Help Us Unpack Our Backlog of Yiddish Books

With your support, we can process thousands of priceless Yiddish books that have arrived since the pandemic began and share them online with waiting readers everywhere.

I’m writing to ask you to help us undertake an urgent task: to unpack and process countless, priceless Yiddish books that have been pouring in since the pandemic began.

I know this sounds counterintuitive: after all, our doors have been closed to the public, our truck hasn’t budged for fourteen months, and most of our staff members are still working from home. How then did we manage to recover so many books in the middle of a pandemic?

One obvious reason is that people stuck at home had time to clean out their attics and basements. Another is that, in the face of peril and uncertainty, many came to perceive new relevance in books they had inherited and set aside long before. Whatever the case, the result has been dramatic. Before the pandemic, we used to receive three to four calls a week from people with Yiddish books to donate; now we’re fielding ten to fifteen inquiries a day!

It’s not just books they want to give us, but also more personal Yiddish treasures, such as family letters, postcards, and handwritten journals. Barely a day goes by without trucks from the post office, UPS, and FedEx delivering more books.

We’ve been astonished by both their quantity and quality. One day, for example, we received a white lacquered, linen-weave envelope from a man named Jeff Deitch in Japan. Inside was a yizkor book (memorial volume) chronicling Sventsion and twenty-three surrounding Jewish communities on the Lithuanian-Belarussian border that were destroyed in the Holocaust. At 1,954 columns across 993 pages, it may have been the largest yizkor book ever printed. 

On another occasion Andrea Binder, the granddaughter of the Yiddish playwright Fishl Bimko, sent us sixteen boxes containing Yiddish books, scripts, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia, plus brand-new, unsold copies of the first two volumes of Bimko’s five-volume autobiography. We already had volumes 3–5; now, with our set complete, we can digitize it and share it with the world. 

It’s hardly surprising, almost 100 years since the end of unrestricted Jewish immigration to America, that the majority of people who sent us Yiddish books this past year couldn’t read them. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t appreciate them. Some, in fact, valued them so highly they insisted on delivering them in person. 

That was the case with Jim Dolph, a near-octogenarian who wanted to bring us books that had belonged to his grandfather Henry, a ropemaker in the Boston Naval Yard. We explained that because of COVID we couldn’t let him inside the building, but he was undeterred. On a clear, blustery day in December, he and his wife drove from Portsmouth, NH, to stand in our frozen parking lot and hand the books to bibliographer David Mazower. David patiently explained what each one was. The Dolphs listened attentively, then waited until David carried the books inside to be sure they were safe before returning to their car for the long drive home.

Their diligence was justified. Along with familiar literary and political titles, the books they gave us included a large, leatherbound volume of every issue of the first year of Der tsayt-gayst (The Spirit of the Times), a cultural supplement to the Forverts from 1905.  

I wish I had space to tell you about every one of the noteworthy books and documents we’ve received this past year. Jim Shulman is about to send us the original of a four-page Yiddish letter from his immigrant grandfather to his young wife back in Poland. In it, he told her how he had shaken hands with President Harding! “Since I am the last of the line,” Jim wrote us, “I’d like to donate the letter to an institution that would find it worthwhile.” With it he’ll send a photo of his grandparents taken shortly after they were reunited in America. Both items will be included in our new exhibition.

A noted children’s author named Johanna Hurwitz sent us fragments of a micrograph— a drawing composed of miniscule Yiddish letters—that the artist Max Reisman painstakingly crafted in Warsaw and then, for unknown reasons, tore into pieces. “I kept the fragments of this picture for all these years,” Johanna wrote, “but wonder now if there is a space for them at the Yiddish Book Center?” They too will have a place of honor in our new exhibition.

One of my favorite donations came from Susan Caspi of California. She sent us a collection of family photographs, one of which, taken in Milwaukee around 1920, shows three people: her grandfather, the Yiddish writer Peretz Hirshbein, and Golda Meir (then Golda Meyerson), shortly before she and her husband emigrated to Palestine. Fifty years later, when Susan turned seventeen, she went to Israel, and Golda, now prime minister, invited her to visit. Susan passed, a decision she explains all these years later in one word: “Teenagers!”

