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Aaron Lansky, Yiddish Book Center founder, talks past and future of book rescue mission as he preps for retirement

Aaron Lansky, president and founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, announced his future plans for retirement earlier this year. The author and cultural preservationist has been finding a home for well over a million Yiddish books over the years, going from keeping titles in his old apartments to the modern book center found on the campus of Hampshire College
James Paleologopoulos
Aaron Lansky, president and founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, announced his future plans for retirement earlier this year. The author and cultural preservationist has been finding a home for well over a million Yiddish books over the years, going from keeping titles in his old apartments to the modern book center found on the campus of Hampshire College

Aaron Lansky - an awarding-winning preservationist and author - who founded the Yiddish Book Center, announced his plans to retire earlier this year, after a career of fighting to save and preserve Yiddish literature and more.

WAMC talked with the mensch himself about his over-40-year effort to save millions of books and create a home for them - and Yiddish culture itself – all in western Massachusetts.

I’m James Paleologopoulos and this hour, we’re bringing you a special conversation with Aaron Lansky – president and founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts on the campus of Hampshire College.

Over the years, Lansky has driven and flown thousands of miles, met countless faces and spent much of his life on a mission – find and save as many Yiddish books as he can.

Only a century ago, the Yiddish was spoken by millions. A marriage of German, Hebrew, Aramaic and more - it rose out of the medieval period and became the language of many Jews throughout central and eastern Europe, growing beyond the continent as time went on.

Yiddish has also blended in some Latin, Slavic and other local tongues over the years, as well – and by the end of the 19th century, the written Yiddish word made for one of the most vibrant literary scenes on the planet, making for volumes upon volumes of plays, short stories, novels and more, as well as translated editions of famous works.

But in the shadow of the Holocaust, efforts to promote Hebrew as the primary Jewish language, and other factors detailed in Lansky’s 2004 memoir, “Outwitting History,” those books were being lost on a massive scale.

By the 1970s, just getting ahold of a Yiddish book for a college course was a struggle – a catalyst for a young Lansky that led to where he is now – the head of one of the most well-recognized language preservation efforts in recent history.

Closing in on some 45 years of work, ranging from stuffing his apartment and parents’ house with books to filling warehouses in the Pioneer Valley to collecting a MacArthur Fellowship, Lansky recently announced his plans to retire.

We spoke about those plans and more in his office at the book center earlier this year.

The following conversation took place on Thursday, March 7, 2024, at the Yiddish Book Center in the office of Aaron Lansky.

WAMC: Within a week or so of your retirement announcement, the New York Times had a lengthy spread detailing your announcement, going into great detail on the works you’ve accomplished. Publications focusing on the book world as well as Jewish culture also featured the news. Could you speak at all to the reaction to your announcement of retiring?

Lansky: Yeah, I certainly can. I was down in Florida at the time, I was giving a lecture down there and somebody called up and said, ‘Hey, I think you should check out the Times today.’

And so, I walked over to the nearest supermarket and picked up a copy and there it was, on the front page, which was a little bit astounding, but also very gratifying because, boy, by the end of that day, we were inundated with emails from people all over the world – the book center had far more friends than we realized, perhaps.

WAMC: So, you laid this out in your announcement, that you'll be turning 70 in the not-so-distant future, that it'll coincide with 45 years of work - could you walk me through the days or weeks leading up to your decision and how it came about?

Lansky: That's more like the months and years then the days and weeks. But I've been running the organization since I was 24-years-old and, you know, I always knew I wouldn't do it forever, only because I don't think that's healthy for organizations, you know, not to change, and that new life and new leadership would help us reach out to our younger constituency as well.

But, I really love what I do, and it's been like the greatest job on earth for all these years, even though it was 12 hours a day, and you know, six days a week - pretty much forever. So, I knew that change would take place, but it seemed like an opportune moment because a year from this coming June, I'll be 70 years old, which still astonishes me, and so that seemed like a fairly good point of demarcation, you know, a good point, a good chance to step down, but I'm only stepping down from my current role as president and then I'll stay on for an indeterminate amount of time, as our - I think the title is “founder and senior advisor.”

And the person whom I’ll be advising is Susan Bronson, who has been our executive director here for 15 years and I've worked very closely with her, and she'll be stepping in as president and she's a terrific person with enormous talent and I’ll look forward to working with her.

WAMC: One point that I wanted to bring up is - it's not uncommon for graduate students to get caught up in special projects - one thing leads to another, what started as a small inquiry can grow and grow, and most grad students usually wrap it up before the academic year is over.

That didn't quite happen in this case - you took it in a whole different direction - we're currently sitting in the results. You already touched on this a bit, but I want to ask, what do you think 22 or 24 year old Aaron’s reaction to this book center would be, let alone to the career you've had?

