National Yiddish Book Center

The National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, on the campus of Hampshire College. It is a cultural institution dedicated to the preservation of books in the Yiddish language. It is a member of Museums10 and is a non-profit institution, and its cultural programs are funded by memberships and grants.


The Center was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky. It was the first organization of English-speaking American Jews dedicated to the preservation of Yiddish language and culture. At first, major Jewish organizations initially refused to fund or aid it, claiming that Yiddish was a dead language.

Lansky was a 23-year-old graduate student in 1980 when he took a leave of absence from McGill University and issued a public appeal for unwanted and discarded Yiddish books. At the time, scholars estimated there were 70,000 Yiddish books still extant and recoverable. Since then, the Book Center has gone on to recover a million volumes, with hundreds of additional books continuing to arrive each week. Lansky recounts the origins of the Center in his memoir Outwitting History.

In 1997, the National Yiddish Book Center opened a permanent headquarters and Visitors Center adjacent to the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, containing exhibits on the history of Yiddish literature and culture, an English-language bookstore, a theater, Yiddish Writers Garden, and open stacks of Yiddish books.

The Book Center offers year-round public programs, including its Paper Bridge Summer Arts Festival, film and music series, concerts, and performances.


The Center's Yiddish library consists of over a million donated volumes donated from individuals and collections around the world. However, most of these are multiple copies, and so the number of individual titles is far fewer (approximately 15,000-20,000). Thus while it refers to itself as the world's largest collection of Yiddish books, its holdings include fewer discrete titles than the notable Yiddish collections at the Jewish National and University Library or Harvard University's Widener Library.

The Book Center’s duplicate holdings have been used to strengthen Yiddish collections at more than 450 libraries, including Harvard, Yale, Library of Congress, the British Library, Hebrew University in Jerusalem and others.

In 1998, with a grant from the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Center launched the Its Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library has digitized many works in collection. Through this program, 10,000 titles were digitized, catalogued, and made available as Print on demand reprints for purchase at $48 a book. The digitization project also led to The Steiner Yizkor Book Collection, containing nearly 700 digitized memorial books about East European communities destroyed by the Holocaust, compiled and written by survivors and previously available only in very limited used editions.


Public programs related to Yiddish and Jewish culture are offered regularly at the Amherst location, including concerts, films, exhibits, author talks, as well as events co-sponsored with local community organizations. An onsite and online book store specializes in Yiddish and Jewish literature and culture. The Center also sells the donated books entrusted to the organization.

The Center offers a summer internship program for college students. Eighteen students are selected for a seven-week program during which they study the Yiddish language and the Jewish culture and history of Central and Eastern Europe and America. Students also pursue an independent research or translation project, and work with the Yiddish Book Center's collection of Yiddish literature.

In 2001, Ruthe B. Cowl (1912-2008) of Laredo, Texas, donated $1 million to create the Jack and Ruthe B. Cowl Center, which promoted "Yiddish literary, artistic, musical, and historical knowledge and accomplishment" at the Amherst headquarters.Early in 2007, Cowl donated another $750,000 to create the Cowl Jewish Leadership Program for promising college students.

The Center also publishes Pakn Treger, an English-language magazine. Pakn Treger began as a newsletter, "Book Peddler," but it published work by serious journalists, including film critic Kenneth Turan. In 1995, journalist Jeff Sharlet assumed the editorship and transformed the "Book Peddler" into a serious journal of Jewish culture, Pakn Treger, Yiddish for a book peddler. Contributors included J. Hoberman, Harvey Pekar, Joe Sacco, Francine Prose, Ben Katchor, Allegra Goodman, and others. In 1998, Sharlet left and was replaced by editor Nancy Sherman. Since then Pakn Treger publishes less frequently and has returned closer to its previous role as an organizational newsletter.


The organization's history has been controversial from the start. Lanksy's repeated claims that Yiddish was in a state of obsolescence provoked the ire of many people long-involved in Yiddish cultural activities. Lansky rankled initial supporters again when building his new center when he decided to build with a non-union contractor that had no collective bargaining agreement with its workers. Despite the claims that this was especially offensive given the role of the Yiddish language speakers and literature in the founding of the American labour movement and trade unions, Lansky chose to ignore the wishes of the petitioners from the Jewish Labor Committee and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

Ten years after the opening of the Center's headquarters, Lansky announced plans to build a new building, a 21,000-square foot expansion at an estimated cost of $6 million, urgently appealing to the membership that "we have just six weeks to raise $6 million!

The manner in which the Center raises and spends its funds has also been the target of criticism. According to the organization's IRS Form 990 Lansky's 2006 salary was reported as more than $180,000 and that the salaries paid to the organization's top three employees accounted for more than 15% of the Center's expenses. These figures, together with the fact that one-third of the organization's expenses are spent on promotion and fund-raising, are part of the reason that Charity Navigator rated the efficiency of the National Yiddish Book Center as "poor".


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