July 10, 1997
Miriam Koral (second from right) surrounded by (from left), her brother Yuri; mother Ita; and mentor, Yiddish archivist, Hillel Kempinski. Below, Koral today.Miriam Koral is most definitely a zamler, a collector.
Her collecting usually takes her to a suburban garage, where the grandchildren of immigrants are giving away bubbe's old Yiddish books to make way for the bicycles. The work is hardly glamorous, but Koral, in her 40s, finds it a "profound connection" to her late parents, survivors of the Holocaust and the Stalinist gulags who spoke to her only in Yiddish.
She is one of eight Southern California zamlers -- who range in age from about 40 to 80. Together, they have amassed several hundred thousand volumes since the early 1980s and donated them to the National Yiddish Book Center, which has a brand-new home in Amherst, Mass.
For them, the work is holy. Most do it because Yiddish is their mama-loshn, their mother tongue, and they do not want it to disappear. They do it because the books remind them of immigrant parents, of Workmen's Circle shuln (schools), of the labor strikes where Yiddish was the language of protest.
The musty volumes, moreover, remind Koral of other books in another era. Specifically, she is transported to the Atran Culture House, an elegant 19th-century mansion she often frequented as a child in Manhattan. Past the grand portal and a vast expanse of marble floor, she rode the creaky, cramped elevator to the Yiddish library on the fifth floor. There, amid the comforting smell of old books and the photos of labor-movement heroes lining the walls, she visited her mentor, the brilliant archivist, Hillel Kempinski.
He was 5 feet tall; he wore baggy trousers; his hair was "white and wild"; and he kept an extra stash of cash in his shoe. A "walking encyclopedia" of Yiddish literature, Jewish and social history, the Holocaust refugee taught Koral to read in Yiddish, and often brought her bags of books. At a community function, he once introduced her to Isaac Bashevis Singer by announcing that the Barnard College student wanted to become a writer. Singer, replying in Koral's Polish-Yiddish dialect, forcefully said that she should not, because the life was just too difficult.
Koral, in fact, did not become a writer; rather, she is an environmental planning consultant. Over the years, her connection to Yiddish remained through her parents and Kempinski. But, by late 1993, all three were gone. "There was no one to speak Yiddish to anymore, but it was so precious to me that I didn't want to lose it," says Koral, who thus enrolled in a summer program of the National Yiddish Book Center and almost immediately began to collect books. From there, she went on to organize events and to edit the newsletter for a local organization, Yiddishkayt Los Angeles.
"For me, there used to be this great melancholy associated with Yiddish; it was the language and the world of my ancestors, but I thought it was dying," Koral says. "The center has shown me that people of all ages are interested in Yiddish, so my melancholy has changed to hope that the language could stay alive."
Jacob Schaefer, now in his 80s, could not save his wife and children from Auschwitz, says the Yiddish Book Center's Pearl-Anne Margalit. But he has saved some 50,000 Yiddish volumes from the dustbin, calling the work the most rewarding of his life. Once, when a box of books was lost in the mail, he told Margalit that it must be found because "a part of my nashume [soul] is in every pekl [parcel]."
For Jerry Binder, 55, the work is also related to the Holocaust. As a young man, he abandoned Yiddish because it was the language of his parents' despair over the Shoah. He has returned to Yiddish, and to Jewish life, because of a book center credo: "Don't Mourn; organize."
Then there's David Davidson of Laguna Hills, who by himself has gathered more than 40,000 books for the center.
Marion Herbst, a Brentwood artist who also teaches Yiddish at the University of Judaism, remembers the time she drove her red Pontiac to the Fairfax-area home of Celia Zylbercweig, an elegant grande dame and former star of the South American Yiddish stage. Zylbercweig and her late husband, Zalmen, had broadcast, from their garage, a daily Yiddish radio show that ran from the 1940s to the 1960s; the proceeds funded Zalmen's seven-volume masterpiece on the Yiddish theater, which so obsessed him that he took his typewriter even to the hospital.
In the end, he gave his life for his life's work, Celia said. And 70 boxes of his books and materials went to the museum that was dedicated to his work in Jerusalem. Much of the rest went into the trunk of Herbst's roomy Pontiac, and then off to the National Yiddish Book Center.
Here are some local places to get involved with Yiddish:
Yiddishkayt Los Angeles: lectures, concerts, biennial festivals and a newsletter of all Yiddish-themed events in Los Angeles. (213) 962-1976.
The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring, Southern California district: beginning to intermediate Yiddish classes, a weekly choral group and related events. (310) 552-2007.
Courses: There are more Yiddish classes at Santa Monica College's Emeritus College, Los Angeles Pierce College, the University of Judaism, Temple Beth Hillel, Leo Baeck Temple; also check your local synagogue, senior and Jewish community centers.
Elder hostel, University of Judaism, (310) 476-9777 ext. 535.