NATIONAL YIDDISH BOOK CENTER, cultural institution dedicated to collecting and distributing endangered Yiddish books and, through programs and education, opening up their contents to new readers. Located in Amherst, Massachusetts, the Center safeguards a collection of 1.5 million Yiddish books rescued from individuals and institutions worldwide. The collection contains original Yiddish novels, plays, poetry, nonfiction, periodicals, and sheet music, most in duplicate copies. The majority were published between the late 19th- and mid-20th century, mainly in Eastern Europe, the United States, and South America. The books fell into disuse as spoken Yiddish was gradually replaced by English and other languages after World War II. All the Center's volumes are available for sale at nominal cost to individuals, libraries, schools, and colleges and universities.
Because of the physical deterioration of many volumes, the Center created the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library in 1998, making reprints of every title available for purchase as brand-new, hardcover, acid-free editions. The Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library is believed to be the only project ever to digitize an entire modern literature, preserving it permanently forfuture generations of readers, students, and scholars.
The Yiddish Book Center is a nonprofit institution, and its programs are funded by contributions from over 30,000 (as of 2005) members, and gifts and grants. Founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky, the Center was one of the first organizations in America dedicated to the preservation of Yiddish literature and culture. As a young graduate student, Lansky saw the need to save endangered books that were being discarded by the children and grandchildren of elderly Jewish immigrants. His call to save Yiddish books from destruction led to a massive, ongoing rescue operation by a worldwide network of zamlers (volunteers). Lansky won the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's so-called "genius" award in recognition of his extraordinary work.
In the early years of collection, most books, the personal property of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, came from locations within the United States. The mid-1990s saw a shift in origin, with volumes shipped from South Africa, Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil–sites of once-large Yiddish-speaking immigrant communities. All books coming into the Center are sorted by hand and new titles are catalogued according to library standards. As of 2005, 25 years after its founding, the Center still receives an average of 500 Yiddish books each week.
In 1997 the Yiddish Book Center moved into permanent headquarters in Amherst. The building, designed by architect Allen Moore, recalls the dramatic lines of the lost wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe. It is open to the public six days per week and houses library-style stacks of Yiddish books as well as exhibits, a theater, bookstore, and offices. Approximately 10,000 visitors come to the Center each year to view exhibits on modern Yiddish literature and culture and to attend programs ranging from week-long conferences to concerts, performances, readings, lectures, films, and family-oriented events.
The Book Center publishes an English-language magazine, Pakn Treger, which features essays, fiction, new translations, cultural reporting, photographs, and art connecting contemporary Jewish life to its roots in Yiddish culture. The Center's "Jewish Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond," a 13-part audio series produced for National Public Radio in 1995, introduced hundreds of thousands of listeners to the riches of Yiddish and other modern Jewish literature, in English.
In 1989 the Center invited college students to take part in an internship program that provided Yiddish language instruction in combination with hands-on work sorting and shelves incoming Yiddish volumes. The popular program grew into the Steiner Summer Internship Program and now offers dozens of students an opportunity to study Yiddish language and literature in intensive accredited courses and to take part in the ongoing work of the Center for eight weeks each year. Many alumni of the program have gone on to enter the field of Jewish and Yiddish studies as educators, writers, and community leaders.
In 2002 the Center joined with the Fund for the Translation of Modern Jewish Literature and Yale University Press to create the New Yiddish Library, an initiative producing new translations of modern Yiddish literature. New Yiddish Library titles include works by Shalom Aleichem, Itzik Manger, and Lamed Shapiro. The Center also produced the Rohr Library of Recorded Yiddish, which preserved as CD compilations more than two dozen full-length works of modern Yiddish literature read by native Yiddish speakers, in partnership with the Jewish Library of Montreal.
A. Lansky, Outwitting History (2004).