Save Our Yiddish Books!

Help us repair and preserve our rare and damaged Yiddish books so their stories can be shared with generations to come

Sholem aleykhem from the Yiddish Book Center! I’m writing to ask you to help us do something we’ve never done before—carry out urgent conservation work on some of our most precious Yiddish books and preserve them for generations to come.   

You’ve already helped us rescue a yam yidishe bikher—a sea of Yiddish books—and transform Yiddish scholarship by putting many thousands of titles online. Most recently, thanks to your generosity, you’ve helped us put a new roof over our heads, keeping our books and other collections dry. Now it’s time to safeguard some of our rarest, most important, and most fragile treasures. Many of these are too degraded to open, let alone put through a scanner to digitize them. With your help, we can repair and restore them so that we can finally make them available online in our digital library and start to share their extraordinary stories.   

These fragile and irreplaceable Yiddish books are among our crown jewels, and I want to share some of their stories with you. But first let me tell you about a friend of mine. His name is Graham Bignell, and he works out of a converted warehouse in East London—a magical realm like something out of a Bergman film, full of restored Victorian printing presses, old books and manuscripts awaiting restoration, and huge baths of chemicals. He is one of the world’s leading paper conservators, but a better description would be miracle-worker. Over the years, I’ve seen him transform a tattered theater poster into an immaculate rectangle, conjure a broken old photograph into a flawless whole, and make damp stains and mold vanish from old books so completely that their pages look like new.   

I’ve often thought of Graham as I hold some of our most delicate and damaged Yiddish books. In the two years I’ve been at the Center, we’ve sorted through a huge backlog of boxes, and discovered many remarkable finds—extraordinary books, pamphlets, and rare items we never knew we had. But many of them have deteriorated badly over the years and are in extremely poor condition. Before we can digitize or exhibit them, they need the bibliographic equivalent of first aid—expert conservation treatment to remove dirt, mend torn pages and missing spines, take out rusting staples, and re-attach covers that have come loose. In short, these books need to be restored to health.   

Let me tell you about some of them.   

A glamorous young woman, glossy curls framing her face, stares wistfully from the cover of a faded pamphlet. She seems dressed for a night out, perhaps for a date. Regina is subtitled ‘the tragic love of a poor Jewish girl,’ and her fateful story unfolded in dozens of cliff-hanging installments published in prewar Warsaw. We have fourteen chapters of Regina, each one a separate booklet, with titles like ‘Sweet Hopes,’ ‘The Temptation,’ ‘In Dire Straits,’ and ‘A Scary Night.’ The edges of every pamphlet are charred from a fire that broke out in the house where they were stored in Ukraine. Miraculously, even though scorched black, they are intact. They are also unique examples; only YIVO in New York has a few other chapters of the story.  

Yiddish romances like this were the soap operas of their day. They were devoured and discussed by avid readers, especially women around Regina’s age. No surprise, then, that modern scholars are eager to study this popular fiction. Unless we know these stories, we can’t understand their readers’ lives, aspirations, and desires. But there’s one big obstacle: many of the most popular Yiddish storybooks simply disappeared. They were read and passed from hand to hand until they fell apart, and the Holocaust did the rest. It’s miraculous that these surviving chapters from Regina’s story found their way to us. But for now, they are time capsules that can’t be opened, much less read. At the merest touch, they shed blizzards of tiny paper fragments. These are books in urgent need of a skilled restorer like my friend Graham.  Each page needs painstaking conservation work so that the pamphlets can be stabilized and strengthened. Once that’s done, we can scan and digitize Regina, adding her voice to the unfolding story of Yiddish culture to be read, studied, enjoyed, and translated.   

From a tragic love story to a mystery involving the most beloved of all Yiddish writers: 

Thanks to your support, we were able to rescue four thousand Yiddish books from a community library in Sydney, Australia. Over recent months, we’ve been busy unpacking them. From one of those boxes came a stunning find—a huge fraying portfolio held together with crude sticking tape. The cover has Sholem Aleichem’s name in Yiddish and Russian, an embossed cameo of the author, plus the Russian title Peredvizhnaia vystavka (Portable Exhibition). Inside are over fifty illustrated cardboard panels, each backed by a tiny loop of string for hanging on a wall. Most of the panels celebrate Sholem Aleichem’s life and works, but some highlight Tsarist antisemitism and Soviet policy toward the Jews.  

