"It's the First Wooden Shtetl You'll Come to On the Left"
A Journey into Hidden America
"It's the First Shtetl You'll Come to On the Left" read the words.
These words could have been travel instructions from a century or two ago in Russia, Lithuania or Poland. Or perhaps lines from a Shalom Alechem story - the type that inspired Fiddler on the Roof.
Instead, they are printed directions I am following as I travel a back road in Massachusetts in the year 2018.
Between Northampton and Amherst in the area known as the Pioneer Valley, this bucolic road carries me past farms, past Hampshire College and the Eric Carle Museum and to the front doors of that wooden Shtetl building.
Needless to say, it is a building with a story.
It is the Yiddish Book Center.
The Yiddish Book Center is a nonprofit organization working to recover, celebrate, and regenerate Yiddish and modern Jewish literature and culture.
The Yiddish Book Center was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky, then a twenty-four-year-old graduate student of Yiddish literature and, as of 2016, the center's president. In the course of his studies, Lansky realized that untold numbers of irreplaceable Yiddish books were being discarded by American-born Jews unable to read the language of their Yiddish-speaking parents and grandparents. He organized a nationwide network of zamlers (volunteer book collectors) and launched a campaign to save the world’s remaining Yiddish books. Lansky recounts the origins of the center in his 2004 memoir, Outwitting History.
At the time Lansky began his work, scholars estimated there were 70,000 Yiddish books still extant and recoverable. Since then, the Yiddish Book Center has recovered more than a million volumes, and it continues to receive thousands of new books each year from around the world.
As to the building, in 1997 the Yiddish Book Center moved into this current site. It is 49,000 square feet and was designed by Allen Moore to recall the dramatic rooflines of the lost wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe.
It is now home to permanent and traveling exhibits, a Yiddish book repository, educational programs, and the annual Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music.
This is also a wonderfully unique bookstore and gift shop
It's quite a unique place on so many levels - thoughtfully, tastefully and brilliantly done. A place of much heart and emotion. Special.
So, it is only appropriate that the directions to the place should be equally unique.
Remember, it's that first shtetl building on the left.