Reading Yiddish Literature in Spring 2023

Today’s post was written by Programming and Exhibitions Librarian Rhonda Rosen.

My interest in Yiddish literature began in 2005 while attending an American Library Association conference in Boston. I heard a man speak about a book he had written, “Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books.” His name was Aaron Lansky, and I was entranced by his story.

Yes, my grandmother always called me her shana maidela (beautiful young girl) and our elders spoke a funny smattering of unfamiliar words over our heads when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying. I had never thought about Yiddish as a “real” language, let alone having a literary canon. But here was this charming man talking about his amazing journey to save Yiddish books. Who knew?

In his book, Lansky talks about how as 23 year-old graduate student of Yiddish literature he set out to save the world’s abandoned Yiddish books before it was too late. He realized that many of these books were being discarded by American-born Jews unable to read the language of their Yiddish-speaking parents and grandparents. “Outwitting History” is a funny, loving, dedicated story of how he and his fellow students journeyed up and down the Eastern seaboard, rescuing books from dumpsters, from storage units, attics, basements, and more often, from Jewish living rooms where the book came with a meal and a story before the owner would relinquish it. Lansky and his friends started a worldwide campaign to save the world’s remaining Yiddish books before it was too late.

That was 20 years ago. Since then, Lansky’s project would go on to save over 1.5 million volumes from famous writers like Sholem Aleichem and I. B. Singer to one-of-a-kind Soviet prints. He has also founded the National Yiddish Book Center, now headquartered at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.

In 1997, the center established the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, where complete digitized works can be accessed online, free of charge. The digital library today contains 12,000 titles, which so far have been downloaded an astounding 1.6 million times! Today, more than a million books later, he has accomplished what has been called “the greatest cultural rescue effort in Jewish history and in 2014, the Yiddish Book Center was awarded a National Medal for Museums and Libraries, the nation’s highest medal conferred on a museum or library, at a White House ceremony.

My interest in Yiddish has always stayed with me, so as the manager of the William H. Hannon Library’s Sunday Jewish Book and Discussion group, over the years I have selected works by notable Yiddish authors. We read “Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories,” as well as “Wandering Stars by Sholem Aleichem; and “Enemies, a Love Story by I.B. Singer.

Spring 2023 Schedule of Events

This spring I am happy to announce that the Jewish book group will be reading more Yiddish work, but this time we will spotlight three female, short story writers who rarely get their notice. Our schedule is as follows:

  • January 22 – “Shadows” by (Rokhl) Rachel Korn (on Zoom)
  • February 19 – “A House with Seven Windows” by Kadya Molodowsky (at Hannon Library)
  • Sunday, March 19 – “10th is Born in Mishkenot” by Rikuda Potash (at Hannon Library)

Please join us as we read and celebrate these Yiddish women! For more information about the Sunday Jewish Book and Discussion Group, contact Rhonda Rosen.

Did You Know?

  • Yiddish means “Jewish” in the language itself.
  • Yiddish originated around the year 1000 C.E. It is thus roughly one thousand years old—about as old as most European languages.
  • Yiddish has been the spoken language of a considerable portion of the Jewish people, the Ashkenazim, for the past one thousand years.
  • In English usage, the name “Yiddish” was adopted around the middle of the nineteenth century in England, when Jewish immigrants started coming to that country from Europe.
  • Yiddish functioned as a means of communication for Jews around the world. Because of the broad Yiddish diaspora created because of immigration from Eastern Europe during the second half of the 19th century, Yiddish permitted Jews in distant lands a linguistic means with which to communicate with one another.
  • The Yiddish press, which existed on all continents except Antarctica, was an important resource for the dissemination of news and other information important to readers of Yiddish.
  • Before World War II, the following figures were given for Yiddish-speaking persons throughout the world: 10,690,000. This total was considerably diminished after WWII and the Holocaust.
  • In the 21st century, most people who speak Yiddish in their daily lives are Hasidim and other Haredim (strictly Orthodox Jews). Their numbers are estimated to be between 500,000 and one million—mainly in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Israel.

Source: Yivo Institute for Jewish Research (PDF download)