What do a leather medicine ball, a steamer trunk, a children’s book with a chicken on the cover, and a case of typewriters have in common? They’re all prominently on view in “Yiddish: A Global Culture,” the new permanent exhibition at Amherst’s Yiddish Book Center, which celebrates 150 years of modern Jewish history through vibrant displays featuring all things related to the language and the lives of those who spoke it.
In a phone interview, chief curator David Mazower said he aimed to create something he would’ve loved to have seen when he was younger. The exhibit, which contains around 350 objects, “allows people to come away with a sort of mental map they might not have had before, and also to stamp this idea of Yiddish as a uniquely global and transnational culture,” he said.
Yiddish, the language historically spoken across Central and Eastern European Jewish populations, was the mother tongue of most of the roughly 2 million Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To Aaron Lansky, the New Bedford native and Hampshire College alumnus who founded the Yiddish Book Center in 1980, it embodies “the everyday side of Jewish life” that got “swept under the rug” as those immigrants and their children assimilated.
“It was everything that made us different,” said Lansky, whose grandparents spoke Yiddish. “I went to Hebrew school, and nobody ever taught us anything about it.” As a result, he thinks many people have “warm feelings for Yiddish, but little understanding of what the content really is, or why it resonates with them.”
Yiddish was the “primary medium and vehicle for the expression of Jewish intellectual life and folkways” until the second half of the 20th century, said Mazower.
Six million Jewish people were murdered in the Holocaust, most of them Yiddish speakers. In addition, the children of Yiddish speakers who had immigrated largely grew up speaking the local languages: English in the United States and Mazower’s native United Kingdom, modern Hebrew in the then-newly established state of Israel, where founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion fervently advocated for Yiddish speakers to abandon their “mame-loshn,” their mother tongue.
Lansky encountered some resistance to Yiddish while seeking early financial help for the Yiddish Book Center from established Jewish organizations, he said. “They would say, ‘Don’t you know this is the part of Jewish life we’ve been working very hard to put behind us?’” he said. “They were very discouraging. They thought we were doing a disservice to the Jewish people, to get in the way of the inevitability of assimilation.”
However, if Yiddish is “missing from the modern Jewish story, you don’t have the full story,” Mazower said.
Lansky has spent much of his career trying to make sure that piece didn’t go missing. As a graduate student in the 1970s, he realized that troves of Yiddish literature were in danger of ending up in the garbage because American-born Jewish people couldn’t read the Yiddish books their parents and grandparents had owned. That led to the founding of the book center, which has evolved and expanded to include digital archives, Yiddish language classes, an in-house publishing imprint (White Goat Press), a translation initiative, and numerous other projects designed to keep Yiddish literature alive and accessible to those who don’t speak the language.
“We realized that saving the books wasn’t really enough. We wanted them to be read as well,” Lansky said in a phone interview.
And it was never only books that Lansky and his network of “zamlers” (volunteer book collectors) received from donors. “They kind of gave us everything,” he said. “All sorts of artifacts they thought might not be appreciated by the next generation.” Hence the case of typewriters on display in the exhibition: “Royals and Smith-Coronas that went from right to left,” because the Yiddish alphabet, like Hebrew, is read from right to left.
These items populate the exhibit’s 16 themed zones, which include displays on Yiddish bestsellers, Soviet Yiddish, celebrities of Yiddish culture, the Yiddish theater, women artists, and that steamer trunk, which traveled the world with the peripatetic, early-20th century married writers Peretz Hirschbein and Esther Shumiatcher-Hirschbein. Visitors will be able to don headphones and hear Yiddish radio broadcasts, or actors re-creating the atmosphere of writer I. L. Peretz’s Warsaw literary salon.
People are going to be surprised by “how vast and sophisticated the world of Yiddish theater used to be,” said translator and performer Caraid O’Brien. “There were, like, 14 Broadway-sized houses in New York alone.”
Using this exhibit as a lens, the center is hoping to look beyond the humor and shtetl nostalgia that many modern Americans link with the Yiddish language, noted Mazower, who is the great-grandson of the acclaimed and controversial Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch. “It was a wonderfully flexible language in which you could say anything,” Mazower said. “You could write about science, you could write about love and romance, you could flirt in Yiddish.”
There’s a whole “rich, vibrant” world of Yiddish modernism and satire that “all got lost and forgotten about,” he added.
O’Brien was one of several artists who performed on the exhibit’s opening day earlier this month. There, she delivered monologues in Yiddish from Asch’s “God of Vengeance” and “On the Road to Zion”, as well as Israel J. Schwartz’s 1918 Yiddish translation of the “To be or not to be” monologue from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
“Yiddish was happening around the world, but it was also influencing the culture of the world,” said O’Brien, who was born in Ireland. “The cultures were really speaking to one another, and were part of one another.”
Books also make up a significant portion of the items on display, but Mazower chose to focus on the stories of the books themselves rather than the stories within them. “If you find a library stamp from Cairo, or from Constantinople, or from Havana, Cuba, you know immediately that this book has been in those places and maybe has a story that you can tease out,” said Mazower.
For Lansky, the true strength of the exhibit lies in that big picture. “It’s not the story of one particular book, no matter how rare or compelling it might be,” he said. “It’s all of this together, that you understand that this really was a civilization, an extraordinary one.”
YIDDISH BOOK CENTER
1021 West St., Amherst.
Open Sunday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed Saturdays.
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