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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

For a Dying Literature, a Digital Savior

AMHERST, Mass., May 5, 2002 - Antiquated, shmantiquated. Yiddish, once on the verge of oblivion, is passing a 21st-century milestone on Monday. As a result of a four-year digitization project and print-on-demand technology, a literature that thrived from 1864 to 1939 will suddenly become proportionally the most in-print literature on the planet.

Readers will be able to go to a Web site ( and order any of 12,000 titles in Yiddish. The contents of the book will be retrieved from an electronic database, printed, bound in paperback and shipped within a few days. Members will pay $21.75 per book, nonmembers $29.

Aaron Lansky, the president of the National Yiddish Book Center, which initiated the digitization project, said that between 18,000 and 20,000 titles, not including pamphlets and other ephemera, have been published in Yiddish. With two-thirds of those books now becoming effectively in print, a much greater portion of Yiddish literature will be available than is the case with the literature of any other language, he said.

Mr. Lansky, 46, has been devoting his life to preserving Yiddish books since 1979 when, as a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal, he realized that a once-vibrant literature important to understanding the Jewish experience was being thrown into trash bins as the last generation of people who spoke Yiddish as their primary language was dying out.

Since then Mr. Lansky and his associates have collected more than 1.5 million volumes containing almost 15,000 discrete titles. Many have been cataloged and then sold or donated to libraries around the world.

Books are still coming in from places as varied as musty basements in New York City and a recently reopened synagogue in Havana, where Mr. Lansky went two months ago to retrieve a collection he had heard about for many years.

Four years ago, realizing that many of the books were disintegrating, Mr. Lansky set out to digitize the collection to preserve it and make some of the hardest-to-find titles available beyond a few rare book repositories. He attracted the support of the director Steven Spielberg, for whom the digital library is named. Mr. Spielberg donated the first $500,000 to what became a $3.5 million project.

Rachel Levin, associate director of the Righteous Persons Foundation, created by Mr. Spielberg in 1994, said, "This project fits Steven's interest in telling stories of the Jewish past and using modern technology to do so."

The reasons for saving Yiddish literature go beyond the entertainment value of its many colorful stories, Mr. Lansky said. Yiddish, a Germanic language usually written with a Hebrew alphabet, was spoken by more than three-quarters of the world's Jews for a thousand years.

What is widely considered to be the first modern Yiddish story, "The Little Man" by Sholem Abramovitsh, appeared in 1864, when Enlightenment ideas were making their way to Eastern Europe, Mr. Lansky said. In the decades that followed, what he described as an "amazing literary outpouring" from the 11 million Yiddish speakers told much of the story of Jewish encounters with modernity.

"Even though the literature is finite," Mr. Lansky said, "it is enormously important because it is the first great bridge between one epoch of Jewish history and the next. It is the precursor to our own struggles to figure out what it means to live as Jews in the modern world."

Mr. Lansky won a MacArthur fellowship in 1989 for his work. The National Yiddish Book Center, based on the Hampshire College campus in Amherst, Mass., is also a museum and cultural center.

The Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library promises to have a major impact on the development of Yiddish, Mr. Lansky said.

"We have really high hopes, because for the first time what had been a discarded and unavailable literature is available to all," he said. But, he added: "'Making the books available was the first step. The second step is to encourage people to read them."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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