Grapevine: Yiddish still a drawcard

People came from all over the country to hear the very personable Aaron Lansky tell the story of how he and his friends rescued more than one million Yiddish books from garbage dumps, abandoned libraries and other places.

Yiddish 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yiddish 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IN WEDNESDAY’S “Grapevine” column there was mention of the paucity of attendance at two lecture panel discussions which, judging by the text in their individual advertisements, looked interesting enough to attract a full house. Maybe the topics were wrong, or organizers picked the wrong date because as far as popularity goes, Yiddish wins hands down. The auditorium at the National Library on Tuesday night was packed for a night devoted to Yiddish, whereas on the previous evening it had barely been half full for a debate on journalism.
People came from all over the country to hear the very personable Aaron Lansky tell the story of how he and his friends rescued more than one million Yiddish books from garbage dumps, abandoned libraries and other places. Many of those who came to hear Lansky were carrying copies of his book, Outwitting History, for him to autograph. The book, which won the Massachusetts Book Award in the non-fiction category in 2005, has been translated into Hebrew.
Although Lansky delivered his address in English, it was richly spiced with Yiddishisms and the kinds of true, poignant and funny stories that one reads about in Yiddish literature. Finding it difficult to get his hands on Yiddish books for a Yiddish literature course, Lansky embarked on a mission of rescuing Yiddish culture.
In response to notices that he posted, he began to receive letters, post cards and boxes of books. He traveled to many parts of America to collect books from elderly people who were not strong enough to pack them up themselves. Many book donors told him their life stories, and he found these conversations so fascinating that he began to record their stories. From saving Yiddish books, his project became a matter of cultural reclamation. Most of the books he rescued found their way to the University Library at Oxford.
Thanks to Lansky’s perseverance, libraries in many parts of the world have been enriched with Yiddish books. He also has his own Yiddish Book Center at Amherst University. The center recently entered into a partnership with Israel’s National Library to digitize most existing Yiddish literature so that books will be fully accessible online. The Yiddish Book Center began digitizing some of the books in its collection in 1997 with the help of a start-up fund from filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who was previously responsible for the remarkable collections of testimonies gathered from Holocaust survivors around the globe. So far, said Lansky, Yiddish books have been downloaded 400,000 times. In conjunction with Lansky’s address and in celebration of 800 years of Yiddish culture, the National Library held an exhibition of some of its Yiddish treasures, which include manuscripts, posters, newspapers and magazines as well as the famous Worms mahzor.
Professor Hagai Ben-Shamai, who heads the National Library, said that it is in the process of collecting all remnants of Jewish culture, including Ladino, Arabic Jewish culture and Aramaic Jewish culture. The National Library has digitized 35,000 hours of Jewish music, which is freely available on the National Library’s website. Lansky had a reason other than his partnership with the National Library for visiting Israel. One of his daughters is a student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
■ AFTER AN overlong hiatus, the National Authority for Yiddish is once more up and running with a new director at the helm in the person of Vilna-born Tsila Godrov, whose origins can be heard in her Yiddish pronunciation.
Godrov is in the process of setting up her office in the building of the Tel Aviv branch of the Jewish Agency. Anyone who wants to meet her and talk about Yiddish can do so at the 26th Jerusalem International Book Fair at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. This year’s fair, from February 10-15, marks the jubilee of its inception. There will be a Yiddish stand at the fair, in addition to which Godrov will host a literary and musical evening on Wednesday, February 13 with the participation of Yiddish poets who live and create in Israel, reading from their own works.
■ PUBLISHERS, EDITORS and writers will be highly visible at various book fair events, sometimes participating in readings and discussions promulgated by the organizers and sometimes as part of their own promotional effort. Several of the short story writers who have contributed to Love in Israel, the latest book in the series of books of short stories published by Ang-Lit Press co-founded by Shelley Goldman with Wendy and the late Jeffrey Geri, are past and present writers for The Jerusalem Post (including Goldman), and this may be an opportunity for some of their fans to get to meet them.
Although the book is dedicated to Goldman’s husband, Itzhik Wolf, and their granddaughters, Mika and Emma Wolf, it is also an epitaph for Jeffrey Geri, who passed away last month and who wrote two of the stories that are in the book.
