Help Us Unearth Hidden Gems of Yiddish Literature

A letter from David Mazower, Bibliographer and Editorial Director

Shalom aleykhem. My name is David Mazower and I joined the Yiddish Book Center recently as its editorial director and bibliographer. I also co-edit our magazine, Pakn Treger, together with Aaron. He’s out of the country at the moment working on an exciting new book, and we both thought it would be a good opportunity for me to introduce myself, to share my passion for the books, and to ask for your help in continuing our vital efforts to rescue, catalogue, preserve, and safeguard Yiddish culture.

In September it will be a year since I left my job as a BBC news editor to move to the US and join the Center. To me it seemed an obvious move, but I’ve realized it doesn’t always seem so to others. It usually starts to make sense, however, when I tell my story. 

Yiddish has been a key part of my identity for as long as I can remember. I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories about her father, the celebrated Yiddish writer Sholem Asch. A dramatic and emotional personality, Asch stormed the heights of European culture as a young playwright. My grandmother led a charmed childhood in Warsaw, Paris, and then New York. Decades later in London, her apartment lovingly recreated those worlds. Asch’s portrait hung above the sofa, his pewter inkwells stood on his old writing table, and his books filled the shelves. I loved to sit with her as she recalled ski trips with the Chagalls and car journeys with her father through the remote Polish countryside as he researched his novels.

Later, I became close friends with the last professional Yiddish actors in London. I learned Yiddish from them, played piano for their shows, and was inspired by their songs and sketches to start writing about Yiddish theater and popular culture. Their world was totally different from the cosmopolitan one Asch moved in, but equally fascinating.

I fell in love with the Yiddish Book Center the first time I stepped through its doors. On its bookshelves, the entirety of Yiddish culture suddenly appeared whole. All the different Yiddish worlds mingled, just as they did on the streets of Odessa, Vilna, and New York. The building and the entire organization radiated a clear and simple message—this rich and neglected culture has many profound and surprising things to teach us. Over the years, I visited often, met the staff, got to know Aaron, bought armfuls of books, and started writing for Pakn Treger, a magazine whose every issue I treasured.

I felt I knew the scope of the Center’s activities pretty well, but since joining the staff I’ve come to understand what you have made possible. I’m astonished at the volume of Yiddish books that still arrive at our door—well over a thousand each month. Every donation is heartfelt—these books speak of loved ones and lost worlds. I’m also astounded by the demand for these books. Recent customers have included: a Brooklyn Hasid; a railway-man in northern England; children and grandchildren of Yiddish writers and illustrators; teachers and translators of Yiddish; Polish, Israeli, and American academics; people researching their family history; reading circles across the US; and students from our various programs. 

For all of these people, our books are a bridge to a lost past. The collection has an endless capacity to amaze, to enchant, to transform our own lives and our appreciation of the broader Jewish story.

I fell in love with the Yiddish Book Center the first time I stepped through its doors. On its bookshelves, the entirety of Yiddish culture suddenly appeared whole.

Let me tell you about one unique discovery that Aaron wanted me to share with you. Recently, I was sifting through some books in the vault. From inside a plastic sleeve, a colorful abstract design glowed against a sandy background. Turning the torn and brittle pages, I found the title—Himlen in opgrunt (Heavens in the Abyss)—and the name of the artist: Ester Karp. Published in Lodz in 1921, it was a glorious fusion of words and images. Karp’s pictures flickered and danced, alternating with carpet pages of deep blue calligraphy for the text. I had never heard of her, nor the author—an expressionist poet named Chaim Krol.

Intrigued by this mysterious rarity, I began to research Ester Karp and Yiddish culture in Lodz. Soon the story became even more remarkable. Our book turns out to be one of three stunningly beautiful art books illustrated in linocut and watercolor by a trio of young Jewish women artists fresh out of art school. Their names—Ida Broyner, Ester Karp, and Dina Matus—are all but unknown. But the books they created amid the turmoil of newly-independent Poland are utterly extraordinary. The poems are apocalyptic, the artwork dreamlike and fantastical, and the colors radiant as enamel. 

How is it that these masterpieces are not better known? One reason is that they are extremely rare. Each book was limited to 200 copies, and very few have survived. Another reason has to do with the women’s fate. Dina Matus died in the Lodz ghetto and Ida Broyner survived the war in hiding, but died soon afterwards, severely weakened; only Ester Karp lived into old age. Almost all the rich body of work they created in the 1920s and 30s has disappeared. And there’s a third reason: these artists were part of a group of avant-garde writers and artists known as Yung Yidish (Young Yiddish) whose leading figures were all men. The role of women in the group has hardly been researched. 

So the legacy of these books is even more important. Not only are they a poignant memorial to three bold and brilliant Jewish women artists, they also shift our understanding of a crucial period of Jewish modernism. Taken as a whole, the set forms one of the great unknown treasures of modern Jewish culture. And had it not been for supporters like you, these books would have never been rescued, preserved, or safeguarded.

I want to give you another example of what a difference you have made: a remarkable find unearthed a few months ago by my colleague Elissa Sperling. One of the rarest books in the Center’s collection, published around 1910, it contains five stories featuring a forgotten, Jewish superhero. A master detective named Max Spitzkopf; his moniker is “the Viennese Sherlock Holmes.”

Spitzkopf’s creator was a dapper Viennese intellectual named Jonas Kreppel. A prolific author in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish and German, Kreppel was also a one-man Jewish pulp fiction industry, turning out dozens of stories for young Jewish adults. One of his early fans was Isaac Bashevis Singer.  The famous author was obsessed by the Spitzkopf stories as a boy and recalled saving up his coins to buy each story individually. 

