May 2022: Handpicked
Each month, the Yiddish Book Center asks a member of our staff or a special friend to select favorite stories, books, interviews, or articles from our online collections. This month, we’re excited to share with you picks by Zachary Baker.
Over the course of more than four decades, Zachary M. Baker served as a Judaica librarian at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, and Stanford University. He is a contributor to Pakn Treger and compiled the Yiddish Book Center's list of 1000 Essential Yiddish Books. Since retiring in 2018 Zachary has pursued research on episodes in the history of the Yiddish theater and he writes regularly for the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project and is a contributor to In geveb: a Journal of Yiddish Studies and serves on its board.
After delving into his selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Zachary about his choices.
Publication of Di Yudishe folks-bibliothek (Kiev [Kyiv], 1888) was a signal event in modern Yiddish culture. This pathbreaking literary almanac was edited and financed by none other than Sholem Aleichem, before he squandered his family’s fortune at the stock exchange. Found within its pages, among works by other major writers of that era, are contributions by the three Yiddish klasiker: Mendele Moykher Sforim (the novel Dos vintshfingerl), I. L. Peretz (the epic poem “Monish”), and Sholem Aleichem himself (the novel Stempenyu).
Stutchkoff’s thesaurus stands close to the pinnacle of Yiddish lexicography. It might very well contain more words than any Yiddish dictionary, and their usage is amplified through a plethora of pithy idioms and phrases. Like such English-language counterparts as Roget’s Thesaurus, Der oytser is organized along numerically classified categories, and an exhaustive index sends us to the terms that we’re seeking. The Yiddish Book Center’s Full-Text Search (an OCR engine) offers a convenient way to locate words in Der oytser.
This absorbing family saga is set in the city of Łódź (the “Polish Manchester”) during a period of rapid industrialization before World War I. (Its bestselling author was the older brother of the future Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.) The Yiddish audiobook, which was recorded at the Jewish Public Library of Montreal in the late 1980s, is read by a native of Łódź. You can follow along by downloading the text of the Yiddish book (single-volume edition, 1951; the 1937 edition is also online in vols. 1, 2, and 3). The Brothers Ashkenazi, in an English translation by the author’s son Joseph Singer, is also available through the Yiddish Book Center’s Museum Store, as is an audiobook in English.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic the Yiddish Book Center, like other organizations, presented dozens of online programs. Among those that I’ve watched during the past two and a half years, I especially enjoyed Miriam Borden’s incisive and highly enjoyable presentation from November 12, 2020. Her talk made me think about Yiddish schoolbooks in ways that I had never considered before. Marginalia as Midrash, anyone?
On February 9, 1964, the Yiddish poet and editor Abraham Sutzkever gave a Yiddish lecture at Montreal’s Jewish Public Library, where he spoke about the Yung Vilne circle of poets, which was active before World War II. Sutzkever provided a unique perspective, drawing upon his personal experiences as a prominent participant in the literary group. His rhetorical style, with its tone of authority, was representative of many of the Yiddish lectures that are part of the Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library.
Di Yunge was a group of young modernist writers that emerged in New York City before World War I. Ruth R. Wisse delivered this riveting interpretation (in English) of their poetics and their worldview at the Jewish Public Library on December 8, 1973. (At the time Wisse was teaching Yiddish literature at McGill University; she later joined the Harvard faculty.) Her longstanding engagement with the lives and writings of Di Yunge eventually led to her book A Little Love in Big Manhattan (1988). In it she focused on two of Di Yunge’s leading poets, Mani Leib (Brahinsky) and Moishe Leib Halpern, whom she also discussed in this lecture.
Zachary Baker talks to the Yiddish Book Center’s Director of Publishing and Public Programs, Lisa Newman, about his Handpicked choices:
Lisa Newman: I was eager to see what you selected for your Handpicked. I think it’s safe to say that you know our digitized collections as well as anyone. Do you continue to find surprises as you search the site?
Zachary Baker: I’m less surprised by the titles that I find than in what I encounter within the pages of books that I’ve found there. For example, about a year and a half ago I downloaded a memoir by Rose Shomer Bachelis, who, together with her sister Miriam Shomer Zunser, wrote successful plays for the Yiddish stage. One of them, The Circus Girl, was a very popular vehicle for the star actress Molly Picon. (The Shomer sisters’ father, by the way, was the writer Nokhem Meir Shaykevitsh, better known as Shomer, against whom Sholem Aleichem unleashed a vendetta in the 1880s.) A chapter in Rose Shomer’s book reminiscences about Abraham S. Freidus, a reclusive and eccentric man who was the first chief of the New York Public Library’s Jewish Division. She described a slew of his personality quirks—all of which were confirmed in my subsequent reading on Freidus. For a librarian like me, this serendipitous discovery was sheer catnip!