Lansky: I've got to tell you, almost everything we've done here would have been beyond my imagining.

When I started the book center, the challenge I got from funders, anyone I approached was, you know, “Even if somehow it's very unlikely, but even if somehow you could pull this off, and really save all those books that are out there,’ and no one knew how many there were, "but even if you could save them all, who in the world would ever read them?”

And at the time, the only answer I could give was “the literature has great intrinsic value - I've studied this in grad school, I studied it as an undergraduate at Hampshire College, you know, I understand how powerful all this is.”

And it was a kind of a “If you build it, they'll come” sort of a – although it predated that novel – but nonetheless, it was that sort of sense of it, that I thought that, that if we could just save the books, we can worry about who's going to read them later.

Well, here we are, all these years later. We ended up not just saving a million-and-a-half volumes, but we digitized them as well and of course, that technology was way beyond anybody's imagining, you know, 44 years ago, and eventually placed all of them online, free of charge.

They’ve now been downloaded 5 million times, so I don't think anybody could really have imagined, you know, what would take place, except that I knew it had to take place because it was too important not to.

WAMC: To ask a more general question about Yiddish - to schlep around, to schmooze with someone, to be a klutz - Yiddish has one way or another been weaved into common American English as well as other languages. Could you walk me through how it first weaved itself into your life?

Lansky: Well, my personal story is an easy one - I grew up, you know, it was probably typical of my generation of American Jews - meaning my parents were born in the States and my grandparents had been born in the old country.

I heard Yiddish spoken when I was a kid - my grandparents spoke it between themselves, and I used to go to the local synagogue in New Bedford where I grew up and, in the front of the shul, in the front of the synagogue, you know, over the years things were becoming increasingly decorous, as people were assimilating more and more, but in the back?

In the back, there were all these old guys who would sit there, and they would drink schnapps, whiskey out of water glasses, and they would be arguing the whole time and talking all through the service and somehow, as a kid, I always found that more intriguing than what was going on in the front.

And, of course, they were speaking in Yiddish the whole time.

So, I was at least intrigued by it - I knew there was something about this that was sufficiently, you know, marginal and interesting to, to grab hold of me. But it really, you know, it really wasn't until much, much later that I began to understand it in a more substantive sort of way.

I came to Hampshire College in 1973. The school was still very, very young and my first semester, I signed up for a course on the Holocaust, which I only learned later was one of the first times the Holocaust had ever been taught as a college course in the United States.

You know, up until that point, I see your eyes are widening - that, our radio audience will miss - but the reason for that was - it was still too close. The Holocaust ended in 1945 and I think people were very hesitant to delve into all of this. It was such a gigantic trauma in Jewish history and world history as well, that people shied away from a deep exploration of it.

When I was a kid, I can remember on rare occasions, I would say to my grandmother “How come you don't have any brothers and sisters?” And she would say, “Well, you know, Hitler killed them all” or
“They all died in the Holocaust.”

And I remember my parents who would [say] “Shush - don't say anything, don't tell the kids,” you know, this is something that we weren't supposed to be exposed to. We were American kids, we were going to start fresh and they didn't want us to carry the weight of trauma and tragedy that had happened and preceded us.

By 1973, everything in the world was up for grabs, everything was changing very, very quickly, so this course began here, organized by Hampshire students and they brought in some of the greatest guest lecturers from around the country, experts in the field, and by the end of that first semester, I found that I wasn't so interested in the Holocaust itself - how the Germans went about the murder of the Jews of Europe - and I was way more interested in what was it about these Jews that was so antithetical to fascist ideology that the Nazis would pursue this maniacal destruction?

So, I started studying Jewish history and I was just really, really lucky, in that the faculty advisor for that course was a man named Leonard Glick. Len - came from Baltimore, he became a doctor when he was very young and then he realized that he really had more, had broader intellectual interests and he went back to school, earned a PhD in anthropology, and he and his wife went off to the highlands of New Guinea, where they studied ethno-medicine for a number of years, and wrote about that.

And here he was, as the new Dean of Social Science at this brand new college, and he had volunteered to be the advisor for this course, and when I went to him, I said “Len, I really want to know more about all this,” he kind of naturally asked what today we would call social and cultural historical questions.

“Who were these Jews? How did they live their lives?” And once you ask those questions, then obviously, you've got to also learn the language that they were speaking.

So, at that time, most Jewish scholars were expected to know Hebrew, and sometimes German, but I realized that for a thousand years, 80 percent of all the Jews in the world were speaking neither of those languages - they were speaking Yiddish, and I probably needed to learn that as well.

