To the rescue of a dying language Yiddish: Largely through the efforts of one man, books written in this centuries-old Jewish language are being found and preserved for future generations.

October 23, 1998|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

AMHERST, Mass. -- The phrases are familiar, spoken in American communities across the country: "He has chutzpah." "She's a schmoozer." "I'm tired of schlepping these kids around."

What many don't realize is that the phrases were born of Yiddish, a once-flourishing language that was obliterated by the holocaust and the Communist crackdowns in Eastern and Central Europe during and after World War II.

The language also withered away in the United States, where many immigrants taught their children English, not Yiddish.

A half-century later, Aaron Lansky is bringing the 1,000-year-old language back to life in a quiet cedar-sided building tucked in the rolling hills of the Holyoke Range.

What was once Lansky's dream is now called the National Yiddish Book Center, the single largest depository of Yiddish literature in the world.

The center stands as a testament to the disappearing culture. It is also a testament to what can happen when one person has a vision and refuses to be pushed from the path.

"It became clear that these books were being destroyed at an alarming rate," says Lansky, a boyish-looking 43-year-old who speaks in concise, rapid-fire sentences.

"Something had to be done, and it had to be done fast."

With the help of philanthropic groups such as the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore -- the center's biggest benefactor -- and people like Jim Kapplin, who collects books from the city and ships them to Massachusetts, the Yiddish center is booming.

Resembling a shtetl, or small community surrounding an Eastern European synagogue, the center is based far from the traditional power bases of the faith.

The $8 million center is filled with thousands of books and exhibits of what life was like when Yiddish was spoken by 80 percent of world Jewry. Today, about 1 percent of the American Jewish community can read the language.

There are old Royal, Remington and Underwood typewriters with Hebrew-letter keys. (Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet.)

There is the last Yiddish Linotype machine used in the United States. Weighing 4,500 pounds, it set the type for the Jewish Daily Forward in New York from 1918 to 1991. There are a movie theater and meeting rooms, a section of forgotten sheet music, and faded political posters from the former Soviet Union.

Most important of all are the books -- 1.3 million of them, 120,000 perched on the three dozen stacks that line the lower level of the building. The rest are stored in a warehouse.

There are books by Mendele Moykher Sforim, who wrote what is considered to be the first Yiddish masterpiece, "The Little Man," in 1864. There are books by Sholem Aleichem, a popular storyteller from Russia whom many call the Mark Twain of Yiddish literature. There are copies of "Don Kikhot" ("Don Quixote") and "Der Alte Un Der Yam" ("The Old Man and the Sea").

There are even books no one knew existed, such as a 1,000-page lexicon of political terms published in 1929 in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. A cousin of the author walked off with a copy shortly before government agents stormed the building and destroyed the entire press run.

For Lansky, the burgeoning collection began with a passion for his people.

After taking a course on the Holocaust at Hampshire College in 1973, Lansky began searching for a clearer picture of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe.

A year later, he began to study Yiddish. After six months of learning the grammar -- a blend of Hebrew, German, French, Italian and Latin -- Lansky took two years to translate a Yiddish book into English.

"It was like discovering Atlantis," he says. "The language opened up this whole new world, this unknown universe of Yiddish culture."

Lansky wanted to read more, but he had trouble finding books. For help, he turned to a rabbi he knew in New Bedford. Lansky spotted a small pile of Yiddish books in a basket on the floor of the rabbi's office.

"I said, 'What are those books doing there?' " Lansky recalls.

"He said, 'We're going to bury them.' "

For Lansky, it was a life-altering metaphor.

"I thought I had found the greatest treasure in the world, and they were burying the books because they thought they were dead," he says.

As a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal, Lansky began a quest that would define his professional life. He started to post fliers in delicatessens and laundromats in Jewish neighborhoods. Soon, his one-bedroom apartment began to fill with donated Yiddish books.

In 1980, Lansky rented an old silk mill in Northampton, an 18th-century town across the Connecticut River from Amherst. He set up a typewriter on a picnic table and decided to take his campaign nationwide.

He wrote 300 press releases, mailing them to newspapers across the country. A free-lance reporter working for the Boston Globe visited the warehouse and asked if there really was a story.

"I said, 'You write a story, and there'll be a story,' " Lansky recalls.

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