Weekly Reader The Editors and the Publishers
January 23, 2022
The history of Yiddish literature is often portrayed as a history of Yiddish writers—it was the writers who wrote the books, after all. But those books didn’t materialize out of thin air. Like all writers, Yiddish authors needed editors and publishers to help them reach their readers. Those people are usually less well remembered, which is why this week we’re focusing on the behind-the-scenes of Yiddish literature. As history goes, it’s just as fascinating as the scenes themselves.
Publish or Perish
Yiddish publishing was never easy. Its history is marked by government censorship, political upheaval, a geographically fragmented market, weak educational institutions, state repression, and the Holocaust. Nevertheless, Yiddish publishers did have one important thing going for them. Yiddish-speaking Jews were, by and large, readers.
In the Yiddish Book Center’s vault of rare materials, there are countless pieces of cast-metal Yiddish type along with box after box of journals and magazines they may have been used to print. Over the past century and a half, organizations of every ideological stripe published more than 3,000 titles of Yiddish journals and magazines around the globe, from Cuba to Krakow to Capetown. But when you browse the titles you’ll notice a single word recurring again and again: “Undzer,” meaning “ours.”
When Aaron Lansky set out to rescue Yiddish books in the early 1980s, he was undertaking what was already a venerable Jewish tradition: collecting. Over time other collectors (or "zamlers") joined in to help build the YBC’s collections and save countless Yiddish books. In honor of our 40th anniversary in 2020, we began a series of conversations with some of these volunteer zamlers, starting with one Jack Hirschberg.
The Littlest Readers
The 1940s and ’50s were a golden age for primers, workbooks, and educational material designed for children in Yiddish schools. These books and notebooks have much to tell us. But so does what their users left behind: doodles, addresses, jokes, and other marginalia that provide glimpses into the inner world of schoolchildren in a unique educational system. Miriam Borden is a collector of these archival objects and recently won the 2020 Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize for her trove of schoolbooks, flashcards, and more. In this presentation, she shares highlights of this collection and the stories behind them.
It’s one thing to look at a collection of books on a shelf; it’s another to know what people actually read. That’s what interests Emory University professor Eric L. Goldstein, a specialist in the reading culture of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to the United States. Goldstein shares his knowledge of immigrant reading culture—from novels and short stories to Americanization manuals—during this time and what he has found in his research.