I went up the road here to the University of Massachusetts [Amherst] - there was a professor there named Jules Piccus, and Jules was a scholar of medieval Spanish literature - he's quite famous in his field. He spoke 20 languages, and Yiddish was his first language – spoken as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, and he agreed to teach me and two other students after hours.

We used to go every Wednesday afternoon, with a bottle of wine - this was before the drinking age went up, right? A bottle of wine and a loaf of homemade bread and we'd sit down with him – he’d say start reading, and we worked our way through a very, very difficult novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and after two years of really slow progress, we had developed a reasonable competency in Yiddish, that we could start reading texts, and then the whole world opened up for me.

WAMC: A number of texts were being discarded at that point in time, a number of people were inheriting books and tomes from their relatives and found themselves unable to read and were discarding these texts - was it abject horror you felt when you got a sense of the scope of Yiddish books being discarded?

Lansky: It was more astonishment than horror - in the sense that Jews are a people who have always been extremely bookish, and for good reason. For most of our history, we didn't have a country of our own and books became what Jews called “their portable homeland,” their repository of knowledge and identity.

When I was a kid growing up, we, like most Jews in America back then, you know, traditional Jews, we dropped a book on the floor, didn't matter whether it was a prayer book or if it was, you know, Norman Mailer - if we dropped it on the floor, you would pick it up and you would kiss the book.

And that might sound a little bit odd nowadays, but it was just built into the culture because the reverence for books was so great. And so, having grown up that way, to respect books and understand them, and I loved books - my mother was a voracious reader and she raised me and my brothers to be voracious readers as well - to suddenly realize that books written in the Yiddish language were being thrown out – why? How could that possibly be happening?

I remember once I went and visited the rabbi in New Bedford - I was already in grad school in Montreal at the time - and I walk into his office and I'm sitting there talking with him and I notice, out of the corner of my eyes, is a fruit basket, like a bushel basket, on the floor, and it’d usually be full of peaches and apples and stuff like that and instead, it's full of books.

And I look a little more closely and I see on top of the whole pile was the collected works of Mendele Mocher Sforim – one of the first great Yiddish writers, about whom I was then writing my dissertation.

So, I said, “Rabbi, excuse me, but what's Mendele doing on the floor in a fruit basket?”

And the rabbi said “Oh, we're going to be burying those books.”

That sounds weird, right? Why would they bury books? The reason they would bury books is because books with God's name in them, religious books with God's name in them, have a special value and are given a proper funeral ceremony when they're no longer usable.

But these weren't religious books - this was a modern, secular literature - and why these books were being buried? That was inconceivable to me. I said, “Why are you doing that?”

And he said “Well, we get books here all the time – older Jews die, and people bring me the books and nobody wants them, nobody can read them anymore, so, we end up just burying them along with the old prayer books, as well.”

So, I start going through the basket and I happen to also notice a two volume edition of Karl Marx's Das Kapital in Yiddish and I said, “Do you really think the members of your shul, your congregation, really want you to be burying, you know, Karl Marx together with the old prayer books and the old volumes of Torah?”

And he said yeah, he could see that might not play so well, so, he said, “I'll tell you what, from now on when people bring me books, I'll save them for you, I'll give them to your parents, and you can have them,” and I thought I had just been given the greatest treasure the world had ever heard of. I remember hoisting that bushel basket on my shoulder as I left, you know, just so thrilled with all of this.

Well, I went back to Montreal, and I said if you could find books in a small place like New Bedford, imagine what you could find, you know, in a city like Montreal, so I started putting up notices around town at the Jewish delicatessen, at the laundromat and the Jewish neighborhood saying, you know, “I'm a young graduate student, I'm looking for Yiddish books - if you have them, please call me.”

Before I knew it, the phone was ringing off the hook. My apartment is filling up with books and I realized that this was a little more than a local problem - that we had such a rift in history between the Holocaust, between the murder of Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union, between assimilation here at home, that somehow, Yiddish had been ripped out of the fabric of Jewish life and that there was really a lot to be done to begin reclaiming all this and putting it all together.

So, that was the moment at which I said, “I think I should do something about this, rather than just sitting here in grad school. Maybe I'll take a quick leave of absence to deal with it.”

And I spoke with my professor, Ruth Wisse, and she was very supportive. She said “But first, you have to find out how many books there are.”

So, I went down to New York - I met with elderly scholars who sat around a big table and they argued for quite a while and finally, they said they thought there was 70,000 Yiddish books still recoverable and I figured, “Okay, I could easily do that in two years, to go find them all.”

And here I am, 40 years later, and I'm still on leave from graduate school, but we have saved a million-and-a-half books and our work has grown in so many ways that were unimaginable back then.

WAMC: In those early days, was this a solo effort? Were you receiving assistance? Where did the books end up? Could you walk me through what that looked like?

Lansky: Of course.

