Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Arts & Culture with Digital Library, Yiddish Books Suddenly Become Accessible to All

May 10, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Until recently, it seemed you could find Yiddish books only in obscure libraries or the attic of someone’s grandparents.

But this week, Yiddish became one of the most accessible literatures on earth.

On Monday, the National Yiddish Book Center launched the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, an online bookstore that makes more than 12,000 out-of-print Yiddish titles available for purchase directly over the Internet.

Readers can search the catalog of titles and order books for $29 each; members of the center pay less.

The order is routed to a production facility in Pennsylvania, where a digital printer accesses the previously scanned pages of the requested book and generates a new paperback copy within minutes.

Offering 12,000 of the 18,000-20,000 titles that compose modern Yiddish literature, the digital library has turned Yiddish into the most in-print literature available, said Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center.

Most of the titles available through the digital library have been out of print since the 1950s. Popular writers include I.L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem and Sholem Asch.

According to Lansky, the digital library is the only major publisher of Yiddish books today.

“A small press in Israel puts out a few titles, but besides us, that’s it,” he said.

Lansky began his quest to save Yiddish books 22 years ago, when he was a 23-year-old graduate student in Eastern European Jewish studies.

When the class readings were assigned, the students would “race to the Jewish Public Library in Montreal,” Lansky said. “Occasionally one of us would find something in the university’s library, but the rest of us had to make do as best we could because the literature was literally out of print.”

“They used to say the only way to find a Yiddish book was to go to a rare book dealer in Amsterdam or a garbage can in Brooklyn,” he added.

Lansky feared that books that had survived the Holocaust and Russian pogroms soon would be thrown out by a younger generation that couldn’t read them. So he took what he thought would be a two-year leave from his graduate program and set out “to save the world’s Yiddish books before it was too late.”

Working from an unheated factory loft in Northhampton, Mass., Lansky made a public appeal for unwanted Yiddish books. The result was staggering, yielding thousands of books and a slew of volunteers.

The young mavericks — in the beginning they were all in their early 20s — soon were traveling the country collecting books from abandoned buildings, old synagogues, basements and attics.

When the center began in 1980, scholars estimated there were 70,000 Yiddish books in the world that could be recovered. To date, however, the center has recovered more than 1.5 million books, and hundreds more arrive each week.

The birth of the center coincided with a trend to study Yiddish language and literature, especially among Jewish college students seeking a connection with the generation of Jews lost in the concentration camps of Nazi Europe.

“Yiddish literature is a gateway into a world that was lost during the Holocaust,” said Rachel Levin of Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, which made the lead donation on the digital library project. “A new generation is beginning to realize how cut off we are from our recent history.”

The center’s permanent home opened in 1997 on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. It now has a paid staff and a network of more than 200 volunteers and some 30,000 members.

Recently the center collected books from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and Havana, Cuba.

The digital library grew out of the same impulse to save books that inspired Lansky’s original quest.

With an increasing number of colleges offering programs in Yiddish studies, more and more scholars, librarians and students were buying the center’s used books.

“About four or five years ago, we realized we were running out of our most popular and important titles,” said Nancy Sherman, vice president of the National Yiddish Book Center.

Even worse, she said, “the collection was physically deteriorating.”

That’s because the birth of modern Yiddish literature in 1864 coincided with the popularization of wood-pulp paper, which deteriorates easily.

Nearly all the books in the center were printed on the inexpensive paper, and the collection is “literally crumbling before our eyes,” Lansky said.

Four years ago, the center decided to digitize the collection both to preserve it and to make copies of the books more widely available.

After the Righteous Persons Foundation provided a $500,000 grant, other donors joined in, including Max Palevsky, who founded Xerox and Intel.

The digital library eventually became a $3.5 million project, using Pitney Bowes Management Services and scanning more than 12,000 titles, or a total of 3.2 million pages of Yiddish text.

Fay Zipkowitz, a retired professor of library science, spent several years cataloging the collection using Library of Congress standards, and put the catalog on the Web where anyone can access it.

This free access will be extremely useful to the growing number of Yiddish literature scholars, a center spokesperson said.

The center still is collecting books and expects to add thousands of titles to its collection over the next few years.

Lansky’s plans include using the digital technology to preserve and reprint some important out-of-print Jewish books in English, setting up a database allowing scholars to search for any word in any of the 12,000 books, and working with the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature to translate important Yiddish books into English.

“We’ve shown how new technology can be used to save an endangered literature and bring it back into print,” Lansky said.

“Jews have long referred to themselves as Am Hasefer, the People of the Book,” he added. “For Jews, books are a portable homeland, the repository of our national identity.”

Lansky and his colleagues are doing their best to make this particular Jewish homeland accessible to all.

Recommended from JTA