Help Us Meet the Challenge and Introduce High School Students to Great Jewish Literature
A letter from Aaron Lansky
I’m writing to ask you to help us bring 72 talented high school students to the Yiddish Book Center this summer for Great Jewish Books, a one-of-a-kind opportunity to read, discuss, and fall in love with Yiddish and other modern Jewish literature that few younger Jews have ever encountered before. Thanks to a generous challenge grant, every dollar you give us will count twice, matched dollar-for-dollar by a special friend.
The seeds of Great Jewish Books were planted 15 years ago in a small city in California, when the principal of a local Jewish high school tracked me down in my hotel room and invited me to join him and three of his teachers for an “urgent, confidential dinner” in advance of my 8 p.m. lecture. To be honest, I would have preferred a nap, but the principal was insistent. He picked me up and drove me to an out-of-the-way restaurant, where the teachers were waiting for us at a dark table in the corner.
“We need your help,” the principal began. I don’t recall his exact words, but the gist was that their Jewish day school had become a parochial school. Their students were learning about Judaism but only tangentially about Jews; they studied Hebrew but never Yiddish, Ladino, or other Jewish languages; they read Torah and other ancient texts but not more modern Jewish books, which would have spoken directly to their own experience. “I’m the principal,” he said. “I want to make changes, and so do my teachers, but we don’t have a curriculum, we don’t have textbooks, and we don’t have training in modern Jewish literature. We’re hoping you can help.”
As a start-up organization, the Yiddish Book Center has always operated by triage: first things first. When the principal approached me, we were still racing around the clock to rescue Yiddish books, and we didn’t have the time or staff to develop the kind of educational resources they needed. “Ot-ot,” I said. “Not yet, but soon.”
Ot-ot took longer than I expected. After saving more books, doubling the size of our Amherst building, adding four PhD scholars to our staff, introducing YiddishSchool for adults, and expanding our Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, it was the better part of a decade before we were finally able to turn our attention to high school students.
Our first step was to approach a rabbi who helped set the curriculum for Jewish day schools and urge him to include modern Jewish literature.
“Are you kidding?” the rabbi replied. “There’s barely enough time in the day to teach Tanakh [Torah]. We don’t have room for modern Jewish books.”
“Imagine if you sent your kids to public school,” I countered, “and they said there was no time for any literature after Chaucer: no Tolstoy, Dickens, Melville, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, or George Orwell. I’m guessing that you, along with other Jewish parents, would be the first to protest. Yet that’s exactly what you’re doing by omitting modern Jewish writers.”
“Okay, okay,” the rabbi relented. “I’ll tell you what: from now on we’ll give modern Jewish literature an hour.”
“That’s it, just an hour a week?” I asked, crestfallen.
“Oh, no,” the rabbi replied without a trace of irony, “an hour a year.”
It was at that moment that Great Jewish Books was born. If Jewish schools wouldn’t bring modern Jewish literature to their students, then we’d bring their students to us.
Every summer since, brilliant high school students have come to the Yiddish Book Center to explore a mighty literature that their teachers had kept hidden from them. I wish you could be here to see the students in action. Hailing from a wide range of backgrounds, from Orthodox to secular, they share a love of reading and a palpable excitement at the prospect of spending a week of their summer vacation with like-minded peers wrestling with challenging texts and debating what it means to live as Jews in a modern world.
Our academic director, Josh Lambert, chooses readings that are as diverse as the students themselves. Favorites include “On Account of a Hat” by Sholem Aleichem, “The Story of My Dovecote” by Isaac Babel, “Brit Milah,” by the Yemeni-Israeli-Canadian writer Ayelet Tsabari, “Conversion of the Jews” by Philip Roth, and The Rabbi’s Cat, a graphic novel by the French cartoonist Joann Sfar, set in early 20th-century Tunisia and starring a wisecracking cat who gains the power of speech and demands to be given a bar mitzvah.
Our teachers are the kind I wish I’d had in high school: dynamic professors who love their subject, listen to their students, and have a gift for encouraging impassioned debate. Classroom discussions about Jewish literature and identity inevitably spill over into the dorms, where alumni of other Center programs serve as RAs. In the evenings, the students engage in face-to-face conversations with some of the finest contemporary Jewish writers, such as Adam Kirsch, Rachel Kadish, Ibrahim Miari, Jonathan Rosen, Ilan Stavans, Idra Novey, Rachel Galvin, Sana Krasikov, Elisa Albert, Tova Mirvis, and Allegra Goodman.
