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Yiddish in the Stacks

The Penn Libraries' Yiddish-language holdings document the story of Yiddish language, literature, culture, and history.

Eye chart printed with Hebrew letters in various sizes.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place this year on Friday, January 27th. We are living through a time when violent antisemitic attacks have risen sharply around the world. In the United States alone, according to the Anti-Defamation League, “(A)ntisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021, with a total of 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism reported to ADL (the Anti-Defamation League). This represents the highest number of incidents on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979 – an average of more than seven incidents per day and a 34 percent increase year over year.” Their latest report further confirms this trend. Intolerance against Jews constitutes a clear and present danger. It seems timely, then, to devote some time to exploring the Penn Libraries’ Yiddish-language holdings. May they serve as a reminder of the dangers of blind hatred, the value of diversity, and as a symbol of survival and resilience in the face of bigotry and persecution.

Tucked away in the third-floor stacks of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center is a modest section of remarkable books documenting the surviving story of Yiddish language and literature. This living legacy of Ashkenazic Jewry bears witness to a vast array of Yiddish publications: prose and poetry, politics and religion, history and social science, ethnography and folklore, theater and music, dictionaries and reference works, grammars and linguistic studies, as well as translations of classics of Western literature.

Yiddish often is thought to be a dialect stemming from Middle High Germany, but as the eminent Yiddish linguist and historian Max Weinreich has demonstrated in his History of the Yiddish Language, it is a “fusion language” that dates from the Middle Ages and is composed of four main parts: Hebrew, Loez (French and Italian vernaculars), German, and Slavic. Over the centuries, regional dialects of Yiddish and even different Yiddish typefaces emerged in diverse geographical areas. Yiddish itself however, is an independent, fusion language, not a dialect of German.

The earliest Yiddish printed books date from the 16th century, but the greatest period of Yiddish publishing began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Once a thriving language spoken by millions of Jews, the Holocaust destroyed a large majority of the base of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic life in Central and Eastern Europe. Prior to the war, however, native Yiddish speakers had already begun resettling around the globe, often carrying their books with them. Most lived in small towns (shtetls or shtetlekh) in the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist Russia, a history explