Who would believe that in 20 years a book collection could escalate from 70,000 books to 11/2 million? But it has happened. And the driving force behind this tremendous growth has been Aaron Lansky, president of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.
In 1980, Lansky, then a 24-year-old graduate student of Yiddish literature, realized that irreplaceable Yiddish books in the thousands were doomed to oblivion if nothing was done. One reason was that American-born Jews unable to read the language of their own Yiddish-speaking parents and grandparents were discarding them. And children and grandchildren viewed the literature as ancient hieroglyphics and dumped them into the trash.
At that time experts estimated that there were approximately 70,000 Yiddish books still recoverable in North America. But today an average of 800 books weekly find their way to the book center. Yiddish, founded about 1100 C.E., was basically derived from German and borrowed from Hebrew, Aramaic, some Slavic and Romance languages, and English.
Enter the "Zamlers" — volunteer book collectors, mostly in their 20s, a nationwide network organized by Lansky. He collected the volunteers and they collected the books. This was his way to save the world's remaining Yiddish volumes before time ran out.
But he only reached that stage after he had spent five years on the road collecting books from a variety of donors, including those who were too frail to pack and mail the books. The book center is now in an unusual setting in Amherst.
The building, on land belonging to Hampshire College, has a unique architectural design created by Allen Moore, an old-line Yankee architect. When the building was finished, there stood a postmodern shtetl, a Jewish village in Eastern Europe: tan, angular roofs with orange-brown walls against a background of high mountains and a working apple orchard.
120,000 — and Counting
When you step into the entrance and reach the railing that overlooks the lower level of the book repository that now houses 120,000 Yiddish books, you are faced with rows and rows of shelves divided into different categories. (The remaining 90 percent of the collection is stored in nearby warehouses.)
But the sights that make you appreciate its continuing growth are areas with hundreds of books piled loosely on the floor — books waiting for a resting place on the library shelves. It's amazing to realize that these scattered books come from many parts of the world.
Before you wander off on your own, take the tour of the upper level led by a knowledgeable guide at scheduled hours; it's well worth the time. The guide will make you feel closer to the book center's past and present struggles to grow. One of the fascinating stops has placards relating the unusual and sometimes bizarre ways the books have been collected.
In 1980, Lansky and some friends treated some old Jewish neighborhoods in New York and Toronto, where he had gone to college, as a live archaeological dig. Some books were offered only after having a glass of tea and cookies; others were more dramatic. One midnight, they received a call from New York City that books were available. Imagine their surprise when they pulled a treasure of 8,000 books from a dumpster on 16th Street.
Perhaps the most emotional haul came when they heard that, while in the process of demolishing an old building, a 15,000-volume Jewish library was found in the basement. However, there was a major catch — they were only given six hours to extract the books because the demolition had to proceed.
They didn't have enough of their own volunteers to make that possible. Then a kind of miracle happened. A Puerto Rican teenager asked if he could help. When they gladly accepted his offer, he rounded up a group of his friends and organized a bucket brigade. The young men passed the books down the line, and by 4 p.m. all the books had found a safe haven in the organization's' truck.
Having the books was one thing, but Lansky didn't want to restrict his audience only to those who visited the book center. National Public Radio had Jewish short stories read in English, and a nationally distributed magazine, Pakn Treger, featured a variety of cultural subjects, including history, fiction and book reviews.
Beyond that, the book center has established or expanded Yiddish collections in 437 major libraries in 20 locations, including Harvard, Yale, the Library of Congress, UCLA and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem — even libraries in Australia, China and Japan.
In 1995, a hit radio series, "Jewish Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond," was released. This 13-hour series, now available on cassettes, features Yiddish and other Jewish stories in English translation and is directed by Joan Micklin Silver. To add to the enjoyment, well-known actors, such as Alan Alda, Lauren Bacall, Elliott Gould, Walter Matthau and Leonard Nimoy, bring these stories to life.
The center's upper level is laid out in a series of open galleries. Spend time visiting the fully equipped auditorium/theater. Dominating the theater is a magnificent hand-forged chandelier depicting the goldene pave (the golden peacock), a traditional symbol of Yiddish Theater.
One of the permanent exhibits is in a room furnished with personal headsets that feature Yiddish radio (1925 to 1955), including talk shows, comedy and more. Nearby, computer screens will let you pick your favorite programs, complete with running, on-screen English translations. It can bring back fond memories for some and offer a new experience for others.
Another section, chronologically arranged, provides information on European Jewish history.
If you are interested in learning the where and when of your genealogy, there are facilities for researching your family tree. Perhaps the most interesting entertainment occurs in the video theater. Here, in a private screening room, you can select the best scenes from the classic Yiddish films — all with new English subtitles.
Nearby is a truly unusual piece, the last of its kind. You will be looking at a 4,500-pound Yiddish linotype. If it didn't have signs, you would think you were looking at an extensive Rube Goldberg contraption. Parts seem to extend indiscriminately from the main machine, as if they were "Oh, we nearly forgot this" add-ons.
A description details all parts of the operation and even when you have read it, you still won't understand how it works, but it does make you realize how creative the mind can be.
In the gift shop, many Yiddish books for all ages have been translated into English, reflecting a broad spectrum of authors. One item you should look for, strangely enough, is a yo-yo. What makes this a conversation piece is that the letters have been reversed and now read "Oy-Oy."
When you have spent time absorbing the essence of the book center, you can only end up appreciating the work that Lansky and his associates have accomplished in 20 years.
Visiting hours are Sunday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The center is closed Saturday, and Jewish and legal holidays.
For information, call 1-800-535-3595 or 412-256-4900.