Center Works to Preserve Yiddish a Book at a Time
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Jan 22 20:05:32 UTC 2005
>>From the Washington Post, Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page A03
Center Works to Preserve Yiddish a Book at a Time
Mass. Man Finds History in Disparate Places
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page A03
AMHERST, Mass. -- History arrived not so long ago in a thousand-pound
crate postmarked "Bulawayo, Zimbabwe." Workers here wrestled the crate
inside the National Yiddish Book Center and opened it. What treasures they
found: Yiddish travelogues from Belgian Congo, accounts of Yiddish ostrich
farmers, a famous history of the Russian Socialist Party. The last
synagogue in Bulawayo, a tree-lined city on the edge of the Kalahari
Desert, was closing its doors, and a rabbi packed this crate and mailed it
to the center with no notice.
"You have no clue, none, what you'll find when you open these boxes up,"
said Aaron Lansky, the Yiddish Book Center's founder and chief zamler (a
person who gathers scattered things). He pulled out a history book and
turned the pages. Yellowed parchment flecked off like sand. "It's our lost
history," Lansky said, "literally crumbling in our hands."
Lansky has created the world's greatest repository of books in a language
spoken and written by 11 million of the world's Jews until the 1940s, when
the Holocaust nearly consumed that culture. The center -- modeled on an
Eastern European shtetl and set in an apple orchard at Hampshire College
-- houses 120,000 Yiddish titles. Another million or so volumes sit in an
old silk mill in Holyoke, where the weight of so much literature causes
the support beams to bend. And still the books arrive, 100 on Monday,
another 500 on Thursday. "Early on, I found myself interested less in the
details of the Holocaust than by this question: So who were these Jews
they wanted to murder? What was this culture they wanted to destroy?"
Lansky said. "I discovered in Yiddish the language by which Jews made
sense of the modern world."
Enlisting hundreds of volunteer zamlers -- many of them Holocaust
survivors -- Lansky has passed a quarter-century ferreting out Yiddish
novels in attics and cellars in the Bronx and Cleveland, discovering
musical score sheets in a garage in Borough Park and stacks of histories
in abandoned bookstores on New York's Lower East Side. In 1981, he
discovered a dumpster filled with Yiddish books -- history's dustbin come
to life. He and friends conducted a Perils of Pauline nighttime rescue,
with a U-Haul van and a dozen friends forming a de facto bucket brigade to
load the books of Zionist theory, memoirs and Yiddish translations of the
Torah before the rain ruined them.
"Half of our books have come from New York City, but we have our
surprises," he said by way of no little understatement. Lansky has hopped
secret flights to Cuba to rescue books from a synagogue and sifted through
volumes left in a San Francisco carriage by a socialist, Yiddish
chicken-farming commune in Petaluma. He's taken receipt of Yiddish books
from Nome, Alaska. And with the help of movie producer and director Steven
Spielberg, his center is turning the collection digital.
Not for nothing did he title his memoir "Outwitting History: The Amazing
Adventures of a Man who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books." There is a
boyish quality to the 49-year-old man with the blue eyes, wire-rimmed
glasses and disheveled hair. "When I began, I consulted with academic
experts and they said, 'Oh, there's about 70,000 Yiddish books in the
nation,' " Lansky said. "I said, 'Okay, I can do that in two years.' Now I
have 1.5 million books." He shrugs. "What can I say? The experts were
Yiddish, as such things go, is a relatively young language, formed around
the 10th century from a linguistic bouillabaisse of Aramaic, German,
French, Italian, Hebrew, Belarusan and Ukrainian. "It was spoken by more
Jews than any language in history," said Ruth Wisse, a professor of
Yiddish literature at Harvard University, who taught Lansky at Toronto's
McGill University in the 1970s.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, Yiddish had become the conduit by which
Jewish peddlers and merchants introduced the Enlightenment to the East --
from Poland to Hungary and Bulgaria and Russia. Jewish intellectuals
responded to this ferment by writing in Hebrew, the language of scholars.
But there was a problem.
"It was like writing in Latin. No one understood them," Lansky said. "They
turned to Yiddish as a necessary evil."
The first modern Yiddish novel was written in 1864. Then a sort of
cultural combustion occurred: The great masters of Yiddish literature,
Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer and Moyshe Kulbak and H. Leivick, began
turning out novels and poems and plays that played with memory and
surrealism and sex and modernity.
"The power, the velocity, of this literature was astonishing," Lansky
As quickly, it nearly disappeared. Israel promoted Hebrew over Yiddish,
which was the language of exile. In the United States, assimilation took
its toll on the language. Only the Hasidim, the ultra-orthodox, speak
Yiddish any longer. And they will not touch Yiddish literature, which they
consider worldly, and sexualized, and therefore treyf (impure).
The Yiddish modernists wound up marooned. Lansky recalls how the elderly
editor of the avant-garde magazine Zayn handed him the old copies and
turned away. "I could not possibly understand what he felt," he said.
"It's the ultimate tragedy of their lives that they had helped create
modern culture and now their children literally could not understand their
Lansky was no different. He grew up in New Bedford, Mass., hearing Yiddish
without quite understanding it. "My parents spoke Yiddish as a language of
secrets," he said.
He came to Hampshire College in the 1970s, another kid with long hair and
a long beard. He took a course in the Holocaust and another in Yiddish and
somewhere the hook slipped in. "I remember our Yiddish professor yelling
at us: 'Just because your grandmother spoke it doesn't mean you'll learn
it by osmosis,' " he said.
Only in time did Lansky realize that his collecting was as much about
saving a generation's memory as about their buhks (books). In July 1980,
he received a letter from an 87-year-old.
"I have books . . . [but] I am a very old man and I'm afraid that after I
will be gone they may throw them in the trash. Please do help me out.
Respectfully, Norman Temmelman."
Lansky drove to Atlantic City and found Temmelman in a fifth-floor
apartment, a place piled high with boxes of Yiddish books. Temmelman
showed him the poetry books that he had shared with his wife, and yellowed
accounts of the history of interwar Europe. "It became clear to me that he
was handing me an inheritance, his yerushe," Lansky said. "I was his
For a decade, Lansky worked 15-hour days, traveling constantly, making
calls from graffiti-covered phone booths, climbing tenement stairs,
reaching under beds and into closets for those books. In 1997, he scraped
together the $7 million needed to build the center. Arranged as sort of
post-modern shtetl, it has a museum and the digitalization program and
visiting scholars. And he used money from a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship
in 1989 to pay himself a steady salary for the first time in his life.
Now he has the aches: His knees, like those of any good shlepper, are
going on him. And there's the modest salary and pension. Talk of this and
Lansky shakes his head.
"Eh! Not for a second did I ever think I was living in poverty," Lansky
said. "My work has meaning; I've been blessed."
2005 The Washington Post Company
Correction to This Article
A Jan. 19 article about a Massachusetts man preserving Yiddish literature
incorrectly said that McGill University is in Toronto. It is in Montreal.
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