Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Blogging Backlog: a relief not to be alone in this boat

Just as one almost begins to despair, solace and encouragement sometimes mysteriously descend from on high. It was reassuring to see that others, too, have grand plans and to-do lists whose tasks they don't manage to do—at least not on time.

In this case, I was pleased to see that the reliably provocative and entertaining Bob from Brockley came through for me here.
Unfinished posts no.1: 2009's four star tracks

I have lots of unfinished posts in my drafts folder. I am never going to finish this one, which I started in December, and it is now rather out of date. My plan is to one by one post or delete my unfinished posts, until my draft folder is empty! (read the rest)
Well, I'm just going to start afresh, but the example of determination is heartening. Thanks, Bob.

Now back to real blogging.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

17 June 1989: Founder of National Yiddish Book Center Wins "Genius Grant" (and what's been happening since then)

From Mass Moments:
On This Day... 1989, an Amherst man who had spent more than a decade scrounging in dumpsters, basements, and attics was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." Aaron Lansky led an initially quixotic campaign to save Yiddish books and, in the process, Yiddish culture. As Jews from eastern and central Europe assimilated to new homelands, they abandoned the language and the literature of their parents and grandparents. Lansky traveled across the U.S. and around the world rescuing Yiddish books. With his MacArthur money, he opened the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, which houses the world's largest collection of Yiddish literature and is now "one of the most visited and talked about Jewish tourist destinations in the world." (read the rest)
It's nice indeed to see a local colleague and friend honored by being declared historical in his own time.  Those of us who have watched the Center grow from a vague idea and a shoestring operation to a tourist destination of world-wide renown and (in its own words) "the largest and fastest-growing Jewish cultural organization in America" can only express our amazement and congratulations.  The Center also provides a number of examples—possibly, lessons, as well—for the book-studies and museum worlds. It has always had a core mission—saving and promoting Yiddish book culture—but it has skillfully known how to develop that notion without betraying or abandoning it.

First, two words about the rationale of the project and its appeal.

I cannot fail to omit the origin of the story because it involves Aaron's alma mater and my employer.  As Mass Moments tells it:
In the fall of 1973, during his freshman year at Hampshire College in Amherst, Aaron Lansky took the first course on the Holocaust ever offered on an American campus. As the course progressed, he slowly realized that he was more interested in how the Jews of Europe lived than in how they had died.
Therein lies a story, too. First, the part that's not true:  Frequent assertions notwithstanding, Hampshire College was not the first to offer a Holocaust course. This was, it would seem, the first student-initiated course, however. It was one one of the strengths of the system that students could propose and organize courses, with the support of a faculty adviser. In this case, as Aaron recounts in his memoir (see below), it was my former colleague (now retired) Leonard Glick.  Len told another story about those days:  When he was teaching about the Jews of eastern Europe, one of the students who enrolled was Aaron Lansky, who at that time was thinking about law school. The course was oversubscribed, but Len—not only a brilliant man, but one of the most dedicated and accomplished teachers I have ever known—said to himself, "What's one student, more or less?  Who am I to turn someone away if he really wants to be here? Who knows how it might benefit him?"  The rest, as they say, is history.   I always think of that episode whenever a student comes to me for help or signs up for a course just out of curiosity.  As the article goes on to say, Aaron found that both the academic and the bibliographic resources for his exploration of "how the Jews of Europe lived" were largely lacking (both it and I oversimplify).  Aaron's account of his quest and the development of the Center—Outwitting History (Algonquin Books)—upon which the Mass Moments piece draws, won the Massachusetts Book Award of the Massachusetts Center for the Book in 2005.  The brief documentary, "A Bridge of Books," on the Center's web site, provides a convenient audiovisual overview of the saga.

Trying to promote widespread interest in a tongue and culture with which few were any longer familiar (and which had to be physically as well as intellectually rescued from oblivion) might have seemed a Sisyphean task, but it proved to be an advantage as well as a challenge. On the one hand, the average person, Jewish or non-Jewish, had no direct connection with the publications or even the language, which was redolent of an old-fashioned and vanished world. On the other hand, the enterprise began precisely at the moment when it could capitalize on fears of a loss that had not quite come to pass: unlike the shtetls, Yiddish publications were threatened but not irrevocably gone. Yiddish moreover proved to have a multigenerational, multivalent appeal:  The cause was a meaningful one for an old but dwindling generation, which had grown up with it. It could likewise become a manifestation of filial piety or cultural-moral compensation for a more assimilated middle-aged generation (moreover the cohort that one most targets for charitable giving).  At the same time—and this is perhaps most striking—Yiddish, like klezmer music, proved to have a perhaps unexpected appeal for a younger audience nominally most removed from it and its world.

