June 27, 2002
The Nachas of Books
Until recently, it seemed you could find Yiddish books only in obscure libraries or in the attic of the house of someone's grandparents. But recently, the National Yiddish Book Center launched the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, an online bookstore that makes more than 12,000 out-of-print titles available for purchase over the Internet.
Each order is routed to a production facility in Pennsylvania, where a digital printer accesses the previously scanned pages and generates a new paperback copy within minutes. The price is $29 per book (center members pay less).
Offering 12,000 of the 18,000 to 20,000 titles that compose modern Yiddish literature, the digital library has turned Yiddish into the most in-print literature available, said Aaron Lansky, the center's founder and president. Popular writers include I.L. Peretz and Sholem Asch.
When Lansky was a Jewish studies graduate student around 1980, most Yiddish books were out-of-print. Fearing that surviving tomes would soon be thrown out by a younger generation, he says he set out "to save the world's Yiddish books before it was too late." Working from an unheated factory in Northhampton, Mass., Lansky made a public appeal for unwanted books and sent volunteers to collect them from abandoned buildings and old synagogues across the country. The center, which now has some 30,000 members, has since recovered more than 1.5 million books.
Its birth coincided with a trend to study Yiddish language and literature, which meant that by 1998, students and scholars were buying up the most important titles. Worse, nearly all the books had been printed on inexpensive paper and were physically deteriorating. The solution was digitizing the collection, a $3.5 million project that's been funded in part by a $500,000 grant from Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation. It's the only major publisher of Yiddish books today. "We've shown how new technology can be used to save an endangered literature and bring it back into print," Lansky said.
Access the library at www.yiddishbooks.org.