LN: There’s an interesting backstory regarding Sholem Aleichem’s funding of the publication. Your thoughts on that?
ZB: As Jeremy Dauber recounts in his excellent biography The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem (2013), in 1885 the young Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, aka the aspiring Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, came into a modest fortune when his father-in-law died. This made it possible for him to subsidize Di Yudishe folks-bibliothek and other Yiddish publications. Unfortunately, he burned through his wife’s inheritance, and the coup de grace came when the stock market crashed in the fall of 1890, which bankrupted him.
LN: This is yet another reason that I wish I read Yiddish; as someone who turns to the English thesaurus constantly—wow. Any examples of some interesting words? And so cool regarding our OCR (Optical Character Recognition) search software working with this.
ZB: Here’s a semi-random example: דיבוק [dibek, i.e., dybbuk, whose dictionary definition is “the soul of a dead person, which has entered into the body of a living person and can be expelled only by exorcism”]. The book’s index places this noun only under rubric no. 616 (Occultism), alongside such terms as phantom, specter, and metamorphosis/reincarnation (gilgl). However, the Yiddish Book Center’s OCR engine leads us to several other places where the term is found inside the book: rubric no. 259 (ritual slaughter; butcher’s trade), as a term that refers to a “sick cow”; rubric no. 563 (betrothal [ziveg]), in the sarcastic phrase “a dibek min hashomayim” [“a dybbuk from heaven”], which rhymes with the Yiddish “a ziveg min hashomayim” (“a match made in heaven”); and rubric no. 615 (spells, magic [kishef]), in the phrase “aroystraybn a dibek” [“to drive out a dybbuk”). Stutchkoff’s Oytser is full of pithy expressions; under betrothal, for example: “fun sonim, makhetonim” (“from enemies, in-laws”).
LN: So, you were instrumental in launching the audiobook project. These audiobooks are truly a gift; I recommend them to visitors all the time. Tell me how this all came about.
ZB: I was on staff at the Jewish Public Library from 1981 to 1987. Yiddish Talking Books (the program’s original name) started up in the mid-1980s. It was modeled on programs at the Library of Congress and elsewhere that produced recordings for sight-impaired individuals—“readings for the blind.” European-born Yiddishists were among the JPL’s most devoted patrons. As I recall it, the mother of a good friend of mine, Abe Rosenfeld, was beginning to lose her eyesight. Her husband arranged for the library to recruit a cadre of volunteers to sit in the library’s small recording studio and read Yiddish books for those who had difficulty reading on their own. Some of the Yiddish books were classics while others simply made for enjoyable listening. Initially the library lent cassettes of the recordings to its local patrons; later the tapes were digitized and transferred onto CDs; and ultimately the Yiddish Book Center put them online. I’m not aware of another corpus of recorded Yiddish literary works on this scale, all of them read by educated, native Yiddish speakers.
LN: The archival recordings from Montreal’s Jewish Public Library are another amazing collection on our site. Hearing the voices of these writers, it’s incredible to think about all of those evenings, all of the writers who were there—rather heady. If you could arrange for an evening program and assemble any group to present a program, who would you choose? And the topic?
ZB: I attended a fair number of literarishe ovntn [literary soirées] at the JPL during my time there, and they were all so serious, high-minded, and, well, educational. Yiddish literature really mattered to both the speakers and their audiences at the library. But couldn’t they have loosened up a little? The poet Melech Ravitch settled in Montreal, and in the 1940s and 1950s he led the library’s Folks-universitet [People’s University, where adult education courses were offered]. He also published a series of semi-gossipy volumes about Yiddish writers and cultural figures titled Mayn leksikon [My Lexicon]. The title alluded to the bio-bibliographical lexicons that are such important Yiddish reference works. So I’m trying to imagine a different type of “literary evening,” one like a television talk show, with Melech Ravitch convening a few of his favorite New York writers for informal conversations about the “scene.” For starters, how about Leivick, Opatoshu, and Glanz-Leyeles? Or maybe Bertha Kling and some of the Bohemians who gathered at her salon in the Bronx?