to refute the maxim of performer Eleanor Reissa’s Yiddish-speaking mother, that “every silver lining has its cloud.” Instead of packing 220 people into our Kligerman-Greenspun Performance Hall, we welcomed 1,500 online! From apartments in New York, London, Paris, and Berlin and a cabin in Vermont, the performances were stirring, intimate, and achingly authentic.
I won’t claim that remote programs are better than face-to-face encounters. We reopened our building to visitors in June, with masks and limited hours, and we’re gradually easing our way back to some in-person programs in our indoor spaces. With vaccinations lagging and variants surging, however, it’s anyone’s guess when we’ll be able to reopen in full.
In the meantime, we’re not standing still, nor are we ignoring the hard-won lessons of the past year and a half. Yiddish, after all, was the spoken language of three quarters of the world’s Jews for a thousand years, and it gave rise to a vast modern literature. For years members like you who couldn’t always travel to Amherst clamored for us to bring our programs to you, but it took a global pandemic for us finally to find a way to give you what you were looking for, through virtual programs streamed to your home.
We fervently hope we can resume most of our in-person programs over the coming year. But even as we do so, we have no intention of turning our backs on the thousands of people who joined us remotely over the course of the pandemic. Thanks to new technology, it’s no longer a matter of “either/or.” Gants farkert, to the contrary, we’re adopting a hybrid model that will allow you to attend events like YiddishSchool and weekend courses in person, or if it’s more convenient, to tune in and enjoy them virtually at home.
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of talent to bring you. Thanks to your support, the field of Yiddish studies is booming. In fact, many of our own 1,400 alumni have gone on to distinguish themselves as writers, filmmakers, theatrical directors, musicians, dancers, teachers, and scholars. Because geography poses no limitation online, we can enlist the greatest speakers and performers anywhere in the world and stream them live into your living room.
Many organizations discovered the power of online learning during the pandemic, and they share our commitment to continue virtual and hybrid programs after it’s over. In order to cut costs and expand audiences, we’ve already forged partnerships with the Carnegie Hall Festival of Hope, the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, KlezKanada, the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the Bronx Historical Society, and public libraries and museums across the continent. We expect many others to join us in the years ahead.
But first we need to put the pieces in place at our end that will make expanded online and hybrid programs possible. That means adding professional lighting to our classrooms and performance halls, installing multiple cameras, outfitting a control booth where we can mix different camera angles in real time, and upgrading our wireless and broadband capability so we can reliably upload content to the web.
There’s more. Thanks to your prescience we’ve already invested in a cutting-edge website where our diverse collections of books, audio recordings, and oral histories are searchable and downloadable for free by anyone, anywhere. Now we want to incorporate recordings of our classes and programs into that system, so you’ll have free, 24-hour-a-day access to hundreds and eventually thousands of talks and performances delivered by some of the foremost scholars and artists of our generation.
Can the Yiddish Book Center afford to take on a new initiative at an unsettled time? I believe we can’t afford not to. The pandemic is proving to be a moment of inflection; the world is shifting on its axis, and nothing will be quite the same again. For forty-two years we’ve worked with might and main to rescue a literature that others had abandoned. Now we have a chance to share the context and content of those books with a world that’s rarely needed or wanted them more, and we can’t meet the challenge without your support.
Fortunately, we’re starting from a position of strength. Despite the pandemic we balanced our budget this past year, exactly as you helped us do for each of the previous 25 years. Now we need your help to bring Yiddish learning and culture to more people than ever, both now and in the future.
We estimate the cost of expanding our in-person, virtual, and hybrid programs at $150,000. An anonymous donor has made a generous $50,000 challenge to jump-start this appeal: if you and other members contribute a total of $100,000, the donor will contribute the final $50,000 to bring us across the finish line.
A one-time, tax-deductible commitment of $25,000 will cover the cost of outfitting a control room where multiple inputs can be reviewed, combined, and streamed to audiences everywhere;
$5,000 will support a hybrid version of one of our exciting weekend programs, featuring a leading scholar in Yiddish literature or modern Jewish culture;
$1,000 will equip a classroom with professional recording equipment and interactive technology so remote learners can join classes from anywhere in the world;
$500 will help sponsor a prominent speaker at an upcoming virtual or hybrid event.
Of course, whatever you can afford will make a difference—and will be matched 1:2 by our anonymous donor.
You’ve been remarkably generous throughout the pandemic, and I wouldn’t turn to you again now if we didn’t have a compelling vision and a practical plan to bring Yiddish culture to more people than we ever dreamt of reaching before. Please, won’t you do your part by sending your most generous, tax-deductible contribution today, while it’s still on your mind?
A hartsikn dank—My heartfelt thanks,