Help Us Salvage an Extraordinary Treasure Trove of Unique Sound Recordings and Make Them Accessible to All

A letter from Aaron Lansky to Yiddish Book Center Members

Sholem aleykhem. I’m writing to ask you to help us salvage an extraordinary treasure trove of sound recordings – this time right from our own basement!

If this opportunity sounds familiar, it’s because six years ago you helped us remaster, digitize and distribute a huge collection of reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes from the basement of the venerable Jewish Public Library of Montreal. They included Yiddish novels read aloud and lectures delivered at the Library by almost every major Yiddish writer of the post-War world. We worked closely with the Library, and thanks in no small part to your generosity, we made these recordings available online as the Sami Rohr Library of Recorded Yiddish Books and the Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library. They’ve since been downloaded thousands of times.

Now it’s our turn. Eitan Kensky, our Director of Collection Initiatives, has discovered another treasure trove of recordings – this time literally below our feet! In our own basement, stacked on shelves and packed in boxes, are hundreds upon hundreds of unique recordings. They include lectures, interviews, concerts, author talks, conference proceedings, and even journal entries recorded in the truck while my young colleagues and I collected Yiddish books. Spanning the Center’s entire 37-year history, the physical media of the recordings are as varied as their content: audio cassettes, DAT (Digital Audio Tape), and a succession of video formats, including VHS, Betacam, 16 mm, MiniDV, and more.

As you know, the Yiddish Book Center has always been a lebedike velt, a hub of activity, and almost from the first day we’ve been recording most of the events that took place here. In the early years we hosted lectures by prominent Yiddish writers, critics and cultural figures, very few of whom are still alive.   

We also recorded lectures by some of the pre-eminent Yiddish scholars of our generation. We found, for example, a series of lectures by my own teacher, Ruth Wisse, entitled “Avrom Sutzkever: The Uncrowned Jewish Poet Laureate.”  Sutzkever was a groundbreaking poet in pre-War Vilna, a hero who risked his life to rescue Jewish books and papers from under the Nazis’ noses, a leader of the resistance in the Vilna Ghetto, a partisan in the forests, a witness at Nuremberg, and, later, in Israel, the editor of the most important Yiddish literary journal of the second half of the twentieth century. Having recently retired from Harvard, Professor Wisse is now writing a book about Sutzkever. In the meantime, the lectures she delivered at the Center, pulled from a dusty cardboard box in our basement, still stand as one of the most profound disquisitions on one of the greatest Yiddish writers.

And that’s just one example of the treasures Eitan is unearthing. Ruth’s brother, David Roskies, professor of Yiddish literature at Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew University, takes us “Inside Oyneg-Shabes,” describing the content of the tin boxes and milk cans excavated from beneath the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto. That lecture was delivered more than twenty years ago as part of a conference we sponsored at Mount Holyoke College, and I still remember it vividly. His co-speaker that weekend was Professor Samuel Kassow, a renowned historian at Trinity College, who went on to write the magisterial Who Will Write Our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbos Archive. Our basement includes many tapes of Professor Kassow’s lectures at the Center, including an evocative historical and literary tribute to “Vilna, Jerusalem of Lithuania.”

"As you know, the Yiddish Book Center has always been a lebedike velt, a hub of activity, and almost from the first day we’ve been recording most of the events that took place here."

The lectures from the basement of the Jewish Public Library were primarily in Yiddish; those from our basement are mostly in English, and taken together they constitute a master class in Yiddish and modern Jewish literature. Take, for example, a series of lectures by Professor Janet Hadda on Isaac Bashevis Singer, the only Yiddish writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The author of Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life, Professor Hadda was uniquely suited for the task. As a professor of Yiddish at UCLA, she was the first of Singer’s biographers to read his work in the original. And as a practicing psychoanalyst, she brought keen insight to her complex and elusive subject. The tapes of Professor Hadda’s lectures are made all the more valuable by her untimely passing in 2015, at the age of 69.   

In truth, there are too many tapes in our basement to describe them all. For years adult learners from around the world have come to the Center for summer programs and weekend conferences on every conceivable aspect of Yiddish culture and modern Jewish experience. Most were recorded. We found, for example, the tape of a memorable lecture by Moshe Waldocks, co-author of The Big Book of Jewish Humor, in which he brings down the house as the keynote speaker at a weekend conference on Jewish humor. On another tape, Kenneth Turan, film critic for NPR and the Los Angeles Times, interviews Joan Micklin Silver, the director of Hester Street and Crossing Delancey, as part of a 2003 conference on “Jewish Stories on the Silver Screen.”

There are tapes of author talks: by the Egyptian-born Jewish writer Andre Aciman, for example, and the Hawaiian-born Allegra Goodman. There are almost two decades of recordings from our annual Melinda Rosenblatt Lecture, featuring, among others, cultural historian Sander Gilman, writer and critic Jonathan Rosen, Yiddish translator, scholar and art historian Benjamin Harshav, U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Cuban-American cultural anthropologist Ruth Behar, folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, authors Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and David Bezmozgis, Yale historian Timothy Snyder, and cultural critic Adam Kirsch. 

