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Yiddish Book Center Enters New Era with Home of Its Own

June 19, 1997
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The National Yiddish Book Center has finally found a home, but in a setting about as far from the shtetls and cities where its books were penned as could be.

Sunday’s dedication of a new, $8 million facility in the bucolic New England college town of Amherst, Mass., marked a new era for the center.

In 1980, Aaron Lansky, then a graduate student in Eastern European studies at McGill University, founded the center to save the Yiddish-language books that he saw being thrown — literally — on garbage heaps.

Lansky realized that something precious was being destroyed as the people who read and collected Yiddish books passed away and their children and grandchildren, having no use for entire libraries in a language they neither spoke nor read, threw them out.

He expected to devote two years to his rescue effort.

At the time, experts estimated that there were a total of 70,000 Yiddish volumes in the entire country.

Lansky put the word out to the then-nascent contemporary network of young Yiddishists. Soon the calls started coming in.

The phone would ring and Lansky would set off in his battered van — even in the middle of the night — to collect books from the dumpster where they had been discarded or the basement where they sat moldering in boxes.

Within six months Lansky and other volunteers saved 70,000 books from incineration, storing them in an unheated factory loft.

For years, the books were stored wherever Lansky could find cheap room; for awhile in an old spice warehouse, then in a defunct schoolhouse, later in an empty roller rink.

Today the National Yiddish Book Center owns more than 1.3 million volumes of Yiddish literature.

Another 1,000 pour in each week from people who hope that their beloved, now- unused, volumes, will find a home and a future.

“We want to give Yiddish an address, and provide people a place to come to understand that Jewish culture is not lachrymose, not sentimental, not about the Holocaust, but to understand it on its own terms,” said Lansky in a telephone interview.

“It was chutzpadik of us to launch a $7 million campaign three years ago when the largest gift we’d ever gotten until then was $10,000, but the response was astonishing.

“Our own members, over 9,300 individual contributors, sent in $2 million in contributions,” Lansky said, ranging in size from $2 to $1 million.

The center has 30,000 members who contribute at least $36 a year, Lansky said, making it one of the largest Jewish cultural organizations in the country.

Much of the collection, and all of the 32 staff members, are settled into their new facility on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst. The building’s 37,000 square feet house a state-of-the art auditorium, amphitheater, seminar rooms and a kosher dairy kitchen.

Nine thousand square feet of exhibit space will be devoted to showing collections of art and artifacts, and open to the public in September.

Lansky expects 50,000 visitors in its first year alone to come to the new center, which sits tucked into an orchard of apple trees at the foot of the Holyoke range of mountains.

The 40,000 pounds of apples the orchard produces each year will be donated to a local food bank, he said.

The center will also run programs on various aspects of Yiddish culture year- round and continue to provide literature to the burgeoning number of Yiddish research collections.

When Lansky began his work, only six Yiddish language research collections existed at university and other libraries.

Today there are more than 400 universities and national libraries with significant collections of Yiddish literature, located from Washington D.C., to Japan and China.

As long as they are there, Lansky said, there will be people studying Yiddish who can ensure that the 1,000-year-old mother tongue of European Jewish culture finds preservation — and even, possibly, a new life.

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