Well, when I started all of it, I was still in grad school, but I took my supposed two-year leave of absence and I was going to go down to New York and my teacher said, “You know, you've really got to go someplace else so, if you go to New York, you're going to get swept up in all of the impassioned politics of the Jewish world,” which was the socialist and the anarchist, and all these, you know, various sects and groups, and she said “You need to go to a Jewishly-neutral location, where I wouldn't have that challenge.”

And I said, “Well, I went to school in Amherst - that was Jewishly neutral enough,” so I came back here, and I knew people in the Five Colleges - administrators and faculty members - and everybody was supportive.

And so, I went out and we had absolutely not a penny - we incorporated, and then I bluffed my way into a lease on an old factory loft in Florence, outside of Northampton. It had been, at one time, I think, it was a silk mill. But by the time we were there, it was just a big empty space.

And I had 6,000 square feet, and I sent out press releases - this is just before personal computers kind of made their appearance. So I sent out, on an old IBM electric typewriter, I wrote press releases and Xeroxed them and send them out to 300 or 400 newspapers around the country, saying that for the first time in 50 years, you know, significant numbers of young people are learning Yiddish, and we really do need these books, and asking for them to kind of send out an appeal for books - and they did! Actually the Boston Globe ran an article through a local stringer.

Before we knew it, this deluge began, like it just opened up the floodgates. And, God, every day, more and more and more books were arriving. We had to have our congressman, Silvio Conte, intercede with the post office to get them an extra truck, so they could just handle it. I mean, we sometimes joke and we say, the staff of the post office in Amherst, Massachusetts, where we are now, know more about the extent of Yiddish literature than most Jews in America ever did because they've seen so many books pass through the post office.

I organized a network of what I call zamlers – volunteer collectors, and they went out all over the country. But pretty soon I realized I had to go out on the road myself, and so, the first time - to answer your question - the very first time I went out on the road, I scheduled a trip, very ambitious, I borrowed a van from somebody and I scheduled a trip that was going to start in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where someone had written in to say they had books for us, and then go to Philadelphia, and then make my way back up through New York.

And I thought I would do all this in a single day. Boy, was I naive at that point.

So, I get to Atlantic City and there was a high-rise building for the Jewish elderly and the gentleman who had written to me was waiting for me in the lobby, wearing a dark wool suit on a steaming hot day in July. And I realized he put that suit on for a reason and the reason was, as he told me, “this is the day in which I'm passing on my yoresha” – it’s a Hebrew word, meaning his inheritance, and his inheritance consisted of his Yiddish books and he had a very large library and he took me up to his one room apartment upstairs and I sat down and he began handing me - but first, he served me a glass of tea, hot tea in a glass - kind of Russian-style - and then he began handing me these books, one volume at a time.

Many were books I had known from graduate school, but I hadn't seen before, and they were incredibly valuable and he says “This book,” he said, “this book, my wife and I bought in 1930-something, we went without food for a week, without lunch for a week, in order to be able to afford to buy this book.”

And every single book had a story and he handed them all to me, and I'm like, at this point, hours behind schedule. I said, “Okay, well, thank you, thank you,” and I wheeled them out to the truck and I said, “I have to move on.”

He says “Wait a minute, wait a minute, where are you running to?” He said “Don't you know all the other people in the building have books for you, also?”

I said “All the other people?” He says “Yeah, when I got your letter telling me you were coming, I told everybody else and they're also waiting for you.”

And he took me through this high-rise building - we spent the rest of the day - we knocked on every door and he said “Excuse me, this young man here - this young man here needs books.”

And everybody did the same thing. They brought me in, they kissed me, they sat me down at the table, they served me kugel, noodle pudding came out of the oven and the cakes came out of the boxes, and they gave me the same glass of tea and they tried to arrange matches with their granddaughters - you just could imagine what went on.

And then, by the end of the day, that van was so loaded with books that it was scraping on the axle and that was the end of the collecting for that day. I just came back up here to Massachusetts and it was at that point that I realized just how much more was out there, so I never went out alone again.

After that, we always made a point of going out with at least three of us. We would have two people who would do the schlepping - carry the books out of the apartment, and one would sit with the host and we called that “the designated eater,” who would sit there and eat the food and stuff while the other two did the schlepping and that speeded things up quite a bit.

WAMC: As this collection continued to grow, what was there any novels, holy texts - was there anything in particular that amassed very quickly?

Lansky: Yeah, not holy texts, because that generally would have been written in Hebrew, which was more like Latin, you know, language of scholarship.

But, books written in Yiddish - it was an inherently modern literature, it doesn't really start until the 1860s. “War and Peace” came out in 1864, to put this in perspective.

