Help Us Continue Our Crucial Work in this Dire Time
I hope you and your family are safe. I’m writing today to give you a candid briefing on the state of the Yiddish Book Center, and to let you know what you can do to help.
There’s a familiar Yiddish expression that says, “A mentsh trakht un got lakht—A person plans and God laughs.” That’s how we felt on March 13, when we closed the doors of our Amherst building. Until then, everything had been going so well. The number of Yiddish books downloaded from our website passed the four million mark. For the first time, it was possible to find any name, place, word, or phrase in three million pages of Yiddish literature in a matter of seconds. We had recently recorded our 1,000th oral history interview, we were about to release our new Yiddish textbook, and we had just won the London Book Fair’s International Excellence Award for Literary Translation Initiative.
Then the sky came crashing down, and instead of planning new projects, we suddenly found ourselves scrambling for the future. According to experts, between a quarter and a third of all non-profit organizations will be out of business before the pandemic is over. We are doing everything in our power to make sure the Yiddish Book Center isn’t one of them.
Fortunately, we’re starting with two advantages. We were financially sound when the crisis began, and we have a fifteen-year head start in making our books and resources accessible online. In late February, as soon as we saw what was coming, we put systems in place so staff members could work efficiently from home. Today, although our building is closed, the Center itself remains open. In fact, we’re reaching more people than ever before.
That may sound counterintuitive. After all, we’ve had to cancel flagship events like YiddishSchool and Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music, and we’ve been forced to re-think others. Our staff members, however, are nothing if not resourceful, and they’re finding ways to deliver key programs online, often with surprising results.
A few weeks ago, for example, Mindl Cohen and Sebastian Schulman led an online discussion of variant translations of “Zeks shures—Six Lines,” a short poem by Aaron Zeitlin. It was, admittedly, an arcane subject which, in normal times, would have been unlikely to attract a minyen, an in-person audience of ten. Online, attendance totaled 832! We saw a similar response a week later when Josh Lambert delivered our annual Melinda Rosenblatt Lecture to a virtual audience of 1,028, and a week after that, when Ben Katchor’s illustrated talk about The Dairy Restaurant attracted nearly a thousand more.
The fact that so many people are showing up online is not only gratifying, it’s transformational, because it suggests a path forward, a way to accomplish more with less, both now and in the future. That rubric now informs almost every aspect of our work:
- Since college students can’t travel to Amherst in June for our Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, our faculty will be offering free, full-credit, seven-week Yiddish courses remotely, via Zoom.
- We’re scouring our vast digital holdings to uncover lost or forgotten treasures and share them with the world through our newly launched Weekly Reader, social media, and our ever-expanding website.
- Our communications director, Lisa Newman, is recording wonderful podcasts from home, and we continue to work on print, online, and e-book publications, including Pakn Treger, our English-language magazine, Di feder, our high-spirited alumni newsletter, and the latest from our Translation Fellows.
- Christa Whitney and her crew in the Wexler Oral History Project are editing, cataloging, and timecoding recorded interviews from home, and they’re about to start filming remotely as well, in order to capture the untold, first-hand stories of older Jews, many in Yiddish, before it’s too late.
In short, we’re responding to unprecedented challenges exactly as you’d expect, with all the grit and ingenuity we can muster. After working relentlessly for forty years to build this organization, there’s no way we’re going to back down now. There’s also no way, however, that we can get through this alone.
The reason I’ve waited so long to ask you for help is because the Jewish concept of pikuekh-nefesh teaches that, with few exceptions, saving human life comes first. No one knows, of course, how long this plague will last, or how devastating its consequences will be. Meanwhile civilization still matters, and if we’re to continue to safeguard the language, literature, and culture in our keeping, then I can’t wait any longer to ask for your support.
Clearly this is no ordinary appeal. We’ve made painful budget cuts already, and we’re preparing for worse still to come, including scaling back programs and, if necessary, restructuring our staff. It won’t be easy—it will, in fact, be heartrending. But even after all that, we will still need to raise $400,000 in order to stabilize our losses by the end of the current fiscal year, so that when the crisis finally does end we’ll be strong enough to rebuild.
Your support at this critical moment is essential—so much so that a board member, Ira Wagner, and his wife Marcia have made a $200,000 challenge. Whatever you give, they will match it, dollar for dollar. In the past, when I’ve turned to you for support, it’s usually been with upbeat letters about new opportunities or adventures, like rescuing endangered books, or training translators, or, more recently, installing a new roof to keep our books dry and safe for the next seventy years.
Today, regrettably, I’m writing not to ask you to help us reach for the stars but to assure the long-term stability of the Yiddish Book Center itself.
Under the circumstances, with our building closed, the fastest way to make your gift is through our secure website, at yiddishbookcenter.org/future. If you’d like to discuss a larger gift or pledge, please contact our director of institutional advancement, Zvi Jankelowitz, on his personal line at 413-409-5117, or by email at [email protected].
Over the past forty years the Yiddish Book Center has faced many challenges, but never one as dire as this. You helped build this organization. Please, won’t you stand by us again by sending your most generous, tax-deductible contribution today, when we need it most?
Blaybt mir gezunt un shtark—may you and your family stay healthy, strong, and safe,
P.S. I want to remind you that every dollar you donate will count twice, thanks to Ira and Marcia’s challenge. A sheynem dank—my personal thanks!