Help us Meet the Match

A letter from Aaron Lansky to Yiddish Book Center Members

Sholem-aleykhem. I’m writing to ask you to help us match a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that will open up our growing collection of oral history interviews and bring remarkable Jewish stories to homes and classrooms around the world.

As you know, since 2010 we’ve been collecting not just Jews’ books but their personal stories as well. Christa Whitney, the director of our Wexler Oral History Project, has filmed hundreds of interviews with Yiddish writers and their descendants, artists, performers, scholars, and everyday Jews. Funny, poignant, and often deeply stirring, these stories elucidate a wide range of Jewish experience, from the shtetlekh of Eastern Europe to the tenements and Yiddish literary cafés of New York to the frontiers of Jewish culture today.

Which is why interest in these stories is skyrocketing. As of this writing, full-length interviews have been downloaded from our website 360,976 times, and excerpts on YouTube have been viewed almost 2.5 million times! The interviews are popping up on news sites (including the front page of the digital edition of the New York Times), in documentary films, in books and scholarly papers, and in high school and college classrooms, where they add color and nuance to more traditional historical narratives.

For almost two decades, you’ve helped us to digitize Yiddish books and make them available to all. Now we’re ready to do the same for Jews’ stories: to use cutting-edge technology and an extraordinary grant from the federal government to make our growing collection of interviews searchable and accessible to every computer user on the planet.

Before I tell you how we intend to work that magic, I first want to explain why. Since it would take the better part of a year to watch all the interviews we’ve recorded, I’ve chosen some highlights that will serve as a forshpayz, a preview of what else lies in store.

The lesson of most of the stories we collect is that history is a lot closer than we imagine. Take, for example, Adina Gordon’s tale of a pogrom in 1909, when her mother and grandparents hid in their cellar while their house was pillaged above their heads:

When the family finally came up from the basement, Papa started yelling, ‘Ganovim, ganovim! They’ve stolen everything!’

My bubbe was so distraught she went to the local priest and demanded, ‘How could you let the people do this?’ And he said, ‘It was the Cossacks.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘it was the Polish peasants who came after the Cossacks. I heard them, I was in the cellar.’

That Sunday the priest got up in church and made a sermon. Would you believe it? Bubbe’s silver candle sticks came back to her, and her linens too. I inherited those candlesticks. When my daughter was to marry, I went to a silver restorer. They were dented and bent. He repaired them, and I gave them to my daughter, Miriam. She has them to this day. 

We’re constantly amazed by how many older Jews implore us to “come quick with the camera” so they can tell their stories before it’s too late. Nonagenarians who can’t remember what they ate for breakfast can describe the world of their childhood in minute detail. When Christa was in Australia last year, she interviewed Abram Goldberg, a native Yiddish-speaker with vivid memories of life in pre-War Łódź, the manufacturing center immortalized in I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi:

In 1936, they started building modern sewers in Łódź. Before that, what we had were ‘latrines.’ You got used to the smoke and the smell. The poverty was beyond description. A lot of Jews lived in cellars rooms with sand floors…. We drank rainwater that came down the drainpipes. Tuberculosis was rampant. On every floor there were Polish placards warning residents not to spit on the floors, because of the risk of tuberculosis. That’s what the poverty was like. I saw it.

Immigration is a powerful thread in many of the interviews we capture, and by all accounts leaving was rarely easy. Sara Tepper, who now lives in California, wept as she recalled the day she left for America. “The entire shtetl turned out to say goodbye. All the people were clapping and laughing. Only my grandmother cried; she ran after the wagon until she could run no more. I remember that, till she could run no more. We never saw her again.”

Some stories of displacement make us smile. Noami Leaf Halpern, a 103-year-old who leads a weekly Yiddish vinkl (discussion group) in Woodstock, New York, was born in Jerusalem and moved as a young girl to a tenement in New York. The first time her mother made gefilte fish in her new home she placed it inside what she thought was an empty cabinet. “When it came time to eat, she opened the closet door and there was nothing there, no shelves, nothing. It was a dumbwaiter! We lost our entire Shabbos dinner, someone else had snagged our fish.”

