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It’s been four years since Eugene Driker became board chair at one of the country’s largest Jewish cultural organizations, the Yiddish Book Center (YBC). Although he stepped down in November 2016, the JN caught up with him to hear about the organization’s accomplishments under his direction.
“I joined because I saw the organization’s vital work,” said Driker, whose parents were Yiddish-speaking immigrants from what is now the Ukraine and whose first language was Yiddish. “To learn what people were thinking in a certain time period, you need to read books, plays, periodicals, poems written in the language used at that time. Yiddish is the key to Ashkenazic Jewry. Without understanding Yiddish, it’s impossible to know what 19th-century Jews were thinking.
“People seem to think that Fiddler on the Roof is the pinnacle of life back then, but it was only one story. There was a whole complicated, fascinating life in the cities beyond the shtetls and milk carts.”
The YBC was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky, a student of Yiddish literature who had a hard time finding the required Yiddish reading material. He posted “Yiddish books wanted” signs around an old Jewish neighborhood and was stunned when, within two days, he’d received 75 books along with letters asking him to pick up more. He realized that books were out there, on bookshelves of Jewish seniors around the country, whose descendants didn’t understand the language. Lansky saw a need to rescue those Yiddish books from potential oblivion and was not dissuaded when people insisted that Yiddish had died in the Holocaust.
It was estimated there were 75,000 copies of Yiddish literature left in the world; although to date, more than 1.5 million books have been rescued through YBC’s efforts.
The physical preservation is relatively simple: The books are kept in an underground climate-controlled storage facility at the YBC in Amherst, Mass. These days, the YBC is more concerned with sharing the Yiddish culture with the world and has partnered with the National Library of Israel to digitalize the books and make them available at no cost online for anyone worldwide.
The books are also translated, a process that can take an entire team up to a year’s work per book.
“They spend a lot of time arguing about what’s the best way to translate idiomatic Yiddish expressions,” Driker said. Approximately 1-2 percent of all the Yiddish books in the YBC’s possession have been translated, leaving an enormous amount of work still left to do.
Another work in progress is the world’s first full-length Yiddish textbook to be attempted in more than 70 years, co-authored by three Yiddishists, including Michael Yashinsky, originally of Farmington Hills, who said, “It will be a multimedia, colorful, humorous, lively, richly researched and eminently useful guide and, hopefully, a real boon to the world of people who involve themselves in Yiddish.”
Currently, the YBC teaches interested folks to read, write and understand Yiddish.
“We’re bringing this entire rich culture to new generations, who’d otherwise know nothing about it,” Driker said. The YBC also initiated programs for high school and college students: teaching them Yiddish and then allowing them to examine boxes filled with dusty Yiddish books and unearth the treasures within.
The YBC has also helped establish collections of Yiddish literature in 450 major universities in 26 countries around the world.
“Embedded in the language are 1,000 years of Jewish Eastern European culture,” Driker said. “We’ve been bringing Yiddish to new groups of people, especially young people, who are curious about their origins. People are blown away by the wealth of information available today and how accessible we’ve made it for them when they stumble upon the website or visit intentionally,” said Driker.
The impressive YBC building is on the Hampshire College campus and is designed to look like a building from a Polish shtetl.
Even the New York Times described in glowing terms how the YBC rescued a language from near extinction and made it the most readily accessible language in the world.
A lot of it can be credited to Driker.
“Eugene is one of the most remarkable, extraordinary and noble people I’ve ever known,” YBC founder Lansky said. “He’s the voice of probity, vision and reason, and always knows what to do. It’s hard to say what he hasn’t helped us with over the years.
“At 24 years old, I began from scratch and it took a long time to establish our standing and role in the broader Jewish community; Eugene helped us do that.”
Yashinsky concurred, and added, “What a wonderful thing for the YBC to have had such a dedicated and clever, humble and truly kind man serve as our chair, and what a proud thing for the Jews of Detroit to have someone like Eugene representing us and our community at institutions like this.”
Regarding the YBC’s future, a recent focus has been on recording live interviews with the few remaining Yiddish speakers and writers in the world. “These days, the YBC is a very exciting place to be … and it wouldn’t be like this if not for Eugene,” Lansky said.
Rochel Burstyn Contributing Writer