Yes, we desperately needed rain this summer.
But if you’re an avid bike rider — say, just for argument’s sake, that you happen to belong to the Bicycle Touring Club of North Jersey — and you’ve committed yourself to driving up to Northampton, Massachusetts, for what should be a glorious three-day bike ride through New England’s Pioneer Valley (that’s the fancy name for metropolitan Springfield), you really don’t want it to rain.
So say you’re there, and it pours, and more is forecast, and the ride can’t start till the next day. You’re frustrated and bored.
Say that you’re Ellen Rader Smith of Montville or Sharyn Mandell of West Orange; you’ve met through the BTCNJ and become good friends. What do you do?
You decide, more or less on a whim, to go to the Yiddish Book Center, at the edge of Hampshire College’s lovely Amherst campus.
And you’re blown away by what you see.
“Neither of us had ever heard of it,” Ms. Rader Smith said. “And if someone had told me that there was a Yiddish book museum that we should go to see, I wouldn’t have done it.
When they got there, though, “I thought it was amazing,” Ms. Mandell said. “There were a couple of things that stunned me. It was fascinating to see how many volumes there are, how much had been collected, and to realize that much of it would have been lost, except for one person.”
That one person is Aaron Lansky, who was a 24-year-old graduate student — not surprisingly, his field of study was Yiddish literature — when he started collecting. “He needed Yiddish books, and he was able to get the message out to thousands of people in the years before we had the internet,” Ms. Mandell continued. Dr. Lansky began his search for Yiddish books in 1980.
Ms. Rader Smith summed up the museum’s origin story. “In true Jewish fashion, he went to one person’s apartment, and thought he’d be there for a brief time. But the man wanted to tell him stories. Then, when he tried to leave again, the man said, ‘No. Don’t go yet. There are so many other people in this building who want to talk to you, and to give you books.’
“And that’s how it started. We don’t know how he communicated with people. We don’t know how he got the word out. But he got books from people and families, from a library in Brooklyn that wanted to get rid of some books, from dumpsters and garbage cans because people wanted to throw them out.
“The collecting began as local, but it soon became a worldwide effort.”
“It’s amazing,” Ms. Mandell said. “It was fascinating and stunning to realize how much history there was there. How many volumes there are. And so much of what has been collected would have been lost, except for this one person. It’s an example both of how much Jewish culture can be lost, and of how rich Jewish culture and history is.”
Neither Ms. Mandell nor Ms. Rader Smith speak Yiddish, but Ms. Rader Smith remembers going to a Sholem Aleichem Yiddish school when she was a small child; she grew up on Long Island, in Jericho, “and for some reason there was this school at the Jericho Country Club.” The only Yiddish she knows is what she heard from her father and grandfather as she was growing up, but she remembers learning the phrase “Kinderfraynd,” and there it was, on the cover of a pamphlet, right there in the museum.
There was a section about Jewish newspapers and how they were printed. The museum exhibits some machines, including a beautiful, intricate linotype machine that looks pure Industrial Age.
“One of the things that struck me is that there was a room that had framed postcards of synagogues from all over Europe,” Ms. Mandell said. “Just about all of them have been destroyed, either in the Holocaust or some other massacre of Jews. That was very emotional for me.”
“For me, that piggybacks into preserving cultural history,” Ms. Rader Smith said. “There’s an old joke — it also was in the 12-minute video you see at the museum — that when you get to the New World, you’d throw your suitcase overboard. You’d leave everything behind.” That would include Yiddish. “And then to find it again, you have to dig in the water.
“But what happened is that people migrated from Europe to all over the world, to the United States, to South America, to Israel — they left Yiddish behind. You were supposed to get rid of what reminded you of the Old World. You were supposed to assimilate.”
In the 40 years since Dr. Lansky started to collect books, the Yiddish world has changed drastically. It has grown vigorously. There’s no longer a stigma attached to the language; instead, it’s become almost romantic, the relic of a lost-in-the-mist past that can be regained and reclaimed.
“It’s gone 360 degrees,” Ms. Rader Smith said. “People are taking an interest in this language and culture, which can be used to unify Jews all over the world.” She mentioned a trove of Yiddish-language books uncovered in Rhodesia, before it became Zimbabwe, and sent to the center.
“The synagogue where they’d been found was burned to the ground within a week of when the books were sent,” she said. “If they hadn’t been sent when they were, they’d all have been gone.”
The Yiddish Book Center has gone beyond just collecting books, although collecting and maintaining the collection is still one of its core missions. It offers programs that teach Yiddish, and teach Yiddish-language educators. It trains translators, has a museum, screens movies, hosts performances, and collects oral histories. It has engaged young people, apparently more than it has connected with their parents or grandparents, although it has supporters from every generation.
It has brought life to the presumed dead; either the Yiddish Center is home to magicians or Yiddish’s death imitated Mark Twain’s in being greatly exaggerated.
Ms. Mandell and Ms. Rader Smith also were struck by the beauty of the center’s building, and of its surroundings. The building, they said, is very new and absolutely gorgeous, as is Hampshire College. They noted with pleasure that Hampshire has another museum, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art; the beloved children’s book writer and illustrator, creator of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and many other delights, had a studio nearby.
So although by the next day the sun was out again, the sky recovered its late-summer blue, and the ride was on, Ms. Mandell and Ms. Rader Smith were able to get on their bikes feeling fortified by their sortie into Yiddish culture in New England.
The Yiddish Book Center’s website, which is full of information, is www.yiddishbookcenter.org.