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Aaron Lansky and the Gospel of Yiddish

Bennett Muraskin
November 7, 2017

by Bennett Muraskin

IS THERE A FUTURE for yidishkayt in North America? Aaron Lansky thinks so and offers as a model his National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.

I just heard him speak at a synagogue in Livingston, New Jersey. Anyone who read his outstanding memoir, Outwitting History, would have been familiar with the first half of his talk: how his study of Yiddish in college led him to rescue old Yiddish books. By relying on Yiddish-speaking old-timers who stuffed him and his crew with mounds of Ashkenazic delicacies while handing off their books, and by making fortuitous trips in a broken-down truck to forgotten libraries, dumpsters and demolition sites, Lansky amassed a collection of one million books. When Lansky started this project, he was told by Yiddish meyvens that there were no more than 70,000 such books in existence.

But that is only half the story. Over many years now, the Yiddish Book Center has produced tapes and CDs of Yiddish literature and other Jewish literature read in English. It has digitized ten thousand Yiddish books for public consumption, and publishes the Pakn Treger, an attractive quarterly magazine. The Book Center has built a magnificent structure on its campus, where it teaches Yiddish, translates Yiddish books, maintains an oral history archive, and sponsors Yiddish klezmer concerts and other cultural events. Critically, it holds classes for students (from middle school to graduate school), teachers, and adult learners to promote Jewish literacy. If there is one organization that has captured the imagination of young Jews looking to reclaim their cultural legacy, it is the YBC.

Unlike many among the Jewish establishment who cite the Pew Research Center study of Jewish Americans as evidence of the terminal decline, based on the high incidence of intermarriage and growing indifference to Jewish observance, Lansky finds promise in the respondents’ expression of pride in the cultural side of their Jewish identity. Indeed, Lansky is a confirmed diaspora Jew who believes that Jews are a people as much as a religion, and whose future depends on cultivating a sense of yidishkayt that is not dependent on admiration for Israel or an obsession with the Holocaust.

LANSKY is an excellent speaker. His blend of erudition, wit, and passion is infectious.He can give the impression, however, that he invented the wheel. Lansky may indeed have grown up in a middle-class suburb where he received a boring Hebrew school education that cut him off from a rich Jewish past, but there were networks of secular Yiddish schools, summer camps, and related institutions that disseminated Yiddish culture, published Yiddish newspapers and journals, produced Yiddish songbooks, and translated a good deal of the best Yiddish literature into English. It would not hurt if Lansky acknowledged the YBC’s predecessors or, for that matter, the YBC’s kindred spirits today, such as YIVO, the National Yiddish Theater Folksbeine, the League for Yiddish, the Yiddishland week at the Circle Lodge, the Yiddish New York festival at the 14th Street Y, like activities in Los Angeles, etc. Still, it warmed my heart to learn that the YBC is reaching out to Jewish day schools to provide them with the resources to expand their curriculum to include Yiddish literature.

Since the YBC is on a mission to make more Yiddish books available on line, it is fair to ask who will read them. Lansky’s answer is that about 60 percent of the readers are students or scholars, mostly from abroad, and 40 percent are Hasidim who read them secretly. Lansky cited these statistics with pride, but to me they suggest that secular American Jews are not that interested in learning the language at such a high level. Further, I wonder about YBC’s ongoing translation project. I did not hear from him what criteria the YBC employs to determine which books and what authors are worth translating. Considering the arduous work of translation, it is essential to separate the grain from the chaff. I recently read (and reviewed for Jewish Currents) a collection of short stories entitled Oedipus in Brooklyn by Blume Lempel that the YBC had a role in translating, and found it wanting. I have had the same reaction to many newly translated stories that appear in the Pakn Treger. But then again, eyderer loyt zayn geshmak (there is no accounting for taste).

Those who have visited the Yiddish Book Center come back with stories of an impressive building, an engaging staff, high-quality exhibits and stimulating programs. If you go in the fall, you can pick your own apples in the surrounding grove. Those who haven’t owe yourselves a trip. It is a less-than-three-hour drive into the Berkshires, a beautiful corner of Massachusetts with plenty of other attractions. On my only trip with my wife Ellen, we just happened to meet Elaine Katz, who, before she died, was a mainstay of Jewish Currents (along with her late husband Lyber), her son Michael and daughter-in-law Linda, who are active in the vital Boston branch of the Workmen’s Circle — another bastion of yidishkayt — and a few delightful grandchildren.

It does not get any better than that.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.