If you’ve seen the latest Pakn Treger, you might have read our investigation of the Spitzkopf phenomenon. It’s a deep dive into the lost world of small town Jewish Galicia more than a century ago. With his Viennese Sherlock Holmes, Kreppel found the perfect vehicle to explore issues of Jewish powerlessness at a time of rising anti-Semitism. The stories crackle with tensions between Jews and Christians, ideas of Jewish peoplehood, and a dawning national consciousness. 

Spitzkopf’s aquiline features stare out from the tattered cover of our copy, which has clearly been extremely well used. The cheap pamphlets were so popular that most of them were read to shreds, and hardly any copies survived. That’s true of so much popular Yiddish fiction. As a result, we have only a limited understanding of the reading habits of previous generations or the writers who supplied them with thrillers, adventure stories, and tales of love and romance.

Both these discoveries have slipped through the cracks of memory and scholarship. Who knew that young Jewish women in Lodz created some of the most beautiful of all modern art books? Or that Yiddish-speaking kids in Poland were devouring stories of a Jewish detective who comes to the aid of his people? These lost treasures challenge our sense of the Jewish past and make it relevant and usable for us today.

That’s also true of my third extraordinary find—a piece of music that emerged as we sorted through thousands of Yiddish music sheets over the past few months. Amid a huge trove of Yiddish theater, cantorial and folksong sheets, we suddenly came across one with a banner of Yiddish letters announcing, “Schubert’s Famous Serenade.” One of the composer’s best-known songs, it’s a hauntingly beautiful melody, performed by every great lieder singer. 

What caught my eye on our version was a small line of type way down the cover. This read: Idish iberzetsung fun m. l. halpern (Yiddish translation by M. L. Halpern). Moyshe-Leyb Halpern was a virtuoso Yiddish poet whose early death in 1932 stunned the Yiddish literary world. As you would expect, his translation from the German is a masterclass in Yiddish lyricism.

The original opening line—Leise flehen meine lider (Softly my songs plead with you)—is transformed by Halpern to Shtile shvebn mayne tfiles (Softly my prayers float to you). It’s a glorious reworking, every bit as tender and even more sensuously alliterative than the original. And with an added transgressive twist: the choice of the Hebrew word tfiles (prayers) in place of lider (songs). That switch makes Halpern’s version instantly and authentically Jewish. You can feel (and hear) Moyshe-Leyb relishing the challenge of pitting his wits against the German original and claiming this classic song for modern Yiddish culture. 

Halpern’s lyrics and Schubert’s music are a magical combination. They deserve to be heard in concert halls all over the world. And yet, this obscure piece of sheet music has languished forgotten for decades. I checked with some friends of mine—Jewish singers and musicologists—and none knew anything about it, but all wanted to know more. Now, thanks to you, this music will gain a new lease on life and be enjoyed by audiences around the world.

All of these treasures—the Lodz artbook, the Spitzkopf stories, and Halpern’s lyrics—amaze and intrigue us. They show us that Yiddish writers and creative artists engaged with the modern world in ways that are richer and more varied than we ever knew.

Discoveries like this also excite today’s creators of Jewish culture, encouraging them to draw on the past in new and unpredictable ways. Our collections are at the heart of this process of connection and transformation for the hundreds of students who participate in our education programs each year, inspiring new creativity and engagement with Jewish culture. It’s your support that makes it possible today for new generations to encounter these treasures.

And it is only with your continued help that we can unearth many more such finds and make them accessible. The books and music still need to be sorted, catalogued, preserved, translated, researched and shared. These core tasks make everything else possible: sparking curiosity in a new generation, infusing new creativity into modern Jewish culture, connecting us to the past, and making sense of our history.

If you share our excitement at these discoveries, help us find more of them. Your tax-deductible contribution of $5,000 will support the work of a Fellow who will sift through the boxes of unsorted books and journals and help identify forgotten treasures. A gift of $1,000 will underwrite an international shipment so we can recover books from Australia, Europe, South America, and other locations around the world where Yiddish once thrived. For $750 you can fund translations of new stories and poems for digital publication. A gift of $500 will pay for essential repair and conservation work on some of our fragile rare books.

Whatever you can afford, your help matters! Should we raise more funds than required for any of these specific activities, additional proceeds will support related book collection and preservation projects.

Over the past nine months, I’ve come to realize that my new job at the Center isn’t so different from my old one in journalism. The challenge in both cases is to find powerful stories that resonate, and to find ways to communicate them. The difference is that the stories we’re dealing with at the Center are personal. They are about who we are, what connects us to our past—our families, our communities, and our culture—and the values that shape our future. 

And so I am writing, as Aaron has done many times, to ask for your help in continuing the Yiddish Book Center’s vital efforts to rescue, preserve, and safeguard Yiddish culture. With your generous support, we can discover more of the hidden gems in our collection, unlock their secrets, and share these treasures with readers the world over.

If my great grandfather Sholem Asch could have imagined this remarkable effort to save Yiddish books and bring Yiddish literature and culture to new readers around the world, I am certain he would thank you, as I do, fun tifn hartsn—from the bottom of my heart—for making it all possible. Please, won't you make your tax-deductible gift today, while it's still on your mind?

 A hartsikn dank—my heartfelt thanks,

David Mazower
Bibliographer and Editorial Director
Yiddish Book Center