So, Yiddish was generally a modern literature, dealing with modern issues of how Jews redefine their identity in a modern context, in a free modern context. And so Yiddish literature explored- well, first of all, it made use of every possible literary genre, so yes, there are novels, there are short stories, there are plays, there's poetry, there are memoirs, there were scholarly studies - all of that.

And then in terms of literature itself, within the space of a single generation, when Yiddish, modern Yiddish literature first emerged, within the space of a single generation, you have surrealism and eroticism and expressionism and impressionism and every possible modern literary movement would find expression in Yiddish.

So, we just opened up a new exhibit here in this building, just last October, which is quite extraordinary. It tells a story of Yiddish as a global culture because the real story was when Yiddish literature emerged, it was exactly the same time when Jews were beginning to leave the little towns in eastern Europe and started spreading out all over the world.

And wherever they went, they brought Yiddish literature with them, so it really emerged as a modern, cosmopolitan literature. So, if anybody out there thinks that, you know, this was a literature of the shtetl or a literature of nostalgia, they have a really big surprise when they come here to the Yiddish Book Center, because they'll understand it really was not only part of the modernist movement, but it was right at the very forefront of modernism in many ways.

WAMC: What does Yiddish convey the best? What does it thrive at putting on display?

Lansky: Well, that's a great question. You know, people say that the Inuit have a hundred different words for snow because it's so nuanced and it's part of their language.

Yiddish has many, many, many, many words - it's very rich in words for human emotion, but all of it is kind of seen from a marginal point of view and Jews were tiny, tiny people with kind of an outsized influence in the literary world, but a tiny people, and that marginality infuses the literature - Jews were vulnerable, they were often the victims of violence and persecution during that time , and so all of that is kind of built into Yiddish.

I would guess that's kind of, I think, the most salient feature of the language - it's expressive, it's warm, it's intimate, it's funny. You know, it existed alongside Hebrew - for Jews, Hebrew was more like Latin, the language of scholarship and prayer. Yiddish was the down-to-earth language and it was in the tension between the two that they really kind of found its mode of force, you know. So, it is endlessly engaging.


In the second half of WAMC’s special interview with Aaron Lansky, we discuss why, as time went on and the current book center found at a home at Hampshire College in the 1990s, the mission continued only to expand.

New technologies, an ever-growing selection of works and recordings, and other developments have translated to Yiddish not only enduring, but finding a new home on the internet and more.


WAMC: One good leaping point is just simply the emergence of the Internet - libraries, museums, and so on, so forth, were some early practitioners of the internet, and then just only grew from there: digitizing, so on and so forth.

You were there for that introduction - could you speak to the impact and how it changed the work that you did?

Lansky: Yeah, I mean, the internet - first personal computers, and then the internet really changed everything in our world - in so very many different ways.

You know, literature is still that which is inherently human, right, you know, as an expression. This is not, what’s that thing? Chat GPS or whatever it's called - that's not going to replace literary creativity.

It will be great for technical manuals and that kind of thing, but literature is kind of an expression of the human soul and the human intellect, but we've never been Luddites, we don't hold off and say, “Oh my God, we're not going near new technology,” it’s exactly the opposite.

When I first began, I used to say “We're the only Yiddish organization in America with an electric typewriter,” and we've gone well-, well-, well-beyond that over the years.

So, we were very early adopters of personal computers with a gray metal Kaypro. When they first came out, they must have weighed about 40 pounds - try to walk around with it. But somewhere along the way, we had a real problem - we had collected so many books, we had a big warehouse down in Holyoke, Massachusetts at the time, and it was filling up. The piles of books were getting higher and higher, we never wanted to be what Jews call a “genizah,” or a place where old books would be laid to rest.

Our goal always was to put old books in the hands of new readers, but there were a lot of titles of which we just didn't have enough copies to go around. Some of the most important works of Yiddish literature, that Brothers Ashkenazi by IJ Singer, Bashevis Singer’s older brother - it's a beautiful, amazing novel. I think maybe we had three copies on our shelves at that point.

And so, libraries all over the world, they all wanted it, scholars wanted it, students wanted it, and we didn’t have enough to go around and we weren't sure how to deal with the problem, and then a young person on our staff came to see me and he said, “You know, I think it might be possible to digitize these books.”

So, forgive me, but at that moment, I didn't know what the word digitize meant - we forget how much has changed technologically - and he explained to me what that meant, that you basically take a computer image of every page of every book, and you can then use those to generate reprint editions.

So that sounded pretty good and we did it and we started scanning books - we had a company out of Rochester, New York - they set up a factory in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, they worked three shifts a day for four years, taking apart Yiddish books and scanning the pages, one page at a time.

We did all that and then, somewhere along the way - this was still just to generate reprints – and then another young person came to see me and said, “You know, I think the internet” - this was ten years later – “I think the internet's finally fast enough, that we could actually put these books online.”