Goldman has arranged for some of the writers to read their own works in Teddy Hall D on Monday, February 11, between 7 and 9 p.m. Ang-Lit Press offers a platform to English-language writers whose individual Israel experiences have inspired and informed their work, but who may have difficulty in finding publishers outside of Israel. In some cases, it has proved to be a springboard for novice writers. Copies of the book will be available at the Steimatzky stand and are already on sale in Steimatzky stores.
■ ANOTHER FORMER staff member of The Jerusalem Post, Judie Oron, who returned to live in her native Canada, has written a best-seller that will be featured at the Jerusalem International Book Fair. Her book, Cry of the Giraffe, has received rave reviews, and she will be talking about it at the book fair’s Literary Café at 11 a.m. on February 12.
She has invited Dr. Chaim Peri, the eminent educator and former director of the Yemin Orde Youth Village, to share the talk with her because she so greatly admires the work that he has done for teenage at-risk members of Israel’s Ethiopian community.
A journalist, a lecturer and an award-winning author, Oron was born in Montreal and moved to Israel in 1967 after the Six Day War. She returned to Canada in 2004.
Her articles have appeared in The Jerusalem Post, Lifestyles Magazine, The Canadian Jewish News and Baycrest Foundation Publications. Her award-winning novel is based on the true story of her daughter Wuditu’s experience as a slave in Ethiopia and tells the story in Wuditu’s voice. The novel has been re-published in English in several countries in the Indian subcontinent and is now available in Hebrew thanks to Hakibutz Hameuhad-Sifryat Poalim. Oron worked at the Post until 1986, when she left to organize and direct a group of concerned professionals that assisted Ethiopian Jews to find their way to Israel.
This was the beginning of a 25-year association with the community that involved lengthy visits to Ethiopia; extensive work with the community in Israel, including the organization and overseeing of Project Wellness – a mobile ophthalmology unit for Ethiopians affected by eye diseases; assisting in fundraising and coordinating the building of a Beta Israel synagogue in the city of Lod; and participation in the Ethiopian Jewish Education Committee in the city of Lod.
Oron took into her family and raised two Ethiopian Jewish sisters, one of whom she came across in Addis Ababa. Upon learning that another sister was missing, she went alone to war-ravaged Ethiopia to find her and release her from slavery.
Through her daughters, Oron has acquired scores of Ethiopian relatives and has therefore seen a side of their absorption that few people outside the community have experienced. She is a passionate researcher of Beta Israel history and lore and has lectured extensively in Israel and in North America on Beta Israel history and social culture; Beta Israel medical practitioners (the culture of the “zar” or dybbuk); absorption issues; her work in Ethiopia; the story behind Cry of the Giraffe; and her experience as a parent of Ethiopian girls in Israeli society.
■ OF ALL the political parties with which President Shimon Peres consulted this week, the most unique was the Labor Party delegation – not because of the refusal of its leader, Shelly Yacimovich, to join a Likud-Yisrael Beytenu-led coalition, but because it included the oldest and the youngest members of the Knesset – Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the oldest and longest-serving member of the 19th Knesset, who will celebrate his 77th birthday on February 12 and Stav Shafir, who is 27.
■ WHEN HE received the official results of the election for the 19th Knesset from Chairman of the Central Elections Committee Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, Peres remarked on Rubinstein’s integrity, saying that he had known him for a long time and had even attended his wedding. Rubinstein, who is religiously observant and always tries to introduce some aspect of Judaism into any given situation, noted that the presentation was exactly eight days after the election. He termed the election “the birth of the 19th Knesset” and the presentation of the official results the “brit” which paved the way for Peres to begin consulting with the various political parties to hear their recommendations as to who should be tasked to form a government and thereby become the prime minister.
If, as political pundits predict, Peres does indeed task Binyamin Netanyahu with forming the next government, it will be a minor historical first in that Netanyahu – if he succeeds – will be the first prime minister of Israel to serve three terms, though he still has a long way to go in catching up with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, for time served. Ben-Gurion served as prime minister for a total of 13 years and 112 days, whereas Netanyahu has served six years and 325 days. Although it is almost certain that Peres will turn to Netanyahu, and it is no secret that Netanyahu wants the job, in discussing the matter with the various parties, Peres quipped: “I hope he is willing to accept it.”
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