Emergency Book Rescue Efforts

A letter from Aaron Lansky

April 13, 2015

Dear Friends,

I’m writing to tell you about an unusual book we recently uncovered—and to ask you to contribute to an emergency appeal to recover other rare Yiddish volumes at a moment’s notice, whenever and wherever they’re in danger.

The book we discovered is the Praktishe lehrbukh (Practical Textbook), an 1886 primer that promised to teach Jews to read and speak Russian in “half a year.” The book is considerably older than most of the titles we find: it appeared just three years after Sholem Aleichem published his first Yiddish story, and two years before I.L. Peretz made his own Yiddish literary debut. The purpose of the textbook was not to foster interest in Yiddish literature, but rather the opposite: to get Jews to learn Russian and leave Yiddish behind. Early Jewish socialists considered that a first step in radicalizing Jewish workers.

As a means of fanning the flames of revolution, Russian language learning in Yiddish was a bust: it wasn’t easy for Jewish workers to focus on Russian grammar after sixteen hours bent over a sewing machine. The few who did manage to stay awake invariably used their newly acquired linguistic knowledge to quit the shop and join the ranks of the middle class. Which may explain why, when the Bund—the Jewish socialist movement—emerged twelve years later, its leaders decided the best way to reach Jewish workers was through their own language, Yiddish. Yiddish-Russian grammars such as ours were relegated to the bottom shelf (which likely accounts for the excellent condition of the book we found), while modern Yiddish literature flourished.

Until recently, a book as old and rare as the Praktishe lehrbukh would have been kept under lock and key, accessible only to a handful of scholars. But times have changed. As soon as I finish writing this letter, we’ll be shipping the Lehrbukh to the National Library of Israel, where our colleagues will scan it and send a digital file back to Amherst. We’ll add cataloging records and upload the complete file to the nonprofit Internet Archive in San Francisco. Twelve hours later the book will be available for free download by anyone with a computer or a smart phone, anywhere on earth.

I imagine you, like me, can’t help but smile when you read this. We are living in what Sholem Aleichem called a hayntike velt, a modern world. Thanks to new technology—and your generosity—more of Yiddish literature is accessible to more people than at any other time in history. Just six years after we started posting Yiddish books online, they have been downloaded an astonishing 1.3 million times.

But despite technological progress, some things have not changed—or if they have, it’s been largely for the worse. In 1980, most of the Yiddish books we collected came from the United States and Canada. Older, Yiddish-speaking Jews would seat us at their kitchen tables, ply us with kikhlekh (cakes) and glezlekh tey (glasses of hot tea), and hand us their treasured libraries one volume at a time. Thanks in no small measure to your help, I think we can say that most Yiddish books in North America are now safe.

Regrettably, the same cannot be said for Yiddish books elsewhere in the world. The reason is the alarming growth of anti-Semitism over the past several years. Just as Jews in Europe, South America, and the Middle East are increasingly at risk, so too are Jewish books.

Lemoshl, for example? Last May we received a shipment of 5,000 Yiddish books from the Jewish Museum of Belgium. The Museum is located on a quiet, cobblestone street in the center of Brussels, near a square lined with high-end shops selling chocolates and antiques. A few weeks after the shipment was sent, a neatly dressed man walked into the Museum lobby, assembled a Kalashnikov rifle, opened fire, and left on foot. Three people died on the scene, and one more in hospital. The attacker, who was later apprehended, had ties to ISIS.

A month later we received an urgent request to recover a personal collection of Yiddish books from Caracas, Venezuela. Anti-Semitism has been on the rise in Venezuela, and most of the country’s Jews have already fled. Refugees in Miami felt it was too dangerous to go back for the books. In the end it took a non-Jewish, Cuban-American businesswoman with contacts in the Venezuelan government to get the books out.

Several weeks ago Jeffrey Goldberg published an essay in The Atlantic titled “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” He pointed to a stomach-churning “blizzard” of anti-Semitic incidents: “In 2014, Jews in Europe were murdered, raped, beaten, stalked, chased, harassed, spat on and insulted for being Jewish. Sale Juif —‘dirty Jew'—rang in the streets, as did ‘Death to the Jews,’ and ‘Jews to the gas.’” In Berlin, an imam urged his worshipers to kill Jews: “Count them and kill them to the very last one.” In Toulouse, the principal of a Jewish school saw his eight-year-old daughter gunned down in the schoolyard, along with a thirty-year-old rabbi and his two sons, ages three and six. There were 1,168 reported anti-Semitic incidents in Britain last year, more than twice the number as in 2013.

Of course Europe today is not Europe in 1933. The prime ministers of England, France, and Germany have all spoken out forcefully in defense of their countries’ Jews, and 3.7 million people marched in France after the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. But anti-Semitism remains a real and present danger.

I want to assure you that the Yiddish Book Center itself is well protected. The physical books you helped us save are stored in 700 national and university libraries, a state-of-the-art concrete “vault” beneath our Amherst building, and a fireproof warehouse in a secure, undisclosed location protected by high walls and a twenty-four-hour guard. The digital masters of our books are stored in a decommissioned Strategic Air Command bunker deep inside Bare Mountain, protected by fifty feet of solid rock.

But it will take more than guards and bedrock to protect us from other threats. Anti-Israel rhetoric has become rampant on many American campuses, and the fine line between condemning Israel and condemning Jews is growing thinner by the day. How can Jewish college students hope to defend themselves against lies and distortions without self-knowledge—without a clear understanding of who they are and where they come from?

I think that quest for self-understanding accounts, at least in part, for the increase in the number of young people applying to the Yiddish Book Center’s educational programs: Great Jewish Books for high school students, the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program for college students, fellowships for recent graduates, and Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture for twentysomethings.

And I think you’ll agree that now, more than ever, we need to continue to do everything in our power to advance knowledge of Jewish history, literature, and culture—and to recover, protect, distribute, and translate the books in which that knowledge resides.

Which is why I’m writing you now.

You have been exceptionally generous in your response to past appeals. Now the emergencies seem to be growing more frequent and more urgent. In the last week alone I’ve received urgent requests from Mexico and Israel. When emergencies arise, there isn’t always time for me to draft a letter, mail it to you and other members, and wait for your response.

So we’ve decided to confront the “new normal” head-on by raising $100,000 so we can respond instantly the next time Jewish books are in danger. (Any funds raised beyond what we need for rescue will be spent on digitization, preservation, translation, and online access.)

I wish with all my heart that I didn’t have to write this letter. But after thirty-five years, my colleagues and I at the Yiddish Book Center are nothing if not realistic, and we’d be inexcusably remiss—if not downright negligent—if we didn’t continue to do everything in our power to rescue and safeguard Yiddish books.

The Talmud teaches “Lo alekho hamelokhe ligmor” —“It’s not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Your contribution in support of emergency book rescue will not stop people from hating us. But it will help ensure that our books—the tangible legacy of our parents and grandparents—are safe.

It would be unseemly to promise premiums or tshatshkes in return for contributions to such a cause. So I would like to recognize your resolve in another way: for a tax-deductible contribution of $54 or more, we will include your name on a special “Emergency Book Rescue Honor Roll” on our website. And for a gift of $360 or more, we’ll include your name both on the website and in the next issue of Kvel, our semiannual publication that reaches 40,000 readers.

We can’t predict when the next emergency will come, but we can act now to be ready for it. Please, won’t you make your tax-deductible contribution today, while it’s still on your mind?

Mit a hartsikn dank (With heartfelt thanks),
Aaron Lansky
Yiddish Book Center