It’s become commonplace to describe educational programs as “life changing,” but Great Jewish Books truly is, as our students attest:
“This is literature that I really can connect to,” one student told us. “I can’t wait to delve into it further.”
“I was able to regain my love of reading,” wrote another. “When I was younger, I was a very avid reader; however, school made me not enjoy reading as much. At Great Jewish Books, I learned how to go deeper into the texts and find a completely new meaning to them. In addition, I met so many incredible people. I miss it so much already!”
“I will take away friendships, enriched knowledge, and a feeling of great contentment,” said a third. “I learned that Yiddish is not dead, Jews are amazing, and my identity is more complex than I will ever be able to understand.”
When the summer ends, our participants stay in touch with one another on Facebook, where Josh continues to recommend readings—and urges the students to continue debating them. When they get to college, most enroll in Jewish studies courses. One of our teachers, Jessica Kirzane, reports that three of the students in her Yiddish class at the University of Chicago attended Great Jewish Books first. One of them, Jessica reported, “arrived in class clutching a book of translated Yiddish poems by Celia Dropkin. He proceeded to tell the class how much ‘To a Young Poet’ means to him. The world is a better place than you ever realized, friends.”
Not surprisingly, many of our Great Jewish Books alumni return to the Yiddish Book Center as college students, to study Yiddish intensively in our Steiner Summer Yiddish Program. No fewer than nine of the applicants to this year’s Steiner Program participated in Great Jewish Books in high school.
With success like that, why am I writing to you? Because of a Yiddish expression that says, “A khesorn, di kale iz tsu sheyn—A flaw, the bride is too beautiful!” If Great Jewish Books has a problem, it’s that the program is too successful.
The first year we offered Great Jewish Books, we struggled to fill 18 spots. Now, with our alumni using social media to share their enthusiasm with their friends, we’re receiving applications from so many qualified students we’ve had to double the size of the program twice: from 18 students each summer to 36, and now to 72. In fact, demand has grown so quickly we added a monthlong Great Jewish Books Summer Program for Classroom Teachers so that we can leverage our efforts by teaching Yiddish and other modern Jewish literature to teachers who, in turn, share what they learn with hundreds and eventually thousands of students of their own.
For many students, the more they learn about modern Jewish literature the more they want to learn, and they end up applying for our summer program in Amherst. Knowing how hard other Jewish organizations work to attract students to their summer programs—and knowing how transformative a week at the Yiddish Book Center can be—we have no intention of turning them away. Which is why I’m turning to you.
The annual cost of Great Jewish Books is $200,000. For the first six years, that sum was covered by a generous start-up grant. Now, with the program in full swing, an anonymous donor has offered a $100,000 challenge grant: every dollar you contribute will be matched dollar for dollar, up to the full cost of the program. (Any funds raised beyond that will be used to support other educational programs here at the Center.)
Will you help us make the match?
Your tax-deductible contribution of $2,000, matched 1:1 by the challenge, will cover the honorarium for a visiting faculty member.
Your tax-deductible contribution of $1,380, doubled by the challenge, will underwrite the full cost of one student in this summer’s program. We’ll send you a biography of your adopted student, and you’ll receive personal updates from him or her during and after the program itself.
Whatever you can afford—$360, $180, $100, or $54—your tax-deductible contribution will be doubled by our anonymous donor—and will quite literally change the life of a remarkable student.
The number of students who have already applied to Great Jewish Books is a tribute to the enduring appeal of Yiddish and modern Jewish literature, and there’s simply no way we can turn them away. Every dollar you send us will count twice. Please, won’t you do your part by making your most generous, tax-deductible contribution today, while it’s still on your mind?
With warm wishes for a zisn (sweet) Pesach,
P.S.: At the end of last year’s program, one student wrote: “I felt inspired and excited the whole time I was at Great Jewish books! My fellow participants were amazing, and every day I was there I was awed by the fact that they were so engaged and intelligent and motivated. I felt truly that I was where I belonged.” Another 72 students belong here this summer as well, and it’s up to us to get them here. Please, with a dollar-for-dollar match on the table, won’t you do your part now, while there’s still time? A hartsikn dank—my heartfelt thanks!