2021: The Year in Review

A look at the Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project's 2021 year.

A Note from Christa

Tayere khaveyrim—dear friends,

As we start this new year and I reflect on 2021 and the challenges we faced due to the pandemic, I am delighted to report on all we have accomplished. Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we have launched a new effort to enhance access to our collection. At the same time, we continue to record new interviews both online and cautiously in person. Our first feature-length documentary film is resonating with audiences—including people who may never have heard of Yiddish before—around the world. Read on for exciting news about the grant work, the film, highlights from our recent recordings, and more.

None of this would have been possible without you—our narrators who so generously offer their stories and insights, and our members who support this important work to document and preserve Yiddish language and culture. Thank you!

Mit vareme grusn—warm regards, 
Christa Whitney
Director, Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project

Nu, vi geyt es?: How's It Going? By the Numbers

Graphic of interviews completed in 2021

Gute nayes: Wexler Oral History Project Receives Its Second NEH Grant

In April, we received a major three-year grant of $350,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which will advance our efforts to increase the Project’s reach and discoverability around the globe. The grant builds on the work accomplished thanks to a previous NEH award, which funded the transcription of over 400 English-language interviews and indexing of over 600 interviews. In addition to allowing us to transcribe and index more oral histories, the new NEH award will support a sitewide search function that will link our oral history collection to the larger holdings of the Yiddish Book Center, including its digitized Yiddish books and archival recordings. These holdings will be newly discoverable on scholarly search platforms and will be connected to authority files such as the Library of Congress and the Getty Thesaurus of Geographical Terms. We are thrilled that the grant will help more scholars, filmmakers, and the general public find and utilize our materials. We are lucky that Carole Renard, who guided us through our 2016–2020 NEH grant as project coordinator, will be returning to lead this important work as project manager. 

View the Yiddish Book Center press release, including comments from executive director Susan Bronson and project director Christa Whitney. 

Af tshikaves: Highlighting Themes and Individuals in Our Collection

Throughout the year, we delve into our digital collection and curate collections of interview highlights around important themes and events. We celebrate the diverse voices within our collection and showcase the vibrancy of Yiddish and Jewish culture. Following the death of acclaimed actor and activist Ed Asner in August 2021, we honored his memory and provided highlights on Ed Asner’s Jewish life from our 2018 interview with him. Other features celebrate New York City–based Yiddish radio station WEVD, the joys of learning Yiddish, the beloved Yiddish actress Molly Picon, the art of Yiddish translation, food-related stories, queer Yiddish stories, memories of synagogues around the world, and Jewish humor.

View all the Wexler Oral History project features .

Noent un vayt: Capturing Stories Near and Far

Over the past year as travel remained a challenge, we carried on with a schedule of remote interviews over Zoom. The format enables our team of oral historians to easily connect with narrators from across the globe. One notable highlight was when Christa conducted an interview with award-winning actor, dancer, singer, and director Joel Grey in March. Some other fascinating material came from our field fellow Nina Pick, who conducted interviews with clinical herbalist and author Deatra Cohen and musician and composer Ilya Shneyveys. 

Christa Whitney interviewing Joel Grey over Zoom
Christa Whitney interviewing Joel Grey over Zoom

At the same time, with COVID-19 protocols in place, we also cautiously began conducting in-person fieldwork. Most exciting was when our field fellow Tanya Panova traveled to Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of Russia, in August, where she conducted ten interviews. Birobidzhan was formed during the Soviet period in 1931 and remains one of the few places in the world where Yiddish is an official language. Tanya interviewed a former factory worker, an artist, a historian of the region, a songwriter, and others. These interviews—all conducted in Russian—provide insight into contemporary Jewish life in this remote region and enhance our understanding of the history of Birobidzhan.

Back at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, our team interviewed artist Steve Marcus, whose hand-drawn works of art and wood-carved sculptures are on exhibit at the Center. In the interview, Steve discussed his artistic journey, including how he developed his current style of “kosher folk art” that weaves together his pop art background with his personal reconnection to Jewish tradition. With the Center open to the public, you can see Marcus’s work in person through March 2022.

Steve Marcus interview shoot
Behind the scenes of our oral history interview with artist Steve Marcus

Bay undz: Staff Updates

In August, Joshua Popkin joined the Wexler Oral History Project as our new project assistant. 

What a pleasure it is to join this team and get to know this incredible collection!” Josh said. “To work on this oral history project, here at the Yiddish Book Center, is to be an integral, generative part of Jewish culture today. Engaging with the stories in our collection has already done so much to deepen my connection to Yiddishkeit. I’m excited to continue supporting our interviews and output of content in the coming year.

Afn ekran—On Screen: Film News

Who Will Remain poster with laurels

The Wexler Oral History Project’s feature-length documentary film Ver Vet Blaybn? (Who Will Remain?) had its world premiere in April at the Miami Jewish Film Festival and is screening at film festivals around the world. Regional premieres have taken place at the festivals J×J in Washington, DC, NHDocs in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Kerala Museum in Kochi, India. Additional official selections and screenings have been organized in Ukraine, Japan, Israel, and in cities across the United States. The film is also the recipient of numerous awards, including the Antonio Ripoll Award for Best Editing at the St Andrews Film Festival, Best Film Made by Women from the Kerala Museum, and Best Feature Documentary from the Switzerland International Film Festival. The film follows a woman’s journey to understand her grandfather, the Yiddish writer Avrom Sutzkever. In November, the film’s directors Christa Whitney and Emily Felder discussed the film with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Larry Hott at the Boston Jewish Film Festival. Later that month, the film was screened at the Melech Film Festival in Tel Aviv and at the St Andrews Film Festival in Scotland. We are looking forward to a busy schedule of screenings in 2022. 