This, it turns out, is one of the rarest of all Soviet Jewish artifacts—a 1941 traveling exhibition, produced in Moscow by the State Literary Museum for display in libraries and cultural centers across the USSR.  The portfolio recasts Sholem Aleichem as a proletarian hero and anti-Tsarist campaigner. More than that, it bears witness to the wartime mobilization of Soviet Jewry—a brief thaw before Stalin’s last ferocious onslaught on Jewish cultural expression. It’s an extraordinary document from an extraordinary time. It’s also incredibly rare; the only copy to come into the Center previously was donated to YIVO over twenty years ago, as their library didn’t have one. Now, as responsible custodians, we need to take good care of this exceptional object. The portfolio case needs urgent attention to repair and preserve its spine, the edges need to be reinforced, and, finally, it needs a custom-made box to hold and protect it.   

We have hundreds more exceptional Yiddish books and other items in urgent need of skilled restoration work. They include: 

  • One-of-a-kind satirical periodicals from 1930s New York.  
  • Rare first editions of Yiddish plays from the 1880s and ‘90s, many of them stained, torn and chipped.   
  • Beautiful illustrated artists’ books from 1920s Odessa, Berlin, and Kiev.   
  • Dozens of rare booklets from the important 1930s Groshn bibliotek (Penny Library) series of history and politics primers, many with torn and damaged covers.   
  • More unique romance novels from prewar Warsaw, in extremely fragile condition.   
  • Di goldene medine (The Golden Land)—a richly illustrated album of William Gropper’s political cartoons from the 1920s, its spine missing.
  • Unique pieces of Yiddish sheet music, with chipped and torn pages.   

In truth, we could keep a small army of conservation experts fully employed at the Center for years to come. If that sounds unduly pessimistic, it shouldn’t. There’s plenty of good news, too. For one thing, despite experiencing all manner of neglect and hardship, most of our rare books have come out with their pages intact. In addition, skilled restorers using the latest conservation techniques really can achieve extraordinary results. And finally, our location could not be better: there is probably a higher concentration of specialist paper conservators in Western Massachusetts than almost anywhere else in the world.   

Our work is cut out for us. We need support to sort through thousands of books, identify those in most urgent need of conservation, and prioritize which to treat first. And of course, this sort of painstaking conservation work doesn’t come cheap. Skilled paper restorers typically charge around $100 per hour to re-stitch a binding, reinforce torn paper edges, or encapsulate fragile pages in a mylar plastic sleeve. A single custom-made archival box can cost hundreds of dollars. Once repaired and protected, we need to catalog, scan, and digitize these extraordinary treasures so that they can be easily accessed by anyone around the world. None of this work can proceed without your help.   

There are so many titles in need of urgent care, but here are some examples to give you a sense of the work that your tax-deductible donation will make possible:  

  • $5,000 will support the work of a fellow to help sort, organize, and identify the most important titles in need of urgent repair and preservation.
  • $2000 will cover the complete re-binding and page-by-page repair of one of our rare books, for example, one of our sheepskin-covered, eighteenth-century prayer books.
  • $900 will transform a set of fragile, damaged pamphlets, allowing us to clean, repair, and flatten the pages, and house the full set in an archival box.   
  • $360 will enable us to catalog and digitize five titles so that they can be made accessible to readers and scholars everywhere through our online library.
  • $150 will allow us to restore a rare commemorative photo album or a playscript from the Golden Age of Yiddish theater.   
  • $54 will pay for a 4-flap archival folder to hold one of the many fragile documents in our collection, such as the pocket-sized pamphlets from prewar Warsaw.   

It’s a testament to the extraordinary things you and the Yiddish Book Center have accomplished together that these books have been saved from disappearing. Now, with your help, we need to save them from deteriorating any further. Without such critical repair work, rusty staples, brittle torn paper, and broken bindings will cause further disintegration and decay.  

With your support, however, we can give these damaged Yiddish books a new lease on life. With skilled conservation work, all these precious titles can be used, scanned, and exhibited. Please won’t you make your generous, tax-deductible contribution today and help us transform and preserve our rarest and most fragile treasures.   

Mit a hartsikn dank—heartfelt thanks.   

David Mazower
Bibliographer and Editorial Director

P.S. Please make your most generous contribution today so we can get right to work on the most critical titles.