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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 Web site.

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 that.

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.”

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