So I said, “Really, that would be amazing.”

So, we spoke with Google, who were trying to initiate a gigantic project to digitize every book and put everything online - it didn't actually go anywhere, I think, because of copyright restrictions and stuff, so it didn't materialize.

But then the head librarian at the University of Massachusetts came to see me one day, and he came into the office and he sat down, he said, “I've just been speaking with my colleagues at the other major universities in New England and we've decided that you should not be working with Google.”

I said, “Really?” - we hadn't gotten very far anyways, but – “Really, why is that?”

“Well - even if they were the most benign company in the world,” he said, “The idea of one, privately-held corporation controlling all of human knowledge is not a public good, and there's got to be another way of doing this.”

And sure enough, there was: there was a group out in California called the “Internet Archive,” which, first they were kind of capturing moments in time of the whole internet, and then they started - digitizing books and other materials.

So, I went to see the head of the Internet Archive and I told them what we were about, and he got really excited about it. He said, “This is fantastic.”

And I told him we'd already scanned the books and how we had done it. He says, “This is so great - I can put all of these online for you.”

I said, “That's amazing - how long will it take you?” He said probably about two weeks.

I came back, I was elated on the plane the whole way home, and then he called me up a few days later [and said], “Oh, we just discovered that Yiddish goes from right to left instead of from left to right, so, we have to reprogram everything to accommodate it.”

But fortunately, they found a senior programmer at Oracle who agreed, pro bono, on his own time, to reprogram this part of the Internet Archive so they could accommodate the Yiddish titles. And it took two more years, but eventually they got everything online.

And then, Brewster Kahle, the head of the archive, was giving a talk at Harvard, and I saw it in the paper, so I called him up and I said, “Any chance we could meet after your talk to check in?”

He said “sure,” so we met at a restaurant after his talk in Cambridge, and we had a nice meal and after we're done, I said, “Okay, so tell me how many downloads have we had so far? How many times have these books been downloaded, that have been posted online?”

He said “I don't know, I’ll have to look it up for you,” and if he told me 5,000, I would have been blown away. Instead, he takes out this huge MacBook computer and he's tapping away - 15 minutes, he's just gone, you know, he's just in another world, tapping furiously. And finally, he slams on the return key, and he told me that number.

I don't remember the exact number, but it was something in the order of 525,000 downloads and I couldn't believe that - it was shocking. Nobody knew that there were that many Yiddish readers in the world or that much interest in the world, and that's only grown ever since.

We've now put almost every one of our titles online, available free of charge, 24 hours a day, and as of now, they've been downloaded about 5 million times at this point, and that's just the warm-up act, because now we're teaming up with several other major libraries, the Yivo Institute, the New York Public Library and the National Library of Israel - we're pooling all of our respective digital holdings in Yiddish into a single online repository.

A brilliant digital librarian on our staff named Amber Clooney is kind of organizing all of this with help from the other institutions, and I would say in just about a year from now, maybe a little less than a year, everything will be online and you will then be able to go online, search in a single repository for everything and any Yiddish book - I think 99 percent of the Yiddish books ever published, will all be available, and the whole text would show up right on your own computer, you can download it, you can print it - you can do whatever you want with it, but it will all be right there.

So, when you consider that this whole literature was on the verge of extinction when we began, it's now going to become the single most accessible literature in human history: the first completely digitized literature in history. We're very pleased about that accomplishment, and there's loads more to come.

We also had somebody, on a pro bono basis, a computer genius named Assaf Urieli, who single-handedly invented Yiddish OCR - Optical Character Recognition. So up until this point, when we scanned the book, we just took a picture of the page, but he found the way to translate those pages into text.

Why does that matter? Because once you do that, you can then use search tools, search engines. So now you can go to our website and you can type in any place name, any family name, any concept, any historical event, any food item - whatever you can think of, you can type it in, and in a matter of a few seconds, it will search 10 million pages of Yiddish literature and show you everything that has it, every place where that is used.

So, technology has served us exceedingly well. We've also digitized Yiddish audio and old radio shows and books read out-loud and a huge archive of lectures from the Jewish Public Library in Montreal, where Yiddish is spoken much, much later than elsewhere and they were giving lectures every Saturday night, mostly in Yiddish, and recorded everything on professional equipment.

So, all that's now available through our website at yiddishbookcenter.org. So, technology has been totally transformative is the answer to your question.

WAMC: When I look at this center, it reminds me a lot of the international effort to preserve seeds of all kinds, to ensure they’re past on in some form to future generations - have other organizations looking to preserve cultures and languages ever reached out to you?

Lansky: Oh, that's a wonderful question and the answer is, yes.

