Rescuing Yiddish Treasures
By Kristen Cole
In an old library in downtown Mexico City, a facility
that atrophied as its readers moved to the suburbs, Smith professor Justin Cammy
spent part of August rescuing 6,000 books written in Yiddish.
Now, instead of being carted to a garbage dump, the
books are headed to the National Yiddish Book Center, located on the grounds of Hampshire
College in Amherst. There they will be redistributed to students and libraries all
over the world and digitized so that reprints can be made available to readers indefinitely.
Justin Cammy. Photo by Jim Gipe.
Cammy, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at Smith,
encourages his students to take advantage of the unique treasure that is located
in the neighboring town and only a few miles from campus: the “world’s
only comprehensive supplier of Yiddish books,” according to the center’s
Tapping into the local resource is one way Smith students
expand their education to meet their interests. And some Smith students do more than
visit the center: Elizabeth Lerner ’05 performed an internship there and Jacqui
Shine ’05 served as a center tour guide.
The stated goal of the National Yiddish Book Center
is to return old books to a new generation of readers. When 23-year-old MacArthur
Fellow Aaron Lansky founded the center in 1980, he did so to preserve a language.
Throughout North America, books written in the old language were being destroyed.
Until 1939, Yiddish, a European Jewish language that
dates back more than a thousand years, was spoken by about 75 percent of the world’s
Jewry as its first or only language. But Hitler’s concentration camps changed
Fifty percent of Yiddish speakers were killed during
the Holocaust, and many children of Yiddish speakers chose to linguistically assimilate
with the language of the majority population. Eventually, there were tens of thousands
more books than readers, says Cammy.
Now the National Yiddish Book Center claims to be the
largest and fastest-growing Jewish cultural organization in America. To date, it
has recovered or helped to preserve 1.5 million volumes, including some tomes that
Cammy salvaged during a trip to Venezuela in 2004.
In a similar trip to Mexico City last summer, Cammy
did not know exactly what he and his wife, Rachel Rubinstein, visiting assistant
professor of Jewish American literature and culture at Hampshire College, would find.
“Perhaps some rare volumes by Mexican and Latin
American Yiddish writers,” mused Cammy before the trip. “It’s always
a surprise and something of a treasure hunt.”
The work has a deeper meaning for Cammy, who is on
the National Yiddish Book Center’s academic advisory board and serves as faculty-in-residence
at its annual summer internship program for college students.
“The way a community treats its books is a signal
of its self-respect and cultural dignity,” he says. “Rescuing long-forgotten
volumes from destruction allows us to have this positive impact on the larger world.”