Yiddish has a brand new bag — of cash — thanks to the late comedy writer Mickey Ross who surprised The National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. with a $3 million donation from his estate.
And that’s not all: the writer/producer of hit sitcoms “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Three’s Company” also bequeathed 25 percent of his residual rights to “All in the Family” and other shows to the Yiddish Center, amounting to the largest gift the center had ever received.
The center’s founder and president, Aaron J. Lansky, said he never knew Ross and doesn’t believe he ever visited the center, though Ross had a history of supporting Yiddish causes.
Lansky first learned of the gift last summer, though he didn’t know of the amount until he received the check.
“The donation couldn’t possibly be more timely,” he said, noting that the center has spent 30 years rescuing and cataloging Yiddish literature from around the world. “Now we can move to the next step in our work of opening up these treasures and shifting to education and young people.”
The donation will go directly to the center’s endowment, bringing the total to $11 million. It will help subsidize a broad range of programs, including a year-round school of Jewish culture and activism, summer institutes for college students and recent graduates, and a major oral history project that aims to chronicle the contemporary Jewish experience. Lanksy said he is also searching for a full-time Yiddish professor.
While Ross’ gift is the largest the center has received, it is not the first to come from Hollywood. Steven Spielberg has been a major source of support to the center for more than 15 years. His Righteous Persons Foundation provided the first gift to build the building they inhabit and also created The Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, which enabled the center to make 11,000 Yiddish volumes available online.
Several years ago, the center partnered with KCRW in Santa Monica to produce “Jewish Short Stories From Eastern Europe and Beyond” featuring the works of Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Cynthia Ozick and S.Y. Agnon read by Hollywood actors Leonard Nimoy, Lauren Bacall, Walter Matthau, Jerry Stiller and others.
Ross, who died last May at age 89 of complications from a stroke and heart attack, left no survivors. His wife, Irene, died in 2000. The couple had no children.
Ross’s legacy will continue through his philanthropic commitments. In 2008, he donated $4 million to endow an academic chair in Yiddish language and culture at UCLA, his alma mater. After his death, he also left 50 percent of his residuary estate (an as yet undisclosed sum) to The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles to create the Michael and Irene Ross Endowment Fund which will assist Southern California’s most vulnerable populations.