The Yiddish Book Center
A trip to Amherst, Mass., allowed us to visit the Yiddish Book Center this afternoon. I remember seeing signs for this place when I lived in Amherst in the early 1980s. My impression was that it was then nothing more than an old barn filled with books written in Yiddish, a language I couldn’t (and can’t) read. True, the YBC today is filled with books (though apparently only a tiny portion of the collection is housed in the YBC building open to visitors), but it is so much more. Explanatory panels offer insights into the history, character, and importance of Yiddish and into some of the people who used it to communicate, especially through writing.
I learned about An-sky, a playwright and ethnographer. As head of the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition of 1911–1914, he gathered artifacts and accounts of the lives of Jewish peasants living in the Pale, the region of Russia that allowed Jewish settlement. He used what he learned from this investigation to write the famous play The Dybbuk, which was staged only after An-Sky’s death in 1920.
A moving exhibition of postcards of Lost Synagogues of Europe depicts the vast numbers of synagogues that exist no more, most of them destroyed in World War II. An exhibit on the Sweatshop Poets, Yiddish-speaking Jews who had immigrated to America and attempted to embody the struggles of the working class in their poems. An uplifting collection of humorous drawings and carvings by Steve Marcus celebrate Jewish life in New York City in the mid-twentieth century with a sensibility that blends a the aesthetics of underground comics of the 1960s with Jewish traditions and foods.
I strongly recommend a visit to anyone who travels in or near Amherst. To echo the old rye bread ad, you don’t have to be Jewish to find inspiration in the Yiddish Book Center.