Digital Yiddish


(Photos by Howard Blumenthal)

Last week, we spent some time in central Massachusetts–we wanted to buy t-shirts at Hampshire College, and maybe a few children’s books at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. We’ve traveled in this area before. Although we’d noticed the shetl-style architecture of the Yiddish Book Center on the same campus, we never visited. It was a picture-perfect summer day in New England, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend any time indoors, but I inside “just for a few minutes.” I could have spent all day. In fact, I spent the next two days reading Outwitting History, written by Outwitting Historythe center’s founder and leader, Aaron Lansky. The book’s subtitle provides only a glimpse of what Lansky, and the Center, has accomplished, and will do: ‘The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Jewish Books.’

Much of the book is devoted to Lansky, his friends, co-workers, and friends collecting the inheritance–the books collected by Jews who had brought their culture from Eastern Europe, and other places, often overcoming obstacles before they landed in their small apartment in Brooklyn, the Bronx or New Jersey. Getting to know these people one by one, Lansky would load his rented truck with shopping bags and cartons of books, often from people whose next step was a retirement home. Just about every visit came with an obligatory range of dishes “cooked special for you” so “you shouldn’t be hungry.” In a typical spread, there would be onion bagels and lox, kasha varnishkes, potato latkes, and lokshn kugl (noodle pudding), plus herring, chopped liver, and other traditional dishes. And conversation. Lots of lots of stories, one about every book, the times, the culture, the memories. In time, Lansky learned to travel as one of a team of three people: “two do do the shlepping and the third to be the Designated Eater. the latter was the really hard job. While the others carried boxes, you had to sit with the host at the kitchen table, listening to stories, sipping endless glasses of tea, and valiently working your way through a week’s worth of dishes cooked ‘special’ just for you…”

Over two decades or so, Lansky and his colleagues accomplished the impossible–they collected a million copies of Yiddish books. The best ones are now safer than they have ever been; they’re housed in a carved-out mountain that was built as a military facility (remarkably, it’s less than a mile from their Hadley, Massachusetts headquarters). The Center has supplied about 500 university and research libraries with Yiddish book collections (before the Center, only six such collections existed anywhere in North America). If you’re in the area–between Amherst and Northampton, Massachusetts–you can look at any of thousands of books, and you can buy most of them (there are more than enough extra copies around). Some titles are Yiddish translations of popular works by Shakespeare, Hemingway, Poe, Dickinson, and other popular writers. Many are original Yiddish works of fiction, plays, poetry, history books, cookbooks, children’s books, and more. And if you can’t make your way to Massachusetts, you can visit the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, an online collection of more than 10,000 Yiddish titles, with each book page scanned (most of the original books were published on pulp paper, and some tend to disintegrate with each page turn, so digital technology saved the day).

New Yiddish Library's most recent title: Moshe Kulbak's The Zelmenyaners, translated by Hillel Halkin. One of the great comic novels of the twentieth century, The Zelmenyaners describes the travails of a Jewish family in Minsk that is torn asunder by the new Soviet reality.

New Yiddish Library’s most recent title: Moshe Kulbak’s The Zelmenyaners, translated by Hillel Halkin. One of the great comic novels of the twentieth century, The Zelmenyaners describes the travails of a Jewish family in Minsk that is torn asunder by the new Soviet reality.

There is, of course, one problem. The books are written in Yiddish, and must be read in the original language. The Center has a deal with Yale University Press, and some titles are now available in English translation, in book form. More are on the way, but this solution is a minor one.

The major one, of course, is that role of Yiddish has changed, and the people who knew, know, and can claim literacy in Yiddish has been greatly diminished. At one time, more than eleven million people spoke, read, and communicated in Yiddish. That time was 1939, a year before the devastation by the Nazis, and a decade before the the shift into modern times, suburbia, and beginning the end of the old Jewish neighborhoods that once defined so much of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and other cities where Yiddish was common currency.

When Lansky was a graduate student in search of a few Yiddish books for graduate school, when he traveled by truck to collect books from crumbling old publishing warehouses and Jewish community centers in the neighborhoods where many Jews once lived, his focus was saving books. Now, the agenda for the Center is even more compelling: books continue to arrive, but the people who can translate them, with appropriate cultural context, are few. It’s one thing to translate the words, quite another to present the story in ways that are both true to the original sensibility and sufficiently interesting to contemporary readers. Yiddish was always a people’s language, informal and spoken at home, never the official language of state affairs or religious ceremonies. As Lansky points out, time and again, all of his scholarship, all of the scholarship gathered by his many friends and associates, all of it pales in comparison with the ninety-year-old man who is sitting in his small Newark apartment, sharing tea and Entenmann’s crumb cake, shopping bag full of books at his side, ready to part with his lifetime of favorite Yiddish novels, books he loves because they were so much a part of his life.

