Help us Bring Yiddish Cultural Programming to Local Communities

Your contribution will bring Yiddish programming to communities across the country at a time when cultural content and historical memory have never been needed more.

I’m writing today to ask you to help us launch an exciting initiative to bring Yiddish cultural programming to communities around the country, at a time when access to our own history and culture is more pressing than ever before.

But first a quick update. As you might imagine, I was blown away when I saw coverage of my pending retirement on the front page of the New York Times—and even more astonished when mazel-tovs poured in from what seemed like every person I’d met since founding the Yiddish Book Center 44 years before. Of course, I won’t actually be stepping down as president until June 2025, and I’ve agreed to work part-time for two more years after that as “senior advisor” to my successor, Susan Bronson. I’ve worked closely with Susan for fifteen eventful years. She has played a central role in bringing us to where we are today, and I have every confidence that the Center will remain in good hands.

As for me, I have no intention of resting on my laurels during my final 14 months on the job. Gants farkert—to the contrary—I intend to sprint to the finish line by sharing Yiddish culture with more people than ever before, at a time when it’s never been needed more. That’s why I’m turning to you now, to ask for your help.

In the article announcing my retirement, the New York Times described the Yiddish Book Center as “one of the nation’s leading Jewish cultural institutions.” That’s high praise for a start-up organization like ours, and the credit goes to you and countless others who gave so much to make the Center the bright light it is today. Our work, however, is still far from over. Despite all our efforts over the past four decades most Jews have only a superficial understanding of what Yiddish is and why it matters. I personally have crisscrossed the continent and given more talks than I can count, and in recent years Susan and other members of our staff have been on the road as well. But we can’t be everywhere. The explosive growth of our online programs since the start of the pandemic has been impressive, but it hasn’t been enough to ensure that Yiddish culture finds its place in Jewish schools, synagogues, museums, and the other communal spaces where Jews gather and learn. Our new plan, therefore, is not just to strengthen our existing programming but to leverage our efforts by training people across the country who can help us bring Yiddish and all it represents to their own communities.

We won’t be starting from scratch. Ten years ago, you helped us launch a series of educational programs to introduce Jewish day school teachers, rabbis, cantors, and other Jewish leaders to Yiddish and modern Jewish literature that few had encountered before. They were wide-eyed at what they learned, and their enthusiasm convinced us that the time was ripe for us to do more. Our latest plan, therefore, is to partner with venues where people are already coming together to discuss Jewish topics—synagogues, havurot, community centers, museums, colleges, schools, and more—to help them include Yiddish literature and culture, and the story of who Jews are as a people, into their existing educational programs.

You and the many others who have supported us over the years don’t need to be convinced that Yiddish matters. It was, after all, the spoken language of three-quarters of the world’s Jews for a thousand years, and in the modern period it gave rise to an unprecedented outpouring of literary creativity. Knowledge of modern Yiddish literature is essential for a complete understanding of Jewish identity, and the books we’ve saved are even more important now, when people are polarized, antisemitism is on the rise, and we need to know ourselves lest we leave it to others to define us.

For years, people have been asking us to ‘take the show on the road’ and bring the content of Yiddish culture to their own communities. We’re now prepared to do just that. We’ll ask local institutions to identify an educator, curator, librarian, or staff member to participate in a 12-month training program that will give them the knowledge and tools they need to develop local Yiddish cultural programming. The first step will be an intensive, three-day introduction in Amherst, where participants can explore the Center’s collections and our new core exhibition, Yiddish: A Global Culture. They’ll also learn about Yiddish literature, culture, and modern Jewish history through lectures and workshops with our academic staff and visiting scholars; and discuss what they’ve learned with faculty and one another. Throughout it all the emphasis will be on takhles (pragmatism): participants will discuss ways to create programs, courses, family events, and more for their constituencies back home.

Following the workshop, participants will return to their own communities and get to work, with ongoing mentorship via Zoom. Participants will also take part in monthly evaluation and professional development with their peers to strengthen their connections to the Center and one another.

A key focus of the training will be guidance on how to access the vast storehouse of content that the Yiddish Book Center has to offer and how to best share that content within their own communities. Possibilities might include a lecture series, a Yiddish music festival, a film series, lively programs for children and families, book groups, or any combination. A newly developed “virtual field trip” will make the Center come alive for students who can’t (yet) visit us in person.

In our experience imagination and ingenuity know no bounds, and it’s therefore impossible to predict all the programs our local organizers will come up with. A synagogue, for example, might offer a Yiddish Family Day with playful Yiddish language lessons for children and their parents, a story time with readings of Yiddish folk tales, a concert featuring Yiddish, Sephardic, and other Jewish music, or a book group where adults can discover and discuss the latest translations from White Goat Press. Another shul may choose to mark Yom Hashoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—by choosing powerful selections from Yiddish Holocaust literature or by screening our award-winning film Ver Vet Vlaybn? (Who Will Remain?), about the partisan-poet Avrom Sutzkever, followed by a talkback with the filmmakers or a discussion of one or more of Sutzkever’s books in English translation.

The possibilities don’t stop there. Our introductory programs will inevitably open the door to a deeper, more long-term exploration of Yiddish and modern Jewish literature drawing from the Yiddish Book Center’s staff, books, and online resources.

With your support we’ll get started now, with a pilot program for ten communities. In year two we’ll expand that number to 30 local communities and encourage cooperation and cross-fertilization by connecting the first-year cohort with the second. If successful, this initiative has the potential to reach thousands, to broaden Jewish discourse, and to restore Yiddish literature to its rightful place in the modern Jewish canon.

The start-up cost for the first two years of this program is $200,000. Our friends Debbie Mitzner and Wayne Miller have committed a challenge of $75,000 in memory of Iris Mitzner, provided you and other members contribute the additional $125,000.

As I approach my retirement, I think of all the times I’ve written to you over the years, and how often and generously you’ve answered the call. Given the perniciousness of antisemitism—and the increasing number of Jews who need to learn more about their own history and culture in order to respond—I’m hoping that you’ll stand with us again now. It was Max Weinreich who predicted that Yiddish would outwit history (a prediction that supplied the title for my own book). Time and again we’ve seen how Yiddish can light a fire, encourage people to learn more, and inspire a lifetime of engagement in Jewish life. The plan I’ve described here feels every bit as urgent, and the need for your support every bit as compelling. 

Will you do your part? 

  • For a tax-deductible contribution of $25,000 you can support the development of our Virtual Field Trip, which will make the Yiddish Book Center come alive for communities far and wide.
  • $10,000 will underwrite the participation of one synagogue, community center, museum, or other community organization for an entire year.
  • $5,000 will cover the cover the cost of one community educator at our three-day, onsite training.
  • $1,000 will provide funding for Yiddish-related speakers, concerts, films, and other programs in locations around the country.
  • $360 will provide access to a curated selection of resources from our collection, including recorded lectures, translations, oral histories, and state-of-the-art materials for Yiddish-language learning.

Whatever you can afford, I want to assure you that your contribution will bring us that much closer to matching Debbie Mitzner and Wayne Miller’s challenge and to advancing substantive knowledge of Yiddish culture at a time when we’ve never needed it more.

Mit a hartsikn dank (With heartfelt thanks),

Aaron Lansky