There are concert tapes, featuring hip-hop klezmer artist SoCalled, singer Laura Wetzler, and the inimitable black-Jewish fusion sound of the Ribs and Brisket Review. In one dusty box Eitan found the audio masters of “Jewish Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond,” a 13-part radio series we produced for NPR, featuring famous actors reading Yiddish and other Jewish stories. In another box were masters of the Center’s own Yiddish talking books, with readings by Dovid Rogow, Shmuel Atzmon, and other veterans of the Yiddish stage. 

The “truck tapes” capture the chutzpah and exuberance of those early years, when, in apartment after apartment, older Yiddish-speaking Jews would sit us down at their kitchen tables, serve us hot tea in glasses, pile our plates high with lokshn kugl and sour cream, and recount the stories of their eventful lives as they handed us their precious books, one volume at a time. Afterward, back in the truck, my young colleagues and I – all in our 20s – would try to recall what we’d heard, share our reactions, and record a candid and sometime raucous first-draft travelogue for posterity. 

Not all the audio and video tapes in our basement are our own; some were donated to us over the years by individuals and organizations. They include home-made oral histories, an apparently bootleg recording of a Yiddish nightclub act, and tapes of Yiddish-related programs that took place elsewhere, such as an annual retreat at Wildacres, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Am I abashed that recordings of such significance have lain neglected for so long? Sort of. But remember that when most of these recordings were made, there was no easy way to share them. Now there is, thanks to high-speed Internet and the very powerful multi-media capabilities of our new website. And that’s not all. Interest in Yiddish and Yiddish-related materials has skyrocketed in recent years. The Yiddish books you helped us place online have been downloaded more than 2 million times. Excerpts from our oral history interviews have had millions of views on YouTube. If we can place the recordings in our basement onto our website, there’s every reason to believe that they too will find the wide audience they deserve.  

But it won’t be easy. Cassette tapes and other magnetic media are inherently unstable–they can degrade or de-laminate over time, and it’s risky to play them without stabilizing them first. Our first step, therefore, will be to deliver the tapes to Mass Productions, a firm outside Boston with the specialized equipment and expertise to transfer them to digital media. Once that’s done, Eitan and his team can safely listen to them and start creating detailed “metadata” or catalog records for every recording.  We plan to subscribe to a shared media management service to integrate the tapes and metadata onto our site, and we’ll contract with CogApp in Brighton, England to create an attractive, easy-to-use interface that will provide free, universal access to each and every recording.

"The 'truck tapes' capture the chutzpah and exuberance of those early years, when, in apartment after apartment, older Yiddish-speaking Jews would sit us down at their kitchen tables ... and recount the stories of their eventful lives as they handed us their precious books, one volume at a time."

There’s a second, equally critical part to our plan, and that’s recording and posting all Yiddish Book Center programs going forward. As you know, with your help we now sponsor 11 major educational programs each year, not counting regular lectures and performances. We recently installed professional recording equipment in our Applebaum-Driker Theater, and we’ll now assign a specially trained staff member to record all our events and post them directly to our website. Once the requisite systems are in place, we also intend to reach out to other, link-minded organizations in order to “ingest” recordings of their lectures and oral histories and make them too available through our website.  Mirtseshem (if all goes according to plan), within two years the Yiddish Book Center will have replaced the dusty tapes in our basement with a state-of-the-art electronic sound library that will make all manner of new and archival recordings available for free to listeners throughout the world.

Our plan may be ambitious, but I think you’ll agree that it’s also practical and timely. The estimated two-year cost of this initiative is $92,500–an expense not included in our regular operating budget. I’m therefore writing to you and other long-time friends to ask for your help. 

A tax-deductible contribution of $14,000 will allow us to restore and digitize every one of the tapes in our basement. $8,000 will cover the cost of recording, cataloging and posting every lecture going forward over the next two years. But even if you can’t make a gift of that magnitude, I want to assure you that whatever you send will make a difference. 

To show you just how much of a difference, we are offering a special incentive. For a contribution of $54 or more, we’ll send you four of the most remarkable lectures found in our basement: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s fascinating, first-hand account of her role in creating the new Jewish museum in Warsaw; Samuel Kassow’s impassioned description of the brave men and women who chronicled daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto, and of the year and a half it took to persuade survivors to excavate their buried manuscripts after the War; Timothy Snyder’s case for viewing the Holocaust within a broader context of death and destruction in Eastern Europe; and Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky on “King David: All Things Above and Below.” We’ll include simple, step-by-step directions so you can listen to the talks on your own smartphone, tablet or computer.

This appeal could not be more important. You and I have a chance not only to resurrect forgotten recordings, but to make great literature and brilliant Jewish learning freely accessible to the entire world. Please, won’t you do your part by making your most generous, tax-deductible contribution right now, while it’s still on your mind?

A hartsikn dank (With heartfelt thanks),

Aaron Lansky


P.S.  You won’t have to wait two years to listen to the rest of the basement tapes: we’ll start posting batches as soon as they’re ready, and you can look forward to listening to a steady stream of remarkable lectures and performances. These recordings are too good to remain in our basement! Please, won’t you help us share them with eager listeners everywhere by making your tax-deductible contribution online at sheynem dank–my personal thanks!

P.P.S. Any money we raise beyond what’s needed for the tapes will be used to increase access to our other collections, including Yiddish books and oral histories. I look forward to hearing from you soon!