"Yiddish: A Global Culture" - Telling the Story of a Jewish Counterculture

Reinstalling the core exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center to tell a fuller story of Yiddish and its cultural (and countercultural) expressions

By Albert Stern / BJV Editor

AMHERST – On the cover of the first Berkshire Jewish Voice I worked on in January 2015, we featured a Yiddish Book Center exhibit of the painting of Felix Lembersky, a Jewish artist who worked in the former Soviet Union. In the eight years since then, I’ve visited the Center many times to cover the fine traveling art exhibits on view, as well as the lively Yidstock klezmer music festivals that take place in July. Over the years, the Center has expanded its programming and grown the profile of the scholarship, research, documentation, translation, and publishing that takes place onsite or under its auspices.

As a visitor, however, I have to admit I found it hard to connect with the permanent exhibit that took up most of the main floor – shelves and shelves of Yiddish-language books. The preservation of these volumes, of course, was central to the vision of founder Aaron Lansky, who started the Center as a repository for books that were being discarded or otherwise lost by generations of American Jews to whom they had been passed on, but who could not read or speak the language that had been spoken by their ancestors for some 1,000 years. The stacks of books at the Center made me think of the endless afternoons I used to spend in Israel bored to actual tears while visiting Yiddish-speaking relatives of my grandparents’ age and desperately hunting through their libraries for anything I could read and understand.

The Center’s superb new core exhibit unveiled on October 15, “Yiddish: A Global Culture,” begins to unlock the mysteries those books hold for most of us through an immersive experience that tells the story of Yiddish culture around the world as it existed before and after World War II. It also touches on the present revitalization of Yiddish through academia and popular entertainment, as well as its ongoing development as a living language in Haredi communities. While many Jews may sentimentally conceive of Yiddish as the argot our pressed-upon European forbears employed in their shtetls, the new exhibit shows how Yiddish culture was also cosmopolitan, transglobal, diverse, activist, and thoroughly modern.

Indeed, as the Center’s research bibliographer and the exhibit’s chief curator David Mazower sees it, Yiddish culture is in fact a Jewish “counterculture” with its own literature, media, and entertainment outlets that mirrored and existed in dialogue with the predominant mass culture that developed through the mid-20th Century. Far from being a barrier that confined Jews to the shtetls and small towns, Yiddish could in fact provide a ticket to the wider world for ambitious thinkers and artists like Mazower’s great-grandfather, the dramatist and man of letters Sholem Asch. Raised Hasidic and yeshiva educated, Asch left the small Polish city of Kutno around the turn of the last century and gravitated to the circle of intellectuals that had formed in Warsaw around the famed Yiddish writer I.L Peretz, whose literary studio has been interpreted through period artifacts in one of the new installations now on view at the Center.

Asch’s plays were imported to the United States, where they were staged in the Yiddish theaters that thrived in New York City – eventually, Asch ended up in the United States himself. As Lisa Newman, the Center’s director of publishing and public programs, explains, the playwright followed a path taken by many expatriates who left Europe for opportunities in far-flung Jewish communities around the globe. “It’s true that they didn’t have a country,” she says, “but they had literature and art and continuity with Jewish culture in Europe. Because there were Jews around the world, Jewish writers traveled and wrote about all aspects of the modern world.”

This gave Yiddish culture and its practitioners what Mazower characterizes as “a footloose quality.” A Yiddish theater company, for example, could perform its repertoire from Berlin to Buenos Aires, from Shanghai to the 3,000-seat Grand Theatre on the Lower East Side without concern that its performances would get lost in translation – either linguistically or culturally. “They could travel across the world while their repertoire remained the same,” he says, which was rather unique at the time.

Mazower’s own interest in Yiddish culture was originally nourished through theater 40 years ago in London, where he (then a producer for the BBC) made the acquaintance of some of the last surviving performers from the once-thriving Yiddish theatrical world. “They kept things going for as long as they could,” he remembers. “They grew up in traditional Jewish homes and could perform a wedding or a funeral scene with all the blessings and sing songs the way they had been before the war, providing an organic link to Jewish life in the 19th Century.” Although Yiddish theater existed for a niche audience within a larger culture, Mazower emphasizes that the productions reflected the forms of mass entertainment that larger culture produced – and often served as a springboard for performers and creators who crossed over to the mainstream. The new exhibit abounds in memorabilia from that time.

Above all, the exhibition Mazower has curated seems intent on capturing the vitality of Yiddish culture, to reveal the youthful, rebellious, and politically radical spirit that animated it. “This is a place to start to explore the social and racial justice issues that were such a big part of Yiddish culture,” he says. “I didn’t want all the pictures that visitors encounter to be of people in their seventies and older, because this culture was created by young men and women.” Remnants of the stacks of books that once dominated the ground floor are still in place, but are punctuated by kiosks that house artifacts and photographs and contextualize their historic significance. Among the topics addressed is gender politics, and how difficult it was for women’s voices to be heard and taken seriously within male-dominated Yiddish culture. Mazower says he spent the last five years hunting for objects that told a story or perhaps suggest a story yet to be unraveled – one example he noted was a series of stamps in books that seemed to be from a lending library in Cairo. “What is the Yiddish story of Cairo?” he wonders.

The centerpiece of “Yiddish: A Global Culture” is a 60-foot mural executed by German illustrator Martin Haake that depicts Yiddish history from around the globe. Vignettes depict scenes from Yiddish outposts such as Birobidzhan, a territory in the far eastern reaches of the Soviet Union near the border with China, which was designated in 1928 as the Jewish homeland where Yiddish was official language; the postwar displaced person camps where future activists for preserving Yiddish culture, like Cantor Benzion Miller, were born; and the Technicolor Anatevka dear to this writer’s heart, my hometown of Miami Beach.

The exhibition, of course, explores the Holocaust, the catastrophe that changed the landscape of the Jewish world; that ended the lives of millions of Yiddish speakers; and that ultimately led to the birth of the State of Israel, where a new Hebrew-speaking Jewish identity was form and where Yiddish became a marginalized aspect of Jewish heritage. It also shifted the fulcrum of Yiddish culture to the United States, where it carried on until the generations of native Yiddish speakers began to die out, creating the preservation challenge that Aaron Lansky addressed in founding the Yiddish Book Center.

But now the lion’s share of the Yiddish Book Center’s original mission has been accomplished – a vast number of books have been preserved and digitized for posterity. Now, according to Lisa Newman, the goals of the Center have expanded to “transform understanding of Yiddish culture. There is no other place to see that.”

Though the focus of “Yiddish: A Global Culture” is to show how modern cultural trends were given a Jewish expression through Yiddish, the language and its historical and emotional resonances are its heart. As Mazower said in an interview with JTA: “What Yiddish does is help anchor us in the language in which our grandparents and great-grandparents communicated their deepest thoughts and feelings. And that has real implications for the survival of the Jewish people.”

The Yiddish Book Center is at 1021 West Street in Amherst, on the campus of Hampshire College. For more information, visit yiddishbookcenter.org.