We worked with an Armenian group at one point. At one point, we had a liaison to Inuit groups in the Canadian north. You know, there are many, many languages around the world that are endangered - languages are lost all the time.

What made Yiddish unique, though, was just the sheer size of its literature, because Jews were already such a highly-literate people, because as they define their identity, that when Yiddish literature emerged, the size of the readership was so enormous, that something like 50-60,000 discrete titles appeared. So, that's probably unprecedented in terms of languages that kind of faded away - the idea that Yiddish was an extraordinarily large literature, but with a fading readership, and that was the challenge that we had.

So instead, what we did was develop programs to train new readers, to teach new readers. So, now we teach Yiddish language - demand skyrocketed during the pandemic, when people were at home with nothing else to do.

We've developed a new Yiddish textbook that's transformed the whole universe of Yiddish language learning - that just came out during the pandemic, as well. And we have programs now for high school students, not just in Yiddish language, but in Jewish history, modern Jewish literature and so forth, for high school students, for college students, for adult learners, for teachers, for rabbis - all of this is intended to cultivate a new generation of readers for this extraordinary literature.

WAMC: Generally speaking, most people when they start a job, one of the biggest goals is, or at least a career anyways - when they start career - to leave what they started in a better place one way or another. Simply, by the scope of this center and how it came about - there's been exponential growth, a great deal accomplished. How are you feeling in terms of that mission? What is left to do after 45 years?

Lansky: That's a great question - the answer is a lot. We're just warming up right now.

You know, I'll retire, but I promise you, the organization will go on for a very, very long time and the reason is - it's too important not too.

So, you know, we started a translation project. For example, some years ago, 2 percent of all Yiddish books have been translated to English, that's all, just 2 percent. And we tried to get some books translated ourselves, but it was very time consuming and very difficult, and then we came up with the idea - why don't we just train a new generation of translators, instead of relying on people in their 80s, who knew Yiddish natively, why not train young people and set them loose?

And that's exactly what we did, and they go on to our online libraries, called the “Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library - they go online, they just browse through these thousands upon thousands of books, they find incredible treasures, and they choose to translate them, and then we started our own publishing house called White Goat Press, to begin bringing these books out in English, and that's opening up Yiddish literature and Jewish culture to a whole new constituency.

So, there's a lot more to be done - I don't, for one second, ever kind of succumb to complacency, I never have. I still work a zillion hours a day, and I still care passionately about all of this, because there's just too much - to walk away now.

But the good news is, I work with wonderful colleagues, we have 37 people who work here, everyone is amazing, everyone's remarkable, everyone is devoted. I am very optimistic and looking at them and understanding how much work remains, but also how much how much oomph they have and how much dedication they have and how much energy they have for the task.

WAMC: One thing I wanted to ask you brought by mentioning Spielberg - the Yiddish Book Center has been the recipient of a number of generous contributions, whether it's in the form of books, audio, or simply financial gifts. Could you touch on some of the more significant contributions you've received over the years?

Lansky: I can - I mean, Steven Spielberg has been a good friend for many years, and has helped with a number of projects, but there were a great many other people as well, but it's a little misleading to just focus on that, because, you know, we get help from the National Endowment for the Humanities, from major foundations, but most of our support is still grassroots.

When I started, the kind of Jewish leaders didn't understand the need for this, you know, [they] said, “Yiddish? Why do you want to support Yiddish? Why do you want to save Yiddish books, nobody can read them anymore. Yiddish is dead, leave it alone, Yiddish represented everything about Jews, that was different. And that's what we're trying to forget now and put that behind us.”

And I thought for exactly that reason is why we should begin pursuing all of this. And so, without any other choice, we ended up starting a very grassroots campaign and I started going out around the country and you know, with a broken down box with a slide projector and a rucksack on my back and I would give lectures at synagogues and college campuses and community centers, and sign people up as members.

And those members today continue to support us, so we have something like 25,000 people and some of them send in checks of $54 a year, that's three times [18] chai – it’s a numerical value of 54, so it's good luck to do that. So, for $54 a year, they become members of the Book Center each year, and every time we have a new emergency, which is like every two months or so, there's always something coming up or a new opportunity, you know, they'll send us money.

My wife once joked that, instead of leaving my collected works when I die, I'm going to leave my collective fundraising letters, because we've sent out so many appeals over the years. But the truth of the matter is, we've built a truly grassroots movement here. So yes, of course, there are some major donors, but there are also countless people of modest means who have been extraordinarily generous to us, and now, at this late stage in the organization's history, now that we're established, we're receiving a great many bequests from those people, and there are a lot of people who weren't rich, but who still had money, and who are leaving that to the center, so we have an endowment now that stands at about $66 million with bequests intentions.

