About "Coming to America" Reading Groups for Public Libraries

Program Description

The Yiddish Book Center’s “Coming to America” Reading Groups for Public Libraries is a reading and discussion program to engage teens and adults in thinking about immigrants' experiences encountering America.

Using Yiddish literature as a portal, the program will feature Yiddish literature in translation that explores questions of identity, assimilation, language, cuisine, and generational change, presenting American identity as an ongoing conversation, a give-and-take between insiders and outsiders, and will compare these works written in the early 20th century to works by contemporary immigrant writers. 

The goals of the program are:

  • to introduce libraries and the public to Yiddish literature in the context of the broader immigrant experience in coming to America.
  • to help prompt and inform discussions about American immigration experiences—a topic as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago.

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 an immigrant 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.

Applicants may apply for an additional $500 grant to invite a guest speaker and present a public program related to the “Coming to America” theme. The Yiddish Book Center will provide downloadable discussion guides and reading resources for the reading groups, as well as advice and assistance engaging speakers.

Key Theme and Supporting Works

In what way do immigrants change America and in what way does America change immigrants? Public libraries are ideal places to engage in this conversation. The purpose of the program isn’t to answer this question but to pose it as expansively as possible. The hope is that through shared reading, groups will discuss the transformations brought about by immigration from a variety of perspectives. Are all immigrant experiences alike? How does literature explain the differences between them? It is important that the book discussions place the books in historical context while also making the discussions feel relevant to the participating library’s community and location.

Reading List - Selections

Motl the Cantor’s Son, by Sholem Aleichem
Sholem Aleichem was one of the founding fathers of modern Yiddish literature and is one the most celebrated characters in all of Jewish fiction. Motl is the spirited and mischievous nine-year-old boy who accompanies his family on a journey from their Russian shtetl to New York, and whose comical, poignant, and clear-eyed observations capture with remarkable insight the struggles and hopes and triumphs of Jewish immigrants to America at the turn of the twentieth century.

Enemies, A Love Story, by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Isaac Bashevis Singer was a Polish-American writer in Yiddish, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. In this book, Herman Broder, refugee and survivor of World War II, has three wives: Yadwiga, the Polish peasant who hid him from the Nazis; Masha, his beautiful and neurotic true love; and Tamara, his first wife, miraculously returned from the dead. Astonished by each new complication, and yet resigned to a life of evasion, Herman navigates a crowded, Yiddish New York with a sense of perpetually impending doom.

A Jewish Refugee in New York, by Kadya Molodovsky
Kadya Molodovsky (1894–1975) was one of the most well-known and prolific writers of Yiddish literature in the twentieth century.  Rivke Zilberg, a 20-year-old Jewish woman, arrives in New York shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland, her home country. Struggling to learn a new language and cope with a different way of life in the United States, Rivke finds herself keeping a journal about the challenges and opportunities of this new land.  Molodovsy provides keen insight into the day-to-day activities of the large immigrant Jewish community of New York.

Alternate title:

How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, a collection of essays edited by Josh Lambert and Ilan Stavans
A sprawling, ambitious collection of essays, stories, poems, and memoirs on how at the end of the 19th century a wave of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived to America with big dreams and how dreams transformed the country as the immigrants themselves embraced American values. Contributors include Isaac Bashevis Singer, Kadya Molodowsky, Sholem Asch, Grace Paley, Naomi Seidman, Maurice Sendak, Cynthia Ozick, Leonard Nimoy, Leo Rosten, Irving Howe, Walter Matthau, Rivka Galken, Ben Katchor, Alfred Kazin, and many more.

Participating libraries will choose a fourth book to discuss, one that treats an immigrant 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.

  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu
  • The Namesake, by Jumpah Lahiri
  • The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez
  • The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston
  • Lost in Translation, by Eva Hoffman
  • Out of Egypt, by Andre Aciman
  • The Face: A Time Code, by Ruth Ozeki
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez
  • The Body Papers, by Grace Talusan
  • Temporary People, by Deepak Unikrishnan

Award Information

Option 1:

The Yiddish Book Center will provide copies of each book on the reading list to all reading group participants, including one for the discussion facilitator and one for circulation in the library, as well as professionally curated and designed downloadable discussion guides and reading resources.

Option 2:

The Yiddish Book Center will award an additional $500 to libraries who wish to invite a guest speaker for a public program related to the theme of the program.

Benefits for Grant Recipients

All grantees 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 immigration 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.

In addition to the above, grantees who apply for Option 2 will receive:

  • $500 to invite a guest speaker for a public program related to the theme of the program.
  • 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.

"Coming to America" Reading Groups for Public Libraries is made possible by a gift from Sharon Karmazin. 

The Yiddish Book Center's Decade of Discovery is made possible in part by a grant from the Leona and Ralph W. Kern Foundation.