Someday, I hope, someone will write a biography of Fyvush Finkel, the Yiddish actor who ended up a household name for his roles in the television program Picket Fences and the film A Serious Man. It’s unlikely, however, that anyone will ever tell Fyvush’s story as well as he told it himself, in a prekhtikn un geshmakn (eloquent and pungent) Yiddish, his double chin shaking each time he laughed (which was often):

At 18 or 19 years old, I was sitting in the Café Royal when a comic actor named Peysekhke Burstein came over. He had a role to fill that no one else wanted because he was paying so little. Someone told him, ‘Go talk to Fyvush. Fyvush needs the money.’ Back then I was very skinny and tall. I put on white socks and a jacket that was too small for me, and when I walked out on the stage the audience laughed for five minutes straight. I made them laugh. Oh, did they laugh! I couldn’t believe it when I looked in the newspapers: after every show they mentioned me. Overnight! And my God, it turned into a career! A career! I made a living and everything!

There are so many stories I’d like to share—like the one Israel Zamir, the son of Isaac Bashevis Singer, told us about the time he accompanied his father to the Nobel Prize ceremony and was almost arrested in the bedroom of the King and Queen of Sweden. But that will have to wait for another letter. Because for now the clock is still ticking, and we still have a huge job ahead of us: not only to film thousands of additional stories, but to share them with the world. Which is why I am writing to you today—to ask you to help us implement an ambitious, three-year plan to make our interviews fully searchable and accessible to all.

Our plan is as simple as it is audacious. In the first phase, the Audio Transcription Center in Boston will transcribe every word of most of our English interviews (the Yiddish will follow later). Once the first-pass transcriptions are complete, our own staff members will proof each transcript, transliterate and translate the Yiddish and Hebrew words, and prepare detailed indices of keywords and subjects. That will make the interviews text-searchable: type a name, place or keyword on our website and, in a matter of seconds you’ll get a full list of every instance in which that term appears.

Then comes the good part. In the second phase of the project, our staff members will use state-of-the-art software to link individual words to the time code of the actual video in which they appear. Click on one of your search results and plutsim, just like that, the video itself will appear on your screen, queued to within 10 seconds of the exact spot where the word was spoken! Together with the search functions we’re developing for Yiddish books, this capability will revolutionize Jewish research for teachers, students, genealogists, historians, and everyone else interested in a deeper understanding of Yiddish and modern Jewish culture.

It’s a tribute to the ingenuity and scholarly significance of our plan that the National Endowment for the Humanities has committed $270,000 to support it. Now it’s up to us to match that support with an additional $270,000 of our own. We’ve already raised $150,000 toward that goal, and we have $120,000 to go.  

That’s where I’m hoping you’ll come in. Technological innovation and government support have given us an unprecedented opportunity to preserve and share a crucial chapter in the collective memory of the Jewish people. But we can’t proceed without your help.

A tax-deductible contribution of $5,000 will allow us to transcribe and edit 24 hours of interviews. $720 will pay a week’s wages for a trained technician. $360 will allow us to sync 368,145 words and time codes. And any funds raised in excess of the goal will be used to underwrite ongoing field interviews and processing. Whatever you can afford, your help will make a difference.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has shown its faith in us; now it’s up to us to show that we believe in ourselves. Please, won’t you make your generous, tax-deductible contribution today?

Mit a hartsikn dank—with heartfelt thanks,

Aaron Lansky

P.S. You can save time and postage by making your gift online, at Together, we have a now-or-never chance to save the stories of our parents and grandparents and share them with our children, our grandchildren, and all generations to come. Please, won’t you do your part by making your tax-deductible contribution now, while it’s still on your mind? A sheynem dank—my personal thanks.