A few weeks ago, a truck backed up to our loading dock and offloaded pallets containing the entire, 3,000-volume Yiddish collection of Hebrew College, a pluralistic rabbinical school that was about to relocate to smaller quarters. The boxes were full of yekar-hamtsiesn, rare books. One, a collection of Yiddish song lyrics “about the greatest problems of the Jews,” was published in Czernowitz in 1881, making it one of the oldest songbooks in our collection.  

It’s tempting to see the bibliographic deluge of the past year as a one-off event, precipitated by the pandemic, except that it’s showing no sign of abating. Jews were more avid readers—and more conscientious stewards of family treasures—than many realized, and there’s reason to believe that substantial shipments will continue to arrive for months and possibly years to come.  

Our job is to be ready for them. Mirtseshem, if all goes well, we hope to reopen to the public sometime this summer. Visitor hours may be limited, and Yidstock and our flagship summer programs will remain virtual for a while longer, but reopening will be cause for celebration all the same. You helped us get through the past year, and we can’t wait to welcome you back and thank you in person.

First, however, we need to make order of the boxes, bags, and pallets of Yiddish books piled in the Great Hall, the library, the book repository, the performance hall, and everywhere else they’ve been allowed to accumulate over the past fourteen months.

It’s a bigger job than it sounds. Having cut our budget during the pandemic, we now need to bring on a new cohort of Yiddish-speaking fellows. Senior staff members will work closely with them to determine if titles have been digitized before, to look for handwritten inscriptions and personal notes and photos tucked between the pages, and to identify one-of-a-kind items with especially brittle or yellowed paper that need to be sent to specialists who can scan them without causing further damage. Only after all that will the fellows and staff be able to upload titles to our online library, where they can be shared for free with waiting readers everywhere.  

Waiting they are! The number of downloads from our online library has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, to a cumulative total of close to five million. That number is not as astounding as it seems when you consider that three quarters of the world’s Jews spoke Yiddish for the past thousand years, and that we can’t fully understand their culture and sensibility without access to Yiddish books. It seems that Yiddish’s time has come, and we’re scrambling to keep pace, not just by distributing books but by celebrating their content through translation, publications, podcasts, educational and public programs, and more.   

Mir zaynen do!—the past year hasn’t been easy, but thanks to your help we’re still here, stronger and more determined than ever. Now we need to keep moving forward: to process our books, strengthen our programs, bring modern Jewish literature to rabbis and teachers, work with libraries and museums, record interviews, train translators, publish books, and welcome the growing ranks of students of all ages who are turning to us, eager to learn more.

Our staff members have worked their hearts out throughout this pandemic, and they’ll continue to do so. But we can’t succeed alone. That’s why I’m writing to you now, to ask you to help us raise an additional $200,000 to process the huge backlog of books and to put improvements and procedures in place so we can safely reopen to the public.  

For a tax-deductible contribution of $40,000 we’ll be able to appoint a full-time, Yiddish-speaking fellow to sort and process a continuing influx of Yiddish books;

For $5,000 we can purchase archival cabinets to safely store photos, letters, and irreplaceable documents.

A contribution of $1,000 will support shipping costs for one of the major collections still coming our way, like the 3,000 volumes we received recently from a library near Boston;

For $360 we can digitize an especially rare and fragile volume and make it available in perpetuity to impassioned readers everywhere.
Whatever you can afford, I want to assure you that your contribution will make a difference. We couldn’t have gotten through the worst of the pandemic without your support, but we’re not out of the woods yet. That’s why I’m asking, I’m beseeching you to help us continue the work we’ve begun. If we all pull together, I’m confident Yiddish will outwit history yet again.

Zayt mir gezunt un shtark—stay healthy, strong, and safe,

Aaron Lansky