Share Our Treasures With New Generations

A letter from Aaron Lansky

Dear Friends,

Sholem-aleykhem! I’m writing to ask you for your support helping us implement a plan that will bring the substance of Yiddish and modern Jewish culture to more people than ever before.

Before I get to the plan, I’d like to give you a quick update. This past summer was the busiest since the Center began. Audience members at our Yidstock music festival were dancing in the aisles. College students fell in love with Yiddish at our seven-week Steiner Summer Yiddish Program. High school students discovered writers they’d never read before in our Great Jewish Books program. Even teachers got in on the action, reading and discussing Great Jewish Books and figuring out how to share them with their students back home.

S’kumt aykh a yasher-koyekh—we couldn’t have come this far without you, and you have every right to take a bow. But only for a moment, because we’ve still got loads of work ahead.

The challenge is that despite our successes—classrooms full of students and Yiddish books downloaded more than a million times—we’ve hardly scratched the surface. For every young person we teach, there are thousands more who have barely heard of Yiddish or modern Jewish literature. How can they fashion vibrant Jewish lives in an up-to-the-minute world without knowledge of 150 years of modern Jewish literature, art, and ideas that came before?

Fortunately, a lot’s changed in the thirty-six years since the Yiddish Book Center began. America has learned to celebrate its diversity, which means we no longer need to pretend that Jews are just a religion and not a people. Young people in particular want to know the whole story: who they are, where they come from, what languages their families spoke, what books they read, what foods they ate, what songs they sang. For them, a visit to the Yiddish Book Center is a revelation, a chance to find literary and cultural treasures hidden from view by earlier generations.

And suddenly it’s gotten a lot easier for us to share those treasures. Before, if we wanted to reach large numbers of Jews, we had to go through federations or major organizations. Now, we can use new technology to address them directly. The potential of this change was driven home last spring with the passing of Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock on Star Trek. Leibl, as he liked to be called, was a native Yiddish speaker and the host of Jewish Short Stories, our 1995 series for National Public Radio. In a 2014 interview with our Wexler Oral History Project, he recited Hamlet’s soliloquy in perfect Yiddish and reflected on his immigrant childhood in Boston. When he died, that interview went viral: it was viewed 700,000 times on our website and many times more on the online edition of the New York Times and ABC’s nightly news.

Some may raise an eyebrow to think that the Yiddish Book Center’s first home run on social media was occasioned by Spock as opposed to, say, Sholem Aleichem (although to be fair, 200,000 people did turn out for the great Yiddish author’s funeral in 1916). But the phenomenon got us thinking. The best Yiddish novels, plays, poems, and stories explore the dilemma of how to live as Jews in a modern world—a theme that, if anything, is of even more burning interest today. Would it be possible, we wondered, to harness the same web and social media that carried the Nimoy story to bring Yiddish and modern Jewish culture to a vastly larger audience than we’ve ever managed to reach before?

The short answer is yes, but first we would need to surmount two formidable challenges, one technological, the other human.

I’ll start with the technology, which believe it or not is probably the easier of the two. I’m reminded, in fact, of a story related by a former board member who phoned his elderly, Yiddish-speaking mother after Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon in 1969.

“Ma, ma,” he exclaimed, “what did you think?”

His mother was unimpressed. “A gedule, a big deal,” she sniffed. “Mit gelt ken men altsding dergreykhn—with money you can do anything.”

Well, almost: it also takes imagination and hard work. After an extensive search, we hired a company in Brighton, England, called CogApp. Their other clients include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Library, and the Baseball Hall of Fame. We asked them to review our digital strategy and tell us what we needed to do to reach a much wider audience. They came up with an ambitious, multipronged plan that includes modernizing our website, providing one-stop access to our diverse collections (Yiddish books and periodicals, translations, audio recordings, oral histories, recorded lectures, and online courses), ramping up our presence on social media, and creating so much buzz that large numbers of people will want to reconnect with a culture that, at the moment, they barely know exists.

We’ve been working all summer with our colleagues in England to overhaul our website and invigorate our digital presence. Mirtseshem, if all goes according to plan, the fruits of our labor should be live by January.

We thought the second challenge, the human one, would be more daunting. After all, where do you find a person with the deep Yiddish knowledge, teaching experience, communication skills, technical prowess, and can-do spirit to share the Center’s content in creative, new ways with countless thousands around the world?

