"Stories of Exile" Reading Groups for Public Libraries 2023

Program Description

The Yiddish Book Center’s “Stories of Exile” Reading Groups for Public Libraries is a reading and discussion program to engage teens and adults in thinking about experiences of displacement, migration, and diaspora.

Using Yiddish literature as a portal, the program will feature works in translation that explore narratives which grapple with questions of homelands, journeys, identity, and belonging. Reading groups will compare these works written in Yiddish in the early and mid-20th century to works by contemporary writers from all across the globe. 

The goals of the program are:

  • to introduce libraries and the public to Yiddish literature in the context of broader explorations of dispossession, exile, migration, and diaspora.
  • to help prompt and inform ongoing discussions about displacement, in the context of war, genocide, climate change, economic and political upheaval, and other conditions of homelessness and relocation in the modern world.

Participating libraries will organize a reading group for adults and/or for teens aged 16-19, or for a combined group, to discuss three books of Yiddish literature in translation, as well as one book related to a community served by their library.  Libraries will receive books for participants as well as discussion and resource guides. The reading group facilitator from each library will attend a workshop at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts to orient them to Yiddish literature in translation. All travel, lodging, and meal costs will be covered by the Yiddish Book Center for each library’s discussion facilitator.

The Yiddish Book Center will provide virtual public programs and downloadable discussion guides and reading resources for the reading groups.

Key Theme and Supporting Works

How can we understand displacement, dispossession, and homelessness in the modern world? As a place where many different communities come together, and a space of engagement outside of home and work, public libraries are ideal places to engage in these kinds of conversations. This program is not intended to offer programmatic solutions to the problems we face as a global community, but to provide opportunities to think through them together.

 We hope that through shared reading, small groups of readers across the country will come together to pose and contemplate similar questions, such as: What does it mean to lose one’s home, as an individual, a family, or a community? How do writers depict ideas and experiences of migration and displacement? How do ideas and meanings of “home” change over time and space? What does it feel like to create a new home?

These book discussions will place the books in historical context, while also making the issues and themes discussed relevant to the participating library’s community and location.

Reading List - Selections

Survivors: Seven Short Stories, by Chava Rosenfarb

In these seven stories, survivors of the holocaust play out that tragedy's last acts. Barukh, in "The Greenhorn", is a newly arrived immigrant in Montreal and is an oddity for reasons beyond the winter coat he continues to wear long into spring. As a dying request, Amalia, in "Last Love", asks her husband to find her a young Parisian lover. In "Edgia's Revenge", Rella, a former kapo, loses her identity over the course of two decades in Montreal to the woman whose life she spared in the camps. "François" is the account of a crumbling marriage; in it, Leah takes on an imaginary lover. The wife in "Little Red Bird" imagines kidnapping a baby from the nursery in the hospital so that she will be able to love, nurture, and raise a child of her own. These are stories of exile, of life, loss, and love. In Survivors, Chava Rosenfarb takes the Yiddish short story, in the tradition of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and extends it with touches of Philip Roth and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash

In these sixteen stories, available in English for the first time, prize-winning author Yenta Mash traces an arc across continents, across upheavals and regime changes, and across the phases of a woman’s life. Mash’s protagonists are often in transit, poised “on the landing” on their way to or from somewhere else. In imaginative, poignant, and relentlessly honest prose, translated from the Yiddish by Ellen Cassedy, Mash documents the lost world of Jewish Bessarabia, the texture of daily life behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet Moldova, and the challenges of assimilation in Israel. On the Landing opens by inviting us to join a woman making her way through her ruined hometown, recalling the colorful customs of yesteryear—and the night when everything changed. We then travel into the Soviet gulag, accompanying women prisoners into the fearsome forests of Siberia. In postwar Soviet Moldova, we see how the Jewish community rebuilds itself. On the move once more, we join refugees struggling to find their place in Israel. Finally, a late-life romance brings a blossoming of joy.

The Glatstein Chronicles, by Jacob Glatstein

In 1934, with World War II on the horizon, writer Jacob Glatstein (1896-1971) traveled from his home in America to his native Poland to visit his dying mother. One of the foremost Yiddish poets of the day, he used his journey as the basis for two highly autobiographical novellas (translated as The Glatstein Chronicles) in which he intertwines childhood memories with observations of growing antisemitism in Europe. Glatstein's accounts 'stretch like a tightrope across a chasm', writes preeminent Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse in the Introduction. In Book One, "Homeward Bound", the narrator, Yash, recounts his voyage to his birthplace in Poland and the array of international travelers he meets along the way. Book Two, Homecoming at Twilight, resumes after his mother's funeral and ends with Yash's impending return to the United States, a Jew with an American passport who recognizes the ominous history he is traversing.

Participating libraries will choose a fourth book to discuss, one that treats an experience that is relevant to members of their local community. Below are some examples of novels that might be appropriate choices, depending on the community.

  • The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui 
  • The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father, by Kao Kalia Yang 
  • We Are Displaced, by Malala Yousafzai 
  • A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende 
  • The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen 
  • Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid 
  • The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, Viet Thanh Nguyen (ed) 
  • The Sympathizer, by Viet Than Nguyen 
  • The Map of Salt and Stars, by Zeyn Joukhadar 
  • Americanah, by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie 
  • Five Little Indians, by Michelle Good 
  • There There, by Tommy Orange 
  • Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi 
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colton Whitehead 
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison 
  • The Free World, by David Bezmozgis 
  • The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Gardens in the Dunes, by Leslie Marmon Silko
  • The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich 

Benefits for Program Participants

All program participants will receive:

  • 15 copies of each of three books on the Yiddish Book Center reading list, as well as one copy of each both for the discussion facilitator and the library’s collection.
  • 15 copies of one additional book, selected by the library, which is related to the experiences of the community served by the library.
  • Travel, accommodation, and meal expenses paid for participation in a workshop at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, to orient library staff on engaging reading groups and discussion of Yiddish literature in translation.
  • Online access to downloadable discussion guides and programming resources for future use.
  • Advice and assistance in identifying potential guest speakers, as well as training and support for engaging guest speakers at public events.

Questions? See our Frequently Asked Questions, or contact Jeff, program manager, at [email protected] or 413-256-4900, ext. 151.

"Stories of Exile" Reading Groups for Public Libraries is made possible by a gift from Sharon Karmazin.