The Yiddish Book Center

By Sid Goldstein

The Yiddish Book Center, founded in 1980 by Aron Lansky, is celebrating its fortieth anniversary. The Center was created to preserve Yiddish literature and Yiddish culture. The Center undertakes programs designed to foster a deeper understanding of how Yiddish remains relevant in the context of modern Jewish culture. To this end, the Center has revitalized thousands of pieces of Yiddish literature that were thought to be lost. Their staff is continually searching the globe for Yiddish literature that existed and thrived but is rare and difficult to find. In the course of his studies, Lansky realized that untold numbers of irreplaceable Yiddish books—the primary, tangible legacy of a thousand years of Jewish life in Eastern Europe—were being discarded by American-born Jews unable to read the language of their Yiddish-speaking parents and grandparents. So he organized a nationwide network of zamlers (volunteer book collectors) and launched a concerted campaign to save the world’s remaining Yiddish books before it was too late. When the Center began, experts estimated that 70,000 Yiddish books were still extant and recoverable. The Center’s young staff surpassed that number in six months and went on to recover more than a million volumes—some lovingly handed to them by their original owners, others rescued at the last minute from demolition sites and dumpsters. They have found books in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, England, France, South Africa, Australia, and other countries around the world. And they continue to collect thousands of additional volumes each year.

Since 2007, the Yiddish Book Center has made more than 12,000 titles available online in the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library. This comprehensive collection includes works of fiction, memoirs, poetry, plays, short stories, science manuals, cookbooks, primers, and more. These are works by the most renowned Yiddish authors and lesser-known writers alike. To date, those titles have been downloaded an astonishing 1.6 million times. The Center also sponsors podcasts called The Shmooze that run weekly on their website. A typical example was last week. On a call all the way from Scotland, Morgan Holleb and Joe Isaac talk about how they came to co-found Glasgow’s new Peacock Café—a Yiddish-speaking kosher café operated by Jewish self-described ‘schnorrers’ where customers will “pay what they can.” Every year the Yiddish Book Center undertakes a themed project. This year’s theme focuses on Jewish immigration and the ways in which the encounter with Yiddish culture has shaped Jewish life in America over the past 150 years. In celebration of this theme, the Center spotlighting a collection of short interview excerpts from the Wexler Oral History Project about American Jewish farming communities in the US, a slideshow with iconic images from New York’s Yiddish theater, and a “From the Vault” piece by Eitan Kensky about some of the more “colorful” guidebooks in our collection written for Jewish immigrants to the United States. All of these pieces are available for members to download, read and enjoy. Becoming a member of the Yiddish Book Center is not difficult. Go to yiddishbookcenter.org and click on “Join & Support” on the top right side of the homepage. Membership is $54.00 per year. Besides having access to all the digital library materials, as well as the project archives, you will also receive a copy of their beautiful quarterly newsletter Kvel (Delight). The Yiddish Book Center continually strives to make more and more Yiddish materials available to the Jewish public. Even during the pandemic, their researchers continue the task of finding and revitalizing pieces of Yiddish literature so that we, our children and our grandchildren can maintain a connection to the places from where we came and the unique culture that we created.

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