His books are safe now. They will be treated with loving care. They will find a new home. Some will be translated into English so that even those of us who cannot read Yiddish can understand the basics of what they have to say. The work will be done by human translators, and in time, perhaps, by digital translators, too. The love, the sense of what the world was like, the passion, the feeling for the characters and situations created by the great Yiddish writers, poets, playwrights, stage performers, radio performers, singers, these will be more difficult to capture and store inside a mountain in Massachusetts.

yiddish-book-shelvesAt the very least, Lansky, his friends, his co-conspirators, the Center’s network of scholars and friends and donors, the network of zammlers (two hundred people who collect books worldwide for the Center) have taken the first step. We now have the books, and nobody is going to take them away from us. And they’ve taken the second step: the books are now available, through various re-disribution schemes, to people everywhere. The third step is the mind-bender. How to republish the works, maintaining the integrity and magic of their original words and ideas in a world where (a) the whole book publishing industry is trying to figure out its digital future and path to thrival (my made-up word that goes beyond survival into thriving); (b) few people read Yiddish; (c) Yiddish culture is becoming  historical fact rather than a cultural reality; and (d) as interested as I may be, I don’t think I have every read a single Yiddish book, and apart from Sholom Alechem (whose work was the basis for Fiddler on the Roof), I don’t think I can name a single Yiddish author.

That will change, of course. Shame on me for missing this part of my cultural education.

Thank you, Norman Temmelman of Atlantic City, Sorell Skolnik of the Mohegan Colony, Mr. Kupferstein, Marjorie Guthrie (Woody’s wife), and Sam and Leah Ostroff, for helping Aaron Lansky. And thank you, Mr. Lansky for opening the door for me. As I read the books, I will pass them along to friends, to my father and my sons, and attempt, in my small way, to be a link in the chain. I suspect there is a Yiddish proverb beneath all of this, or, at least, a few Yiddish words to describe what’s on my mind, but those words are lost to me. Perhaps I will find a few of them along the way.


Balancing Technique and Inspiration

A new book about pastels from artist Jean Hirons.  If you buy it by clicking on the link (instead of buying from a more traditional source, the author earns more money for her self-published effort.)

A new book about pastels from artist Jean Hirons. If you buy it by clicking on the link (instead of buying from a more traditional source, the author earns more money for her self-published effort when you click on the book cover and make the purchase through Author House).

Ten or fifteen years ago, I decided to try my hand at pastels. That is, I bought a box of pastels, some paper, and started making bad art. At the time, there were two useful books available: Bill Creevy’s “The Pastel Book,” and Larry Blovits’s “Pastel for the Serious Beginner.” Both of these books were well-organized, and helpful, but neither provided the complete education that I wanted to pursue.

Over time, I bought more (and more) (and more) pastels, experimented with various types of paper, played with and decided that I pretty much hated fixative, bought a field easel, and started spending weekend afternoons making pastel paintings. To be honest, I didn’t much care whether each painting was worth showing to anybody; most of the paintings were wrapped in glassine (which does not smudge the painting) and placed, ever so carefully, into a box. Mostly, my concern has been learning how to pursue a creative process.

Along the way, I have bought just about every book about pastels that I could find. I’ve scoured the lists of the top publishers (then, North Light Books and Watson-Guptill, the latter now part of North Light). I’ve been inspired by the beautiful work and eye-opening creative thinking so elegantly presented by Elizabeth Mowry her two best books, “The Pastelist’s Year,” which looks at painting through the seasons) and “The Poetic Landscape,” which examines perception and the psychology of art through pastel painting. Both of Maggie Price’s books have proven very useful: “Painting with Pastels” and the more specialized “Painting Sunlight and Shadows with Pastels.” The out-of-print book that taught me ever so much was Doug Dawson’s “Capturing Light and Color with Pastel.” The more sophisticated, and modestly entitled, “Pastel Pointers” by Richard McKinley, is only part of a larger instructional program that can be pursued online or in the always-excellent Pastel Journal magazine.

Still, I wish I was just starting out today, if only to do so under the guidance of Jean Hirons and her new (self-published) book, “Finding Your Style in Pastel.”

"Antietam Barns" by pastel artist Jean Hirons

“Antietam Barns” by pastel artist Jean Hirons

From the very first image on the very first page, I sensed, I can probably do this. Immediately, my confidence level increased. A brief but substantive review of types (soft, hard) and brands (Sennelier, NuPastel) is followed by a rundown on the many surfaces (papers, mostly) now available (with running commentary on the advantages of each ground), and comments on strokes, blending, layering, and other techniques. I like the way Ms. Hirons keeps the story moving; she makes her points clearly and with the right illustrations, then moves on. (She is my kind of teacher!) There’s a lot of “show me what I need to know,” as with a quartet of small images to explain toning and underpainting (two methods of pre-painting a surface).

By page 63, she’s defining personal styles. This is, of course, what every artist wants to know. Basic techniques are fine, but how do I make my paintings my own? So begins one of the better explorations of composition, value, edges and color theory that I’ve seen in book form. As with the earlier chapters, the author does not linger; the pace remains solid, brisk and professional. Once again, two images from the artist’s online gallery help to make the point about the difference between the works of an artist who pursues a distinctive, personal style:

Carroll County Farm by Jean Hirons

Carroll County Farm by Jean Hirons

"Dandelion Spring" by Jean Hirons

“Dandelion Spring” by Jean Hirons

Same artist, different seasons, different color palettes, varying levels of edge sharpness, atmospheric color, amount of foreground detail, use of line and shape, mood, overall colorcast, color temperature, and so much more.

