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Struggling to Keep the Language Alive : Culture: The fight to save Yiddish books is being led by zamlers . The volunteers take seriously their job of making sure the Jewish tongue is around for future generations.

January 02, 1994|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MALIBU — When Jacob Schaefer talks about Yiddish, he gets tears in his eyes.

Schaefer, 80, now lives in Beverly Hills. But he was born in a little Jewish town in Lithuania, and Yiddish is his mother tongue. "Until I went to school, it was my only language," he explained. "It's still my best language. My mother sang me lullabies in Yiddish."

Last week, Schaefer, a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp, was one of about 100 people from around the world who attended a Malibu conference on Yiddish and Jewish American literature. Some were professors. Some were students. Some, like Schaefer, who had been a tailor, were lay people. But all the participants had a common dream: to keep the endangered language alive.

The conference was sponsored by the National Yiddish Book Center, based in Amherst, Mass. As the center's founder, Aaron Lansky, explained during a break in the program, the movement to keep Yiddish alive is not an exercise in nostalgia. For a thousand years, Yiddish--a fusion of medieval High German, Hebrew and Slavic written in the Hebrew alphabet--was the spoken language of most of Europe's--and the world's--Jews. It was also an important literary language. As Lansky, 38, pointed out, about 50,000 titles were published in Yiddish between 1880 and 1939. It was in these books, Lansky said, that Jewish writers struggled with the important question of how to live as a Jew in the modern world.

Since the 1970s, Lansky has been leading the fight to save Yiddish books. He first became aware of how threatened they were as a graduate student of Yiddish literature in Montreal, when he sought them in libraries and bookstores and found none. "There simply were no books," he said.

Lansky and the handful of other students who were hungry for Yiddish books began going into old Jewish neighborhoods, knocking on doors and asking for them. Unable to get support for his effort from any of the traditional Jewish organizations, Lansky eventually created a network of volunteers, called zamlers in Yiddish, who scoured their neighborhoods for books. Since its founding in 1980, the National Yiddish Book Center has collected 1.2 million donated books, which are circulated--mostly by mail. The center has also established Yiddish book collections at 166 university and research libraries around the world, including UCLA and USC.

Lansky loves to tell of his adventures in book collecting. He recalls his first major acquisition. He arranged to meet an elderly man at his high-rise apartment building in Atlantic City. Any hope Lansky had of simply collecting the books, piling them into his car and driving off to his next stop was thwarted early on.

The collector handed the books over one by one and, with each one, he told a story. How he and his young wife had saved their money for a week to afford this one. How everybody they knew was reading that one. Lansky was offered glass after glass of tea, plate after plate of cookies. Lansky was there for hours. When the books were finally stowed, the man looked at Lansky and asked why he was running off. "Everybody in the building has books," the man explained. Lansky worked his way through the high rise. "It was like visiting my grandmother 30 times in one day," Lansky recalled.

Many of the people who give books refer to them as their inheritance, Lansky said. The center treats them as such. The collecting ritual often includes food. As a result, Lansky said, the center now sends out its collectors in groups of three. "Two do the schlepping and one is the designated eater."

The most obvious blow to Yiddishkeit , or Yiddish culture, was Adolf Hitler's nearly successful attempt to wipe it from existence. But there are other reasons for its decline as well, Lansky said. Israel's decision to adopt Hebrew as the official language of the Jewish state was one. According to conference speaker Avrom Nowersztern, head of the Yiddish Department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, kiosks that stocked Yiddish newspapers were sometimes burned by pro-Hebrew zealots in pre-state Israel.

For decades, New York City was one of the great Yiddish centers of the world, but, in Lansky's view, the American melting-pot mentality prevented Yiddish from taking hold as it might have. In Montreal, Yiddish is as much a part of a Jewish education as Hebrew, Lansky said, but "Jews in the United States reduced Jewishness to a religion." As a result, American Jews are often ignorant of the rich cultural and political past that was largely conducted in Yiddish. He doubts, for instance, that one Jewish student in a thousand can identify I. L. Peretz, one of the great Yiddish writers of the recent past.

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