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What stories they will tell

By Michael Sitzman

Section: Arts

December 2, 2005

This is the story of how we begin to remember;

This is the powerful pulsing of love in the veins…

–Paul Simon

It was my privilege this semester to go with my Yiddish class to the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Not a bad destination for my first Brandeis field-trip. Founded in 1980 by graduate student Aaron Lansky, the center is unique in the world. Its hard to describe: Bookstore, lecture-hall, cinema, museum, library, bindery, and research center. And youll hear young people speaking Yiddish there;

you should go.

Stranger still is its location. My mind and heart expect anything Yiddish to be somewhere in orbit around New York or Eastern Europenot rural Amherst, Massachusetts. Yet there it sits on a nondescript rural plot: A modern, unpainted wood building with a peaked roof, vaguely resembling a European shtetl. Its appearance is understated, sincere, definitely quirky, confident in purpose. Hey, thats us!

The Centers mission borders on surreal. Imagine reviving a near-dead language, in effect, by rescuing all of its existing books. When it was founded, scholars estimated that only 70,000 Yiddish books existed. Lansky collected that many during the first year alone, and now has amassed some 1.5 million. Now the Center plans (ready for this?) to digitize every one and put it on the web.

Knowing that, you can see why most of the Center doesnt need description. Yes, the bookstore is chock-full of all things literary and Yiddish;

the theater/lecture hall has fascinating presentations, and the displays are culturally priceless. I recommend you see for yourself;

something there just might change you

For me, it was the gigantic wooden model of the old synagogue at Zabludw, Poland. Four feet across, and re-created to the finest detail with some walls cut away to expose the interior, it radiates an architectural flair that contradicts the image of the simple squalor of my great-grandparents villages. The very intricacy and attention to detail seemed to radiate the story of a people with skilled, educated architects and craftsmen. Rural but worldly, poor but scholarly, expressing that which is holy through excellence. Heythats us. Amazing what random findings can transform ones views.

And then, the caption, with a word that told all (though who wasnt expecting it): Liquidated. You know the rest.

The Centers showpiece is, of course, the collection itself. Hundreds of thousands of rescued books clog a huge, open room of stacks. Amazingly, most are for sale. I scanned titles I could barely decipher, and chanced upon All Quiet On The Western Front, feeling almost unworthy to hold it. In the ink of its yellowed pages, the cracked volume already held a monumental enough story the day it was hand-bound. What a tale it would tell, if only it could, of the trials endured in the decades since: Who bound it? Was he lucky enough to have a mere potato to eat each night? Whose little fingers owned and held it? Did it arrive in America before Europes darkest hour, or did it wait out the years in some attic or basement? Against such odds, it traveled the gulf of miles and decades to arrive in my hands. I think I trembled.

Something took form in my mind in the weeks following the trip. It was a feeling;

more like a haunting: Loss, profoundly sad, like having a loved one taken from me The Old Country was a place Id heard about all my life, but only vaguely, the details having slipped through the fingers of generations. All that remained were blurry black-and-white stills from an age predating motion pictures;

the literature in a language I couldnt read;

the dead just a list of names. The official story: And then they came to America;

those who stayed were killed. The saga, as told to me, seemed hollow.

The emotion in human eyes. The warmth of skin. The color and smell of leaves. Dreams at night. Love and heartbreak. Fear and self-doubt. Laughing kids. Wondering what God is. Poetry. Hugs. The security of daily routine. The comfort of family How can these wondrous things we call life have existed in a world now a mere relic in old pictures and tattered artifacts? How can one imagine great-grandmother as a little girl, let alone picture her growing up in that world?

Something has changed since the trip. Now that world seems, if not more real and pulsing with life, then more pulsing with love. With us. With me. Yet maddeningly out of reach. I am told that life there was horrible, and it probably was;

yet the full richness of its culture remains a treasure. That should have been mine, and the loss pains me. Yet I feel at least fortunate that I can return to that quirky place where memory, the pulsing of love in the veins, is being preserved in precious books. Maybe, next time, I might be able to read them. What stories their pages will tell, and what new horizons of insight and wisdom might be revealed in that greatest of stories: The story of how we begin to remember.

Gut shabbes, friends.

horseradish

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