A letter from Aaron Lansky
I’m writing to ask you to help us bring Yiddish and modern Jewish literature to high school students across the continent. But first I want to tell you a story.
Last month, I joined Itzhak Perlman, Joel Grey, Dr. Ruth, and almost fifty others for a public reading of Elie Wiesel’s Night at the Museum for Jewish Heritage in New York. Although most of the readings were in English translation, I chose to read mine in the original Yiddish. Afterward I was surrounded by people telling me how much “richer” and “more Jewish” the Yiddish sounded.
There’s good reason. When Night first appeared in 1956 under the title Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Kept Silent), it was 245 pages long. The French version that appeared two years later (on which the English translation was based) had been cut by almost half and stripped of its demands for vengeance and much of its Jewish specificity.
As I read my section aloud—with English supertitles projected onto a screen behind me—I was aware not only of how much had been left out, but of the fragility of memory itself. Just two days before, the new president of the United States had commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a statement that made no mention of Jews. That same day he banned travel from seven Muslim countries, apparently having forgotten the words on the Statue of Liberty that had greeted his own immigrant mother and grandparents: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. . . . Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
Memory matters. In the Torah, God rarely bothers to explain himself. But when he commands the Jews to show kindness to strangers—not always an easy thing to do—he makes an historical case: “Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The victims of injustice have a responsibility to act justly; marginality begets rakhmones.
The Yiddish Book Center is a cultural institution, not a political one, but the million books on our shelves—books steeped in marginality and displacement—call loudly to us to remember our history and act accordingly. For almost forty years, you’ve helped us do just that: to recover books, to train translators, to record interviews, and to bring forgotten literary and cultural knowledge to new generations. Those efforts are now bearing fruit like never before. The number of Yiddish books downloaded from our website has topped two million, and demand for our educational programs is skyrocketing.
A good example is the Great Jewish Books Summer Program, our weeklong residential program for high school students. Until the program began, almost all of the 40,000 titles of modern Yiddish literature, together with tens of thousands of Jewish titles in English, Russian, Hebrew, and other languages, were conspicuously absent from Jewish schools! When we tried to persuade a leading educator to expand the curriculum, s’hot geholfn vi a toytn bankes, it helped like “cupping” helps a corpse. So we decided to go direct. With financial support from our friends Walt and Arnee Winshall, we invited independent-minded high school students to spend a week of their summer vacation at the Center, to “read, discuss, argue about, and fall in love with modern Jewish literature.”
The students who showed up were amazing. Some went to day schools and some to public schools, some were frum and others veltlekh (worldly), but almost none had read modern Jewish literature before, and they jumped in with both feet. During the day they studied with our academic director, Josh Lambert, and other dynamic young professors. Back at their dorms they continued to debate literary texts with their peers. In the evenings they sat in a circle discussing literature with prominent contemporary Jewish writers—a heady experience for any sixteen- or seventeen-year-old.
And they remained engaged long after they returned home: spreading the word on social media, participating in our online book group, enrolling in Jewish studies courses in college, and, in some cases, returning to the Center as students in our seven-week Steiner Summer Yiddish Program. Demand for Great Jewish Books has grown so fast we’ve had to double the size of the program twice in the past two years.
But no matter how large the program gets, there’s a limit to how many students we can accommodate in Amherst. So we decided to expand our reach by teaching not just students but teachers, who would be able to share what they learned with students of their own.
For the past two summers, thanks to a pilot grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, we’ve been bringing Jewish teachers to Amherst for a weeklong Great Jewish Books Teachers Workshop. The teachers are talented and open minded, and the learning has been mutual: Josh and his faculty make novels, stories, and poems come alive, and the teachers collaborate with one another on ways to integrate what they’re learning into their existing curricula. After just two years there are already more students discovering Yiddish and other modern Jewish literature in mainstream Jewish schools than ever before.
That’s a historic breakthrough, and we’re not about to stop now. Which is why I want to tell you about three new initiatives.