Hirons rarely insists upon one particular technique or approach. Instead, she runs through available options, the techniques required to achieve the desired effects, and well-chosen images to illustrate each point.

Along the way, she also addresses the questions that lurk in the back of every pastelist’s mind. To what extent do I paint the colors that I observe? How do shadows work: how dark, how much local color, how much should I shift the color temperature? How far should I go with my interpreted color? To what extent, and under which conditions, should I pursue abstraction?

Yes, there are some step-by-step demonstrations, but only a few (I’ve never been a big fan of books filled with step-by-step demos because I tend to lose interest unless I am actually painting at the same time as I am reading). Hirons uses them only in her final problem solving chapter (where they can do the most good).

In one of several appendices, the author recommends books about art, color, composition, landscapes, and, inevitably, pastels. Somehow, her list of recommended titles (which I just found as I was writing this last sentence) matches my list (at the top of this article) just about one-for-one. She adds “Pure Color,” a compendium of excellent pastel work by contemporary artists. To her list of materials sources, I would certainly add the venerable New York Central Art Supply near Greenwich Village.

Over time, self-published books can become hard-to-find (the author depletes the current stock and may or may not decide to continue to be a publisher–an especially challenging decision for an artist who is not, by trade, a publishing mogul). That’s why I always recommend that a self-published book be purchased immediately. In this case, the bound book–a 200-page, full color, very handsome paperback–costs just over $50, but the same book can be purchased for just $3.99 as an eBook. Despite my interest in all things digital, I would opt for the paperbound edition because I like surrounding myself with very good books. And this one fits, very nicely indeed, into that category.

On Other People’s Bookshelves

During the past few months, a clever oblong book entitled My Ideal Bookshelf has been widely covered in the media. Each two-page spread contains a brief essay about books and reading by a cultural somebody, and a painting of that person’s favorite books arranged as they might appear arranged on a shelf (in fact, not one of the painted arrangements includes an actual bookshelf).

Browsing the groupings of favorite books, I did what I always do. I took some notes, and made a list of books I would like to read someday.

I have wandered through a vast number of books about food and cooking, but so far, I have not taken on Larousse Gastronomique. So, thank you to chef and cookbook author Hugh Acheson for that reminder, and to chef Thomas Keller for suggesting the same book.

From author Junot Díaz, a recommendation for Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor.

apatow_bookshelfJudd Apatow, famous for his comedy movies, surprised me with James Agee’s A Death in the Family, and reminded me of a popular book about comedians that I wanted to read, but never did: The Last Laugh.

I was happy to see Dave Eggers highlight Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, a story about American slavery that I finished this winter, and now look forward to reading Denis Johnson’s book, Jesus’ Son which is “short, funny and impossibly lyrical…a book nobody doesn’t like.”

It was fun to see some of my all-time favorites, especially the obscure ones, on other people’s shelves: Chuck Klosterman likes Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television and Rudy Rucker’s The Fourth Dimension, and designer David Kelley likes The Care and Feeding of Ideas by Adams and the compendium, An Incomplete Education, and I do, too.

franco_bookshelfJames Franco wins for the most cluttered bookshelf, also the one with the most books. From his stacks, I think I will pick up another set of Raymond Carver stories, and the original scroll version of Kerouac’s On The Road. I suppose I should read Melville’s Moby Dick, which I have avoided so far for no good reason. Ditto for writer Philip Gourevitch’s suggested A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

I am among the many who believes Professor Lawrence Lessig to be brilliant, so I was anxious to explore his bookshelf. Mostly, it was the scholarly law stuff that appealed to me, but it was encouraging to see Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash sitting just below The Federalist Papers. 

Writer / designer / photographer Ben Schott included Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, but I think I will listen to Richard Burton on the BBC rather than reading it in book form. Patti Smith reminded me that I have not gotten my copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, 1947-1980. Editor Lorin Stein’s list includes Chuck Amuck by Warner Brothers animation director Chuck Jones, which I know I will enjoy.

It was interesting to see one of my architectural favorites, A Pattern Language, on chef Alice Waters’s list, and I suspect we both found it by browsing the same source, years ago, The Whole Earth Catalog. Pretty much, I want to read her entire bookshelf, from M.F.K. Fisher’s Consider the Oyster to Maria Montessori’s The Secret of Childhood.


Rosanne Cash’s mix of E.B. White, Mallory and The War of Art (another of my favorites, it’s way over on the left), and Tennyson and Solzhenitsyn was among the most intriguing collections.

Finally: good for William Wegman for including not only two Hardy Boys novels, but also bits of the World Book encyclopedia, The Golden Book Encyclopedia, and Girl Scout Badges and Signs.

I was very pleased, and felt very smart, when I saw so many of my personal favorites on other people’s shelves. And, I felt woefully illiterate when I realized just how many of the books–sometimes, whole bookshelves–with both authors and titles that were completely unfamiliar to me.

(So many books. So little time.)

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