One of the day trips during our conference in Boston was to the Yiddish Book Center, as you can imagine that was a must see for me so I dropped everything else and booked myself for this trip. Aaron Lansky is the founder, director and rescuer of a million books in Yiddish, he was the keynote speaker at the conference so I knew the story before visiting but it’s one thing to know the story and another to actually see it in action.
25 years ago Aaron Lansky was a Yiddish student, it was impossible to buy the books he needed for his studies and there was only one copy in the library so he put out a call for Yiddish books and received far more than he bargained for. At every stop he was fed and told the story of the books he was receiving. One night he picked up the phone to be told there was a dumpster of Yiddish books sitting in the rain so he organised a group of friends to go out in the rain and rescue as many as possible. He now has a dedicated library with a group of people who catalogue books, rescue them from whatever problem they have and then make them available world wide, in order to help with this they are digitising each book and also translating and digitising the translation so you don’t need to go there in person and you don’t need to be able to read Yiddish to enjoy this rich culture.
Why is Yiddish so important?
Yiddish is a combination of Hebrew and German, it is the lingua franca of many people from Europe and has only been written down for a few decades. You’ll find Yiddish cropping up where you least expect it. If you’ve seen Blazing Saddles by Mel Brooks then listen carefully to the American Indians when they speak to each other or yell out loud as that’s Yiddish, Mel Brooks manages to put some into most of his movies. If you’ve heard someone in the movies talk about chutzpah then you’ve heard Yiddish, pronounced with the guttural at the back of the throat for the ‘ch’ it means ‘cheeky’, but it means more than just ‘cheeky’.
Yiddish in Australia
Yiddish here in Australia was a dying language, many people spoke it, including my grandmother and even my mother understands some of it, there was even a newspaper in Yiddish but it was all dying out as those of my generation generally weren’t learning it. One girl started trying to bring it all back and she has succeeded to some extent, there are also a couple of schools that still teach it but it’s not as widespread as it once was. It’s just like Hebrew was an almost dead language, only being used for ritual purposes until it was brought back and used as the language for Israel, and Latin is also a dead language, only being studied by small numbers of people.
I could go on about languages but I won’t. I’ve got Aaron Lansky’s book and I’ll read it in due course and tell you more about the Book Center along with photos. It’s an amazing place and I’d love to visit it again some day but until then my photos will have to be enough.