The first is to provide teachers with additional information and practical tools. No matter how effective the Great Jewish Books Teacher Workshop may be, there is a limit to how many texts we can squeeze into a single week. (I once calculated that if I had read two Yiddish books a week from the time I learned Yiddish at nineteen, and if I continued to do so till I was ninety, I’d have read just 18 percent of Yiddish literature—and that’s not to mention modern Jewish books in English, Russian, Hebrew, and other languages.) So last year, Josh and his team launched a special website for teachers called TeachGreatJewishBooks.org. It features multi-media resource kits on diverse literary subjects, along with practical tools for teaching them.
For example, one of the resource kits Josh posted recently is about Kadia Molodowsky, a prominent Yiddish and Hebrew poet who settled in New York in 1935. Her best-known poem, “El khanun / Gracious God,” is a cri de coeur against God after the horrors of the Holocaust:
Choose another people
We have no more blood
To be a sacrifice.
. . . We have strewn all the fields and every stone
With ash, with holy ash.
With the aged,
With the youthful,
And with babies, we have paid
For every letter of your Ten Commandments.
. . . Do us one more favor:
Merciful God, deprive us of the Divine Presence of genius.
[Nem tsu di shkhine fun geoynes].
The resource kit encourages students to compare variant translations (including the brilliant version by Kathryn Hellerstein cited above). It provides a 1969 audio clip of Molodowsky reading her poem in Yiddish. And there’s a remarkable excerpt from a 2008 Hollywood film in which a rabbi and a group of Jewish partisans are in the forest, gathered around a campfire on a bitterly cold night. The rabbi delivers a eulogy for two fallen comrades that consists word for word of Molodowsky’s poem—except that there’s no mention of the author, or the fact that it’s a literary work at all. Resource kits like this give teachers a way to remind their students of the fragility of historical memory, and the power of literature to restore it.
So far, the teachers’ site is still nascent, with only a dozen subjects (including “Tevye the Dairyman,” “Emma Lazarus,” “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” “The Dybbuk,” and “Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’”). Our goal is to expand that number to 250, to deepen their content, and to introduce interactive tools that teachers can use to share lesson plans and real-world experience with one another.
Our second project is to bring Great Jewish Books to a much wider range of teachers. Until now, under the terms of the pilot grant, we focused on Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools. That’s great, except that there are fewer than 6,000 students in non-orthodox Jewish high schools in America, as opposed to more than 16 million, both Jews and non-Jews, in public high schools.
Why would a public school be interested in Yiddish and Jewish literature? Because the days of limiting reading lists to “dead white men” are over; English classes today teach works by women, by African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and almost every other immigrant and ethnic group. Alarmingly, one of the literatures not included has been Jewish literature—which is mind-boggling when you consider the outsize influence of Jewish writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Saul Bellow, and so many others. By and large, public school teachers are no different from those in Jewish schools: they aren’t prejudiced, they simply don’t know. So why not rectify the oversight by opening Great Jewish Books to teachers from all schools—Jewish and non-Jewish, public and private? The return on investment—the number of high school students we’d eventually reach—would be incalculable.
Our third initiative is an obvious one: to send Josh and his colleagues to schools and conferences to meet with teachers, raise awareness of Yiddish and Jewish literature, sign them up for our workshops, and tell them about the resources we’ve prepared.
In short, we’ve identified an important problem—the absence of Yiddish and other modern Jewish literature from Jewish and non-Jewish high schools—and we’ve come up with three practical solutions. Now we need your help to make our plans a reality.
Our budget for this project is just over $110,000 a year for the next five years. A tax-deductible leadership gift of $50,000 will sponsor a weeklong program for teachers. A gift of $1,000 will send Josh and his team to teachers’ conferences and schools across the country. A gift of $500 will underwrite one of the 250 resource kits now on the drawing board.
I know it’s not easy to focus on cultural needs when each day’s news brings new dangers and injustice. But that is precisely why this appeal matters. The million books you’ve helped us save have never had more to say, and unless we take practical steps to share them, we will have ceded to others the right to tell our story—or, as the president did in his Holocaust proclamation, to erase it altogether.
With great Jewish books come great responsibility. Whatever you can afford will make a difference. Please, won’t you make your most generous, tax-deductible contribution right now at yiddishbookcenter.org/teach-now, while it’s still on your mind?
Mit a hartsikn dank—With heartfelt thanks,
P.S. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” Please, won’t you help us share our unique history, literature, and conscience with students everywhere by making your tax-deductible contribution today? A sheynem dank—my personal thanks!