"Coming to America" Reading Groups for Public Libraries 2020

In 2020, the Yiddish Book Center launched its partnership with the American Library Association with its first Reading Groups for Public Libraries. The 2020 theme was “Coming to America” and it explored 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. 

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 choose a fourth book to discuss relevant to members of their local community. Below are some examples of novels.

  • 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

Selected Libraries

  • Bryan + College Station Public Library (College Station, TX)
  • Campbell County Public Library (Cold Spring, KY)
  • Central Arkansas Library System (Little Rock, AR)
  • Fletcher Free Library (Burlington, VT)
  • Forbes Library (Northampton, MA)
  • Fort Lee Public Library (Fort Lee, NJ)
  • Greenwood County Library (Greenwood, SC)
  • Jones Library (Amherst, MA)
  • San Jose Public Library (San Jose, CA)
  • Los Angeles Public Library (Los Angeles, CA)
  • Lower Macungie Library (Macungie, PA)
  • Milwaukee Public Library (Milwaukee, WI)
  • New Orleans Public Library (New Orleans, LA)
  • North Regional / Broward County College Library (Coconut Creek, FL)
  • Public Library of Brookline (Brookline, MA)
  • Russell Library (Middletown, CT)
  • Shaker Heights Public Library (Shaker Heights, OH)
  • Springfield-Greene County Library District (Springfield, MO)
  • Vernon Area Public Library (Lincolnshire, IL)
  • Virginia Beach Library Foundation (Virginia Beach, VA)
  • White Salmon Valley Community Library (White Salmon, WA)

"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.