In retrospect, the sociological and political causes of the latter phenomenon have become apparent. There is of course the possibility of the familiar phenomenon of cultural identification skipping generations. There is nostalgia.  But above and beyond that, I would submit that even the nostalgia is shaped by a distinctively postmodern sensibility.  Part of the appeal seems to lie in the fact that the new "Yiddishism" (as klezmer musician Alicia Svigals famously called it) allows devotees to express their Jewish identity in ways that are fluid and thus ultra-contemporary and politically safe.  To begin with, the vanished pre-Holocaust world of eastern Europe is an ideal object of nostalgia:  not only extinct, but extinguished, and therefore presumably innocent.  Above all, devotees are able to identify with Jewish "tradition" in a way that allows them to avoid or finesse the potentially controversial issues of religion and Zionism.  Religion can be either historicized or interpreted as (i.e. reduced to) "spirituality," freed of dogmas and doctrinal restrictions (hence, also the appeal for a growing gay subculture).  As for politics, "progressives" can identify with the strong tradition of Yiddish labor or left-wing activism of every conceivable stripe.  And, perhaps more important, the Jewish cultural nationalism of Yiddishism (identity politics frozen in the past, and thus without real political claims, responsibilities, or territorial conflict) is much easier to identify with and defend than is a living nation-state, and moreover one that, remaining mired in conflict, has lost much of its earlier moral luster.  Svigals persuasively suggested that the shift from what she calls "Israelism" (i.e. an Israel-centered Jewish cultural identity) to "Yiddishism" reflects changing views of what it means to be both assimilated and Jewish:  Earlier, "Israel, with its frontier ethos, macho sabras, strong military, and its statehood was a kind of Jewish America." Now, many people somehow find themselves more drawn to "the old East European Jewish culture with its skinny and unathletic yeshiva boys, its emphasis on the intellect, and its nationlessness."  Different strokes for different folks.

Salutary as it is, then, the attempt to redress a narrow focus on Holocaust victimhood by directing our attention to "the world we have lost," entails potential ideological mystifications and practical pitfalls of its own.  (I should stress that this is an abstract or general point, not a criticism of the Center.)  The bottom line is that, even while remembering (or imagining) different things about "the world of our fathers," older and younger generations have thus come together around Yiddish in a way that no one could have imagined and might not otherwise have been possible.

In a sense, that is precisely the point:  The Center of course tries to be all things to all people, a goal not accomplished easily or without controversy (among other things, critics charged that it downplayed the prominence of radical leftism in Yiddish culture).  It has, all in all, done an admirable job of expanding its scope.  To be sure, it has developed numerous initiatives arising from its central task:  The year after Aaron received the MacArthur grant, it launched a pioneering digitization project. In the meantime, it has developed effective language-instruction courses and internship programs. 

Most significantly, NYBC has transformed itself into a general Jewish cultural programming center, whose mission is now "to rescue Yiddish and other modern Jewish books [emphasis added] and open up their content to the world."  Without abandoning its Yiddish focus, it has come to promote and consider, in relation to Yiddish, the whole realm of Jewish culture. It hosts discussions of Jewish literature from around the globe, screenings of Jewish films, readings by contemporary Jewish authors, performances of Jewish music, from traditional to contemporary, and the like.  One of the main challenges for cultural organizations of all sorts, from museums to historic sites, is how to remain loyal to the parts of their missions that remain relevant, while discarding or updating those that have become outmoded.  (I have touched on this problem with respect to historic house museums on the history blog and will return to it shortly.) In the case of the Yiddish Book Center, it was, happily, a case of adding to what worked rather than needing to discard what did not, and yet, one can hope that the model will prove instructive and exportable for other institutions.

In recent years, the Center has gone quite some way toward addressing the charge that it needed to become intellectually more rigorous.  It has done a great deal both to strengthen its own endeavors and to forge collaborations with scholars in Jewish studies, both here in the Five College consortium and elsewhere.  The need was all the more urgent because Jewish historiography and Jewish literary studies long lagged methodologically behind their counterparts (1, 2).

Here's my wish for the future:   I would hope to see the Book Center become more involved in the field of book history and book studies, proper.  There is so much in the history of Yiddish that could be pertinent to scholars interested in the study of authorship, reading, and publication (including popularization and translation), as such, as well as valuable comparable material for those focusing on specific other cultural contexts.  Jews, after all, were known for practicing both di- or heteroglossia and multilingualism:  they had a sacred and scholarly tongue (Hebrew) conducted their own daily business in one or more other languages, whether that of the in-group (Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, Ladino, etc.), or that of the surrounding population.  They eagerly adopted printing in the third quarter of the fifteenth century.  Yiddish presses flourished in the 17th century, although a full-blown written and printed Yiddish literature came into its own only after about the mid-nineteenth century, precisely in the age of rising nationalism and secularism.

That said, it's a collaboration that we in the book-studies field may need to initiate.  The Center itself has been plenty active in the course of the past two decades.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

okay, trying again

The best of intentions . . .

Far, far too many distractions this past semester, so we'll try again.  For the sake of convenience, I'm going to try to post book-related pieces here but will give a brief notice of those with historical concerns over at the main site on To Find the Principles.