Yesterday we drove out to the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. It was a powerful, fascinating, wonderful experience. We have known about the Center and have been meaning to go for a long time. But it was a chance meeting that finally got us off the dime. We had stopped by Wild Willy’s in Worcester for a quick meal last week. I noticed a man in the next booth wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap. Here in “Red Sox Nation” that’s anything but unusual. Except in this instance “Red Sox” was written in Yiddish! I pointed it out to Chuck who approached the gentleman and asked where he had gotten the cap. He smiled, said the National Yiddish Book Center and asked if we had been there. When Chuck said no, not yet, the gentleman said “You’ve got to go.” But it wasn’t an off-hand remark. He said it in such a sincere, intense and thoughtful way, it struck as quite remarkable. As soon as we got home we looked up the center, found the hat and spent quite a bit of time exploring the website. The more we read and the more we thought about the gentleman’s advice, we knew we had to go as soon as possible.
The National Yiddish Book Center is located on the campus of Hampshire College. It’s a beautiful wooden building both outside and in. On a less rainy day, the gardens and grounds will deserve exploration. From a visitor standpoint, we had the place pretty much to ourselves. We followed the easily self guided tour of what is a cross between a museum, a library and a cultural inheritance. We watched a brief video which explained how the Center came to exist. It all began around 1980 when Aaron Lansky was studying Yiddish. But he couldn’t find enough books. He posted a few signs around his neighborhood and soon elderly Jews were contacting him, delighted by his interest and relieved to pass the books on to someone who would value them; treasure them as much as they did.
During World War II, one of every two Yiddish speakers in the world was killed. Countless volumes of Yiddish books were destroyed. Hebrew was the language of scholars and religious services, but Yiddish was the language of the home and commerce. Beyond the staggering human toll, to lose half of the speakers of a language was a huge blow to the thousand year old shared culture of Jews in every corner of the globe. It was especially wrenching after the time between the wars when Yiddish literature had flourished. When the State of Israel was established, Hebrew, not Yiddish was made the national language. This hotly contested decision dealt a further blow to the language. So by the time a young student in his twenties was studying Yiddish in the 1970s, nearly all the books were out of print and many thought it a dead or surely dying language.
Aaron Lansky’s book “Outwitting History” (Also available here) chronicles how the collection grew from a few boxes of Yiddish books to over 1.5 million at the center today. Please don’t be intimidated if you don’t read Yiddish in the original or if you don’t speak Yiddish. Because most visitors are in the same situation, the center is full of English language, bilingual and transliterated signs and exhibits. Their goal is to open Yiddish back up to the world. All are made welcome and admission is free.
We all know and use lots of Yiddish words: bagel, goy, schlep, nosh, kvetch, chutzpah, feh!, klutz, oy vey!, shmaltz, latke, lox, shmuck, yente, shtick, maven, dreidel... just to name a few. Visiting the National Yiddish Book Center provides a history, a context and a greater depth of meaning to why Yiddish words, books and music remain vital today. It also sparks a determination not only to protect the past, but to encourage a Yiddish renaissance.