Center aims to revive lost Yiddish culture online

Wed Apr 7, 2010 11:28am EDT
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By Jonathan Saul

LONDON (Reuters) - Aaron Lansky is determined to use 21st century technology to revive a Jewish language and culture that has barely survived the oppression, persecution and murder of the 20th century.

Lansky's U.S.-based Yiddish Book Center has saved a million Yiddish books from destruction and aims to provide global access to a lost Jewish culture on the Internet.

Yiddish, a mixture of medieval German and Hebrew, was the spoken language of millions of European Jews for 1,000 years. It became the creative vehicle for Jewish playwrights, poets, writers and musicians in the early 20th century when many of Europe's Jews became secularized.

But the Nazi Holocaust, which killed six million Jews, Soviet persecution and mass emigration led to the demise of Yiddish as the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jewry originating from Europe.

Lansky has spent the last 30 years rescuing Yiddish books from garbage cans, cellars and synagogue basements around the world with fewer Jews able to understand the language.

While Yiddish words such as chutzpah, meaning gall or nerve, schmaltz, meaning sentimentalism, and schlepp, meaning hauling something or someone across distances, have entered the English language, the richness and depth of Yiddish culture still remains lost to most people including many Jews.

Books rescued included long lost memoirs of life on a Yiddish speaking commune of socialist ostrich farmers in Africa and Jewish accounts of Cuba before Fidel Castro's revolution.

"The idea of saving something from the ashbin of history is something that is quite literal for us," Lansky said.   Continued...