About 1/8th of a mile from the highway, on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, among the modern buildings and an apple orchard, are a series of roofs that look, at first glance, like something from another era. New England architect Allen Moore, designed The National Yiddish Book Center from structures inspired by an 18th century wooden synagogue in Wolpa, Poland, using the unusual roof lines as inspiration. And Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the only Yiddish book center in North America which opened in June 1997, couldn’t be happier with the outcome of the 37,000 sq. ft. building which cost US $.79 million.
After two unsuccessful years of trying to find an architect who understood the needs of what Lansky envisioned, Moore hit the right note during their first meeting. He had conceptualized a typical shtetl (a traditional. Eastern European Jewish town), mean while creating interior spaces to house over 70,000 Yiddish books, exhibition halls, public area, an auditorium and an outdoor amphitheater. Lansky got what he wanted – “a building that recalled the past without being an imitation.”
The remarkable conquest of The National Yiddish Book Center started germinating while New Bedford, Mass-born Lansky was an undergraduate at Hampshire College and where he took a course in the Holocaust. “I became less interested in the Holocaust per se. I wasn’t interested in the process of destruction. That was more a chapter of German history than of Jewish history. I was more interested in who were these people whom the Nazis sought to destroy. What was it about their culture that made them so different as to be perceived as utterly antithetic to fascist ideology? They happened to end up as victims but had lives and whole constellations of experience,” said the bespectacled mid 40 year old who looks years younger.
The very articulate Lansky doesn’t just talk, he delivers messages and lectures which make me realize what a brilliant teacher he would have been had he followed his original plans. But then we would not have had this amazing building which houses the history of modern Judaism.
Yiddish, the language, is about 1,000 years old and before the Holocaust approximately 75 per cent of the world’s Jews spoke it as their first or only language. As we walked through the spacious, airy, bright glass and wood building that houses the Center’s collection of Yiddish volumes and 150,000 pieces of out-of-print Yiddish and Hebrew sheet music, Lansky recalls how he gradually began to study modern Jewish history. He learned to speak Yiddish only to gain access to historical sources. He recalls that the more he learned, the more Yiddish literature began to open up but soon realized that only one half of one per cent of Yiddish literature had been translated into English even though two thirds of the Yiddish books were published in North America.
“I realized Yiddish literature was an immigrant phenomena. They came to America, were uprooted from the Old World and had to figure out how to live in a new one and Yiddish became their benchmark. Suddenly, for me, a whole world opened up and I decided to go to graduate school.”
He had just read a book by Ruth Wisse, who was a professor teaching Yiddish Literature at McGill University in Montreal. “I knew she would be the only person I could study with. The book had such a brilliant lucidity to it and extraordinary insight. Wisse had just started giving a course in Eastern European Jewish Studies. That was in 1977. Lansky stayed for a few years. “I probably would have gone on to a conventional academic career were it not for the problem that there were no books to be read. Most Yiddish books were out of print. We students had to share and we even knocked on doors in the old Jewish neighborhoods to borrow books.”
Somewhere along the way, he wondered what other students were doing at the other universities. That was the turning point. “Something had to be done to save the world’s Yiddish books before it was too late.” So with Professor Wisse’s blessings, he decided to take a two year leave of absence (he never went back for his graduate degree).
At that time it was estimated that there were approximately 70,000 books still recoverable. The challenge was to collect them in 24 months. Little did Lansky realize then that Jews were far more avid readers than he could have imagined. His first public appeal for unwanted books was in 1980. Within a week over 200 letters arrived and within a month 5,000 books were received. Now, two decades later, he and his staff have collected over 1.4 million volumes, many still housed in a 50,000 sq. ft. warehouse nearby.
“I want to provide Yiddish books which give access to a whole civilization about Jewish life in Europe,” he said. Along with wanting to share the books collected, he sees a genuine resurgence of modern Jewish culture – a Jewish renaissance. “We have to be mindful of its antecedents. After all, Yiddish is the first language in which immigrants encountered the modern world. Yiddish literature is from the old country. It’s a bridge between two epochs of Jewish history.” For the young man who was told it can’t be done, the initial money came from a grass roots campaign. It took four years to negotiate the purchase of 10.3 acres of land from Hampshire College for US$200,000. Word spread and unsolicited gifts started to come in. The largest single donation was from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in Baltimore, Md which gave US $1 million. The Kresge Foundation donated US $600,000 and director Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation gave US $250,000.
One of the attractions is the 1918 model Yiddish Linotype (the only one in the world today) which was saved from New York’s Jewish Daily Forward. At its recovery, the Wall Street Journal ran a headline in Yiddish for the first and only time in that publication’s history. Visitors will find a kosher dairy kitchen, dining area and three exhibit halls, all with different emphasis. As I stood overlooking the massive library, I asked Lansky about his own favorite book. He beamed, his eyes shone and for the first time, he smiled widely. “Tevye the Dairyman, by Sholom Aleichem,” he said.
“The original Tevye is not the fiddler on the roof. He was a poor man from the shtetl with no other Jews around. Other Jews came with seemingly insoluble challenges for him to deal with. He was relatively uneducated, living in the middle of nowhere and had to figure out how to respond in each case. By doing that he became the precursor of us all. We’re now all ‘do-it-yourself Jews,” laughed Lansky. “Most of us have to figure out how to live as Jews. Tevye didn’t necessarily show us how to live our lives but showed us the quintessentially dialectical process whereby we can figure out how we can live our lives. He became mindful of tradition and we have to confront a modern world, always balancing and coming to new synthesis. The genius of Sholom Aleichem was to personify that in this one very compelling character.”
“Yiddish literature,” he continues, “is a well-spring for contemporary Jewish creativity. I’m as integrated into America as most people. It’s precisely because I’m so comfortable in America that I now have the luxury of reclaiming my own past.”
I felt as though I had just sat through Jewish Studies 101 and in the short interview, learned more than I have in years of reading and writing about Jewish causes and communities. The National Yiddish Book Center is an awesome building, a brilliant concept with a modern-day visionary at the helm.
Open from Sunday to Friday. Admission free. Located on the campus of Hampshire College on Route 116 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Phone tool free 800 535 3595