March 30, 2020

LA Public Library Celebrates Yiddish Lit Worth Kvelling About

On Feb. 29, the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) will kick off a series of book discussions that look at the immigrant experience through the lens of Yiddish literature in translation.

Organized in conjunction with the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., the program — officially called the Yiddish Book Center’s “Coming to America” Reading Groups for Public Libraries — begins locally at the Studio City branch, with a discussion about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s tragic-comic novel, “Enemies, A Love Story,” about Holocaust survivor Herman Broder.

Four other events, highlighting different titles, follow through the spring at various branches throughout the city.

Librarian Wendy Westgate, part of LAPL’s exploration and creativity department, first learned of the opportunity last summer. The Yiddish Book Center was offering grants to libraries to cover the cost of a limited number of books to provide free to patrons; an in-person, three-day workshop at the center for a library representative; and an optional portion to cover the cost of a guest speaker or facilitator.

Westgate, who is Jewish, knew from the success of past Let’s Talk About Jewish Literature events at LAPL, that there would be interest in the community. In addition, as a student of Yiddish who, 15 years ago, read Yiddish Book Center founder Aaron Lansky’s memoir “Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books,” there was a personal draw. So on behalf of the library, she applied. In September, she learned the Los Angeles Public Library was one of 22 libraries (or library systems) selected from a pool of 95 applicants representing 30 states. In late January, she traveled to Massachusetts to visit the Yiddish Book Center for the first time and learn about the featured book titles and their authors with colleagues from around the country.

In addition to the Singer book, the program will highlight Kadya Molodovsky’s “A Jewish Refugee in New York,” a fictionalized journal of 20-year-old Polish expat Rivke Zilberg’s experience in New York. This book will be the focus of the March 11 discussion at the Westwood branch as well as the May 27 gathering at the Palms Rancho Branch. Sholem Aleichem’s “Motl the Cantor’s Son,” about young protagonist Motl’s arrival at Ellis Island, what he endured to get there and the adventures that follow, will be the focus of the March 17 discussion at the Fairfax branch. (Call the branch libraries for more details and reservation information.)

“I hope that people will gain knowledge and appreciation for Yiddish literature, which they may not have even realized existed. There are not a lot of Yiddish speakers around the world anymore because of the Holocaust.” — Wendy Westgate

Grant recipients were asked to choose one book reflective of the immigrant experience in their own cities. Westgate chose the Armenian community and after researching book options and consulting several Armenian-American librarians, decided on “The Hundred-Year Walk” — journalist Dawn Anahid MacKeen’s telling of retracing her grandfather’s
steps in Turkey and Syria. The book will be the subject of the April 25 discussion at the Sunland-Tujunga branch. MacKeen, who lives in Orange County, is expected
to attend.

Los Angeles resident Miri Koral, who grew up in New York speaking Yiddish at home and went on to found the California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language, will lead three of the discussions. She told the Journal, “Yiddish translation in English often, I think, fails in its ability to evoke the nuances, the feelings, the play on words, the depth of allusions that are there in the original, and often the pithy humor. That can be really problematic. The translations, however, that we have in this situation are very, very good ones … I think anyone reading these books will get as close as you can get to having the experience of reading the original.”

The program is promoted as being for adults and teens. All events are free. Library patrons are welcome to attend more than one of the book discussions; however, they are designed to be freestanding.

“I hope that people will gain knowledge and appreciation for Yiddish literature, which they may not have even realized existed,” Westgate said. “There are not a lot of Yiddish speakers around the world anymore because of the Holocaust. I would love for people to get intrigued, to read more and learn about the authors, like I did.”

“I am not expecting them to want to learn the Yiddish language after this,”
Koral added. “That would be too miraculous. It’s such a rare thing. But it has happened to people. It is because they fell in love with a book and they wanted to read it in the original language. If it happens, then fantastic.”