I wasn’t even sure where to start looking until, out of the blue, I received a phone call from my former teacher, Ruth Wisse. Ruth knew nothing about our plans; rather, she was calling by chance, to tell me about an extraordinary young man who, she said, would be “perfect for the Yiddish Book Center.”

“His name is Eitan Kensky,” she explained. He was teaching Yiddish at Harvard, where he earned in his PhD in Yiddish, American literature, and Jewish studies two years before. Ruth, who had never called me with an unsolicited recommendation before, went on to describe him as an original thinker, a talented teacher, a fine scholar, a gifted writer and translator, a “person who knows how to get things done,” “someone who’s great at websites,” and, to top it all off, “a mensch.”

At the time she called we had no position and no funding, but I know bashert when I see it. I had met Eitan briefly a few years earlier, when he was a translation fellow at the Center. I’d admired his work in the Jewish Review of Books, and more recently I had followed his efforts to launch In geveb, an online Yiddish academic journal. I immediately phoned our executive director, Susan Bronson, and she agreed that I should email Eitan and invite him for an interview. 

Al regl akhes, to make a long story short, Susan and I found Eitan to be everything Ruth said he was and more: knowledgeable, insightful, articulate, personable, warm, and unpretentious. When we asked him why he wanted to come to the Yiddish Book Center instead of pursuing a more traditional academic position, he said that what he wanted most was to interpret Yiddish culture for a broader public. Susan and I looked at each other and smiled: this really did feel like a ziveg min hashomayim, a match made in heaven.

As I write, Eitan has been at the Yiddish Book Center for a few months, and he’s already set more programs in motion than we would have thought possible. At the top of his agenda is translation—a precondition for access, since 98 percent of Yiddish books and almost all the pieces in Yiddish newspapers and magazines are still unavailable for English readers. Eitan is continuing our existing initiatives—a fellowship program for aspiring translators, a translation website, and a strategy to encourage both in-print and e-book publication. He’s also finding new ways to spread the word, so new translations find the readers they deserve.

Our second goal is to encourage other libraries to join us in creating an Open Yiddish Library. As you know, we’re already cooperating with the National Library of Israel, and we’ve just signed an agreement with the New York Public Library to add more than 700 yizkor books— memorial volumes commemorating Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust. These books are a key source for historians and genealogists, and they’ll soon become text-searchable: a huge boon for anyone trying to track down information about their forebears in Eastern Europe. Eitan plans to approach other libraries to encourage them to make other specialized collections accessible to everyone through our Open Yiddish Library.

Perhaps Eitan’s biggest job, however, the one that will require the greatest ingenuity, is to find way to systematically curate our diverse collections and illuminate their content and meaning.

Part of this work requires “mining” what we already have. A few years ago I wrote to tell you how excited we were about vintage Yiddish audio recordings stored in the basement of the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. In his first month here, Eitan has discovered similar treasures in our own basement: lectures by great Jewish writers, historians, and literary scholars delivered at the Center over the past thirty-five years.

Eitan intends to make use of our redesigned web pages, blog posts, podcasts, video clips, and every other tool at his disposal to showcase the full panoply of modern Jewish culture. He’ll highlight unknown books, post information about Yiddish writers, link to other resources, and connect the dots between Yiddish literature and contemporary culture.

The stakes could not be higher—nor the promise greater. Our repository is filled with gems that the world needs to see. Which is why I’m writing, to ask you help support Eitan’s game-changing work and provide him with the tools he needs to succeed.

We estimate the start-up cost for technical upgrades, outreach, and curation at $160,000, and I’m hoping you’ll do your part. Your tax-deductible contribution of $5,000 will allow us to introduce lively web pages on the best-known Yiddish writers, with links to their works in Yiddish and English translation, recordings of lectures by and about them, film clips, oral history interviews, and more. A gift of $1,000 will allow us to hire an intern to help catalog thirty-six years of recordings from our basement. For $500 you can support provide streaming English translations of lectures by some of the greatest Yiddish literary figures of the second half of the twentieth century.

Whatever you can afford, I want to assure you that your help will make a difference. After thirty-five years, you and I are guardians of one of the largest collections of Yiddish books ever assembled, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t do everything in our power to help Eitan share their content with the world. I promise to keep you up to date on his progress in the months ahead. But first, I’m counting on your support. Please, won’t youmake your most generous, tax-deductible contribution today, while it’s still on your mind?

Mit a hartsikn dank (With heartfelt thanks),

Aaron Lansky
Yiddish Book Center