AMHERST, MA - With the click of a mouse, Yiddish books have gone from being among the hardest to find to the best preserved and most accessible on the planet.
Bringing together a disappearing language, 21st century technology and Hollywood philanthropy, the National Yiddish Book Center today launched the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library on the World Wide Web. With lead gifts from Spielberg, Intel pioneer Max Palevsky and others, the $3.5 million project offers computer users on-demand reprints of more than 12,000 Yiddish titles, most of which have been out of print for fifty years or more.
“This is a historic moment, not only for students and scholars of Yiddish, but for readers everywhere,” said Aaron Lansky, the founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center, a non-profit organization based in Amherst,
Massachusetts. “We've shown how new technology can be used to save an endangered literature -- a literature that survived the ravages of both Nazis and Soviets -- and bring it back into print.” According to Lansky, “Yiddish is,
proportionate to its size, suddenly the most ‘in-print' literature in the world.”
Efforts to save Yiddish literature began in 1980 when Lansky, then 24, set out “to save the world's Yiddish books before it was too late.” At the time, scholars estimated that 70,000 Yiddish volumes still existed; Lansky and his young colleagues -- aided by a network of volunteers -- recovered an astonishing 1.5 million volumes, sometimes rescuing books at the last minute from demolition sites and dumpsters.
“You'd think, with more than a million Yiddish books in hand, we'd have enough to go around,” said Lansky. But the organization faced two unexpected problems: There were insufficient copies of many of the most crucial titles to
meet the growing demand of historians and literary scholars. And most of the books they did find were printed on wood-pulp paper that was turning yellow or brittle with age. “Many of our most valuable books were literally crumbling before our eyes,” Lansky remembers.
Four years ago, the Center turned to the newly emerging field of digital technology in search of a solution. They hired Pitney Bowes Management Services (www.pb.com/outsourcing) to “capture” or scan more than 3.2 million
separate pages. The Center's staff then cataloged every title, in both the original Hebrew alphabet and “English” transliteration, according to Library of Congress standards, using software specially developed by VTLS (www.vtls.com), a Virginia-based library automation software and imaging company.
The result? As of today, computer users anywhere can log onto the Spielberg Library's website (www.yiddishbooks.org), search its catalog by author, title or keyword using the VTLS Chameleon Web Gateway, and retrieve a list of items to choose from. In close co-operation with the National Yiddish Book Center, VTLS Inc. has combined the power of their automated library system with a newly developed e-commerce purchasing system similar to that of Amazon.com. Once books are selected and the check-out process is complete, the e-commerce system automatically generates an e-mail to notify the National Yiddish Book Center and also the Pitney Bowes production facility in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. There, a digital printer taps into the Center's database of stored facsimile images and generates a brand-new paperbound copy on acid-free paper -- usually in three minutes or less.
For security reasons, duplicate copies of the Center's database have been stored in secure locations across the country, including a former Strategic Air Command control center buried deep inside Bare Mountain, less than a mile from the Yiddish Book Center's headquarters. The facility is now owned by Amherst College.
A Germanic language written in the Hebrew alphabet, Yiddish was the spoken tongue of roughly three-quarters of the world's Jews for the past thousand years. In the late nineteenth 19th century, when the traditional Jewish world began to break apart, Yiddish gave rise to a rich and varied modern literature. Writers such as Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, Chaim Grade and others enjoyed enormous popularity, especially among immigrant Jews in America, where more than two-thirds of all Yiddish books were published. The Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.
Although the number of Yiddish speakers is now greatly diminished -- more than half died in the Holocaust -- Yiddish literature has attracted renewed interest in recent years, especially on college campuses.
“Yiddish literature is a gateway into a world that was lost during the Holocaust,” said Rachel Levin of Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation. “Over fifty years after the war, a new generation is beginning to realize how disconnected we've been from our recent history. In many ways, this project complements the work of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, also supported by Steven Spielberg, which has collected over 50,000 video testimonies from survivors. Our hope is that both projects will help us better know a piece of our past and enable us, as a diverse community, to begin this century with a more complete sense of who we are and where we came from.”
The Yiddish Book Center is still actively collecting Yiddish books and expects to add several thousand more titles to the Spielberg Library over the next several years. The organization recently collected long-lost Yiddish books from
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and Havana, Cuba. Thanks to a lead gift from David and Sylvia Steiner of West Orange, NJ, the Center is now working with The New York Public Library to digitize more than 800 yizkor books -- rare Yiddish volumes chronicling Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust.
“It is remarkable that one can, from anywhere in the world, cause any book in this large and interesting collection to be selected, ordered, paid for, printed and mailed within minutes,” said Vinod Chachra, President of VTLS Inc. “A combination of technologies and Aaron Lansky's clear vision has made a once inaccessible body of literature in Yiddish easily available to all. When we first developed the Virtua system we did not envision that our support of Hebrew and Yiddish would lead us to be partners in such a unique and important project.”
“Pitney Bowes is proud to be the technology provider for the National
Yiddish Book Center and the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library,” stated Karen Garrison, president, Pitney Bowes Management Services. “Although our mail and document management expertise has helped businesses of all sizes increase efficiency and productivity, this particular application transcends perceptions of document management and will have a positive and meaningful impact on Yiddish culture. It is a reminder of how technology is improving the lives of people everyday.”
The next step, said Lansky, is to translate the best Yiddish books into English, through a partnership with the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature called the New Yiddish Library. The first titles will be published later this year by Yale University Press. The Center also plans to use the technology of the Spielberg Library to preserve and reprint important, out-of-print Jewish books in English.
“Jews have long referred to themselves as ‘Am Ha-sefer,' the People of the Book,” said Lansky. “For Jews, books are a portable homeland, the repository of our national identity. To truly know who we are, we need not only ancient religious texts, but modern novels, poetry, essays and scholarship -- precisely the kind of books one finds in Yiddish and its progeny in English. Thanks to the Spielberg Library, this amazing literature will now survive forever.”
Supported by 30,000 members, the National Yiddish Book Center is one of the country's largest Jewish cultural organizations. Located on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, its Visitors Center offers permanent museum exhibitions about Yiddish culture, plus a regular schedule of readings, lectures, film screenings, and performances. Visitors are welcome Sunday through Friday, from 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Admission is free.