The National Yiddish Book Centre - A Story of Determination and A Lot of Dusty Books

by KathleenDuffy

The National Yiddish Book Centre in Amherst has rescued Yiddish books worldwide from obscurity and eventual destruction. It was a labour of love for those involved.

In 1973, Aaron Lansky, a Jew, later to become the founder and President of the National Yiddish Book Centre, became interested in Yiddish. He was in his first semester at New Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts.

In his book, 'Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books', Lansky describes how a course about the Holocaust led to a curiosity about the intimate lives of European Jewry as a people, not just a religious group. Their language was Yiddish.

Lansky began learning this almost forgotten language. His teacher, Professor Jules Piccas, gave him the task of translating the brilliant but difficult Yiddish novel, 'Der Sotn in Goray' ('Satan in Goray') by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

After two years translating the book from Yiddish to English, Lansky felt ready to tackle other great Yiddish works. But where were they?

Looking for Yiddish Language Books to Read

It seemed like a thankless task...

The sad fact was that Yiddish books were no longer being published. There was no call for them and the Yiddish language itself was often seen as representing a past that many Jews in America wished to forget. In the case of younger Jews, Yiddish was often perceived as having no relevance to their lives whatsoever.

After fruitless searches at local book sales, rare book dealers, and mail order companies, Jules Piccus suggested finding Yiddish books by travelling to New York’s Lower East Side where Jewish immigrants had originally settled. It was an idea that would lead Lansky and his fellow searchers on a journey into the heart of Yiddish culture, described in his book with great humour and poignancy.

The Lower East Side, circa 1910
The Lower East Side, circa 1910

The hunt for New York’s Yiddish books began in the spring of 1975 with a few friends and a borrowed van. Unsure of where to start, they stopped to eat at the Garden Café in East Broadway, There they got talking to enthusiastic, elderly Yiddish speakers who pointed them to bookshops where Yiddish books might be found.

It was chance encounters such as this that were the lifeblood of the search and would eventually result in thousands of books coming their way, and a thousand stories to go with them.

Three Books by My Favourite Yiddish Writer - Isaac Bashevis Singer

Order from Amazon - In English!
Satan in Goray: A NovelThe Manor and the Estate (Library Of ...The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashev...
Sholem Aleichem,
Sholem Aleichem,

Saving Yiddish Culture and Language

A race against time!

 

The New York trip was fruitful and it soon became obvious that the search for a few Yiddish volumes for elite scholarly perusal was turning into something else. It was vital to save Yiddish books because they represented a part of Jewish history that was slowly fading from collective memory.

Great Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem, Itzik Manger, Scholem Asch and Dovid Bergeson were at risk of being forgotten.

Some Guides to Learning Yiddish!

All Available on Amazon
Complete Idiot's Guide to Learning Yiddish

You're not idiot, of course. You can serve up a mean s'il vous plait in a French bistro, live la vida loca for a night of margaritas, and manage a sayonara! after sushi, sake, a...

View on Amazon

The New Joys of Yiddish: Completely Updated

Enjoy the most comprehensive and hilariously entertaining lexicon of the colorful and deeply expressive language of Yiddish. With the recent renaissance of interest in Yiddish, ...

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How to Talk Jewish

Jackie Mason has built his Tony Award-winning career out of the culture and language of Jewish people, so who better to instruct the unindoctrinated in the joys of Yiddish? How ...

View on Amazon

Yiddish Books Come Flooding In!

Through word of mouth and in-the-know contacts, the books began flooding in. They came from Jews whose relatives had passed on and whose books were stored in attics and cellars.

Eldridge Street Synagogue

Typical was their very first collection from Mr Levine, a bookseller on Eldridge Street, New York, whose cellar was home to a hundred Yiddish books all owned by his father. He gave his books freely, knowing they would be cherished. (On the left you can see Eldridge Street Synagogue.)

Other younger donors gave books to free up space in their homes. Understandably, they could not appreciate why the Yiddish books had meant so much to their deceased relatives, but were reluctant to put them in the trash.

Elderly New York Jews donated their precious volumes, offering endless plates of food and regaling the youngsters with stories of their lives. It was heartbreaking for them to part with the books, but at the same time a relief to know that through their donations their language would somehow be remembered, their cultural collective memories preserved.

The National Yiddish Book Centre

The dream becomes a reality.

There were many years of driving the length and breadth of America collecting Yiddish books, working long hours for little pay, rescuing books in the nick of time from dumpsters, demolished buildings, libraries and even, sadly, a building blown up by terrorists.

Books also came from old Jewish settlements overseas. A trip to Europe would lay bare their own fragile past, lending deep meaning to their vocation.

Support of Stephen Spielberg Means Books Digitalised

The collection can be accessed on line

The result of all this effort, and the tireless search for funding, has resulted in the development of the prestigious National Yiddish Book Centre, a beautiful building in the grounds of Hampshire College, and home to over 1.5 million Yiddish books.

The entire collection, with the support of Stephen Spielberg, has been digitalised and can be accessed online. Yiddish books have been distributed to universities and libraries worldwide and many Yiddish titles have been translated into English.

With the enthusiasm of youth and the single-minded tenacity of maturity, Aaron Lansky and his friends have proved that, as Isaac Bashevis Singer said, upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature for his writings in Yiddish, “Yiddish has not yet said its last word.”

Sources:

  • (1) Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky (Algonquin Books, 2004)
  • National Yiddish Book Centre website.
Updated: 07/09/2013, KathleenDuffy
 
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