We're hoping to raise that to about $100 million over the next few years. So, you know, those are staggering amounts. I used to struggle to find, you know, $100 when I began, but we've come a very, very long way, precisely because I was right in that initial supposition that this is way too important intrinsically, to allow it to languish or to allow it to be lost.

WAMC: Another question that I have - the New York Times very astutely noted that you'll have time to read a great many of these books, in the very near future. I don't mean to ask for a reading list, but if it came time to recommend an entry point, a leaping point for Yiddish literature, what comes to mind?

Lansky: Well, I think we can start off - if people are going to read them in English, we can start out with White Goat Press, with our own publishing house and just look at our recent publications.

There is a brilliant woman named Lisa Newman, a member of our staff who's been in publishing for many, many years, and she and her assistant, Jeff Hayes together, the two of them, I think are producing more books a year right now than a lot of the really big publishing houses with staffs of hundreds - we put out 20 books during the past year alone, and any of them are extraordinary.

Here's SL Shneiderman, a Yiddish journalist – “Journey through the Spanish Civil War,” he was on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, not unlike George Orwell, and he was writing about his experiences and the only difference was he was writing in Yiddish and Orwell was writing in English, but this has never made its way to English readers before, so this is wonderful.

This is a another new publication, “Desires,” a novel by a writer named Celia Dropkin - a really remarkably modern exploration of women's sexuality.

There's so much more than that - we just put out a volume by Isaac Bashevis Singer, of course, the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature, and Bashevis Singer was mostly known as a novelist and a short story writer, but the truth is, he was born in Poland, started his career, there came to the United States in 1935 and in the States, he became a very prolific nonfiction writer as well, and the only reason no one knew it was he did it all under a pseudonym of “Varshavski,” the man from Warsaw.

Most people didn't know who that was, but he was writing for the Jewish Daily Forward - the most important Yiddish newspaper. And week after week after week, he would write these columns and the Singer estate is now working with us to try to get this material out into the world.

There's a scholar in Israel named David Stromberg that we work with. He went through countless reels of microform, looking for this work by Singer that had been completely lost, and he picked out the very best of it, and then he translated those into English and we're putting out a three volume edition - the first volume just came out, which is Singer’s writings during the war years, and then there’ll two volumes after that.

What's most amazing about [them] - the essays are brilliant - Singer didn't win the Nobel Prize for nothing- he is an extraordinary writer, I've appreciated him more and more and in recent years, but what I really respect in it is his prescience - the fact that he could see what was coming, his insights, so when he talks about the rise of fascism in Germany, before most people had a clue what was going on, he had a profound insight into what this meant, and alas, what it would mean for Jews as well, how fascism would come to haunt us, but he really saw far further than others did and what's most wonderful is that so many of those essays are more relevant now – I don’t know if this is wonderful, because the world’s in such trouble right now – but it’s wonderful that his insights, from 1938 and 1939 or 1945 - the insights he had back then, have even more to say today, so those books are finding a very wide readership.

And we just, literally just today, put out a new volume - it's a memoir by a writer named Rachel Auerbach. She was trained in psychology and in journalism, moved to Warsaw before the war, became a well-known writer there, and then, when the Nazis invaded Poland and took over Warsaw and forced Jews into the ghetto, preparatory to killing them all, there was a scholar there named Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian.

Ringelblum realized, “You have to chronicle everything that's happening here - we have to write everything down - we don't know if we'll survive, but we have to write everything down.”

He organized a group of 60 scholars to do it - Rachel Auerbach was one of them. By the time the war was over, she and two other people were the only survivors who knew anything about this, and they knew where the documents had been buried in milk cans and tin boxes underneath the ghetto.

So, after the war, she tried to get the few survivors in Warsaw to dig, to find all of this - everything had been buried, but it was [under] ten stories of rubble at this point after the ghetto had been pulverized by bombs.

People said “we lived through that - we don't want to remember it” and she said you must remember - she was like the Ancient Mariner. She went around, you know - she told people “you have to dig, you have to dig.” And after enough years, she prevailed and they started digging and they found two caches of these documents. Not initially, but eventually. The last cache has never been found, and among all of the papers were her own diaries that she kept in the ghetto.

So, she was one of the very few post-war writers to write about her experiences during the Holocaust, based on her contemporaneous documents, and that book has just come out as of yesterday, and so, stay tuned - there's a lot coming and that'll get a lot of press as well.


This has been a special conversation with Aaron Lansky – the soon-to-be-retired president and founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Music selections include audio provided by the Yiddish Book Center, as well as “Physics” by Danny Bale – provided by the Free Music Archive, available via a creative commons license.

More information on the book center, including its annual “Yidstock” festival of Yiddish music starting July 11th, can be found here.

For WAMC News, I’m James Paleologopoulos.

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