Click here to learn more about the film, see the schedule of upcoming screenings, and follow its public reception.

Zikhroynom livrokhe (Remembering Past Narrators)

William Robin, z”l, temple administrator and WWII veteran, died on June 21. William was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and graduated from Brown University. In his interview, he discusses the ethnic makeup of the city, his experiences at various Providence synagogues, and his family background. He also shares stories from his service in the US Army during WWII and his experiences as a Jewish soldier. At the end of his interview, Williams reflects on his connection to Yiddish culture and speaks to modern Jewish observance and assimilation in America. Watch his full interview and excerpts.

Leo Summergrad, z”l, Yiddish speaker, educator, and WWII veteran, died on July 28. Leo grew up in the Bronx in a home where Yiddish was the primary language. In his oral history interview, he describes the Jewish neighborhood where he grew up and the wonderful experiences he had as a child attending Camp Kinderland. Leo cites his decision to attend a Yiddish secular school as the most important of his life because he met his wife-to-be there. He reflects on his experience as an army medic in the Pacific during WWII and reminisces on his 40 years as a teacher in the South Bronx. Leo was also a collector of Yiddish songs, and in the interview, he sings a favorite Yiddish folk song. Watch his oral history interview and excerpts

Ed Asner, z”l, American actor and former president of the Screen Actors Guild, died on August 29. In his 2018 oral history interview, Ed revealed his humble beginnings growing up in his father’s junkyard in Kansas City. As a child, he grudgingly attended heder (traditional religious school) four afternoons a week while his friends were out playing ball but credits his bar mitzvah as motivation for his career as a performer. He went on to reflect on his complicated Jewish identity and his love of Yiddish. Watch his full interview and excerpts.

Jack Hoffinger, z’’l, attorney who grew up in the Bronx and Coney Island, died on September 7. Among his professional accomplishments, Jack served as an assistant district attorney in New York County under Frank Hogan and was president of the New York Criminal Bar Association. He inspired and mentored many lawyers, including all three of his children, who followed his lead as criminal defense attorneys. He was married for 65 years to Bunny, with whom we also have an oral history in the collection along with a joint interview of Bunny and Jack. In his 2015 oral history interview, Jack reflected on his upbringing, family history, and identity as a secular Jew. Watch his full interview and excerpts.

Yakob Basner, z’’l, Yiddish teacher and Holocaust survivor, died on September 8. Born in 1927 to a Yiddish-speaking family in Riga, Latvia, Basner and his family were forced into the Riga Ghetto when the Nazis invaded. He was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust. After the war, Basner lived in Soviet Riga, where he married his wife Doba and raised two daughters. He worked in the leather-cutting trade by day and studied linguistics in the evening. He eventually immigrated to Long Beach, California, where he began teaching Yiddish. He also lectured widely about Yiddish literature in English. His interview, in Yiddish, illustrates Basner’s lifelong devotion to teaching Yiddish and how dear the language was to him. Watch his full interview and excerpts

Miriam “Mimi” Erlich, z”l, descendant of Jewish historian Shimon Dubnow, Bund leader Henrych Erlich, and Russian poet Sofye Dubnow Erlich, died on September 27. Born in Kaunas, Lithuania, amid the chaos of WWII, Mimi was a lifelong New Yorker, a gifted pianist, and a devoted teacher at PS 145 for 30 years. Her father, Alexander Erlich, was a professor of economic history at Columbia University, and her mother, Rachel Fliegel Erlich, was a scholar at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Both her parents were Yiddish speakers and, as Bundists, were active members of the secular Jewish socialist movement. In her oral history interview, Mimi reflected on her family history and discussed why labor organizing and the Bund (a Jewish socialist organization) are still relevant today. Watch her full interview.

Chana Szlang Gonshor, z”l, died on October 19. A native Yiddish speaker, Chana was born in 1919 in Warsaw, Poland, where she attended a Yiddish-language school, sang in the Tsukunft Choir, and attended the Medem Sanatorium, an educational and clinical facility for children at risk for tuberculosis run by the Bund. In her interview, she describes her childhood in prewar Poland, recalls her time at the Medem Sanitorium, and recounts her immigration journey through Poland to Montreal, Canada. During the interview, she sings songs that she remembers from her youth and reflects on how Yiddish remains a part of her family to this day. Watch her full interview and excerpts.

Barnett Zumoff, z’’l, a medical doctor by profession and a Yiddish translator and activist, died on March 21. He was president of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeiter Ring for two terms in the 1970s as well as the physician for Camp Kinder Ring for 49 summers. In his 2013 interview, he discusses his early secular Yiddish education, describes getting to know Avrom Sutzkever, and relates his experiences translating Yiddish literature. Barnett also reflects on many other aspects of Yiddish culture and literature. He published three dozen translations of the works of Yiddish writers and poets and wrote poetry himself. Active in the Yiddish cultural world in New York City, he held various positions in Yiddish organizations such as The Forward, ORT, Folksbiene, YIVO, Atran Foundation, and more. Watch his full interview and excerpts.

To continue following along with our work as it develops: