I learned about this new genre on our summer vacation.  Once they started reading and writing, those women in the shtetel* had their own best-sellers.  Soap opera drama, Yiddish versions of classic European themes like Bovu-Bokh, a tale of chivalry. (Bodice busting romances?) Of course, women weren’t permitted then to learn Hebrew, the language reserved for the sacred texts.  But they devoured newspapers and books written in Yiddish.  After all, it was the mamaloshen**.

My husband, Eli, and I recently spent a week in the Berkshire Mountain area of western Massachusetts.  It’s a bounty of glorious nature and culture: Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Jacob’s Pillow Dance Center; the fabulous Clark Art Institute; the Norman Rockwell Museum and others; theatre festivals.  We were busy and enjoyed it all.

The Berkshires are also home to such literary greats as Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton,…and Dr. Seuss!  But Sholem Aleichem? Glückel of Hamelin, Who knew?

No less revered by their readers in their time and locales were some of the great Yiddish writers, and, remarkably, their legacies are also preserved in the land of their American Lit peers.  The National Yiddish Book Center (http://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/) sits on a lushly wooded site on the campus of Hampshire College, just outside Amherst, MA.  The center’s 37,000 square foot building architecturally resembles a shtetel synagogue.

The 1.5 million books were rescued by center founder, Aaron Lansky, a MacArthur Genius Award Fellow, who in 1980 started an effort to preserve Yiddish literature and books by advertising for and, along with volunteers, personally collecting truckloads. The ongoing vibrancy of the center lies in its efforts to revive and preserve not just the books themselves but the richness of the language and the writing and other culture it produced. Toward this end goes Steven Spielberg’s funding to digitize the physically deteriorating tomes, more of which still pour in every week.

*Eastern European village, where Yiddish speaking and reading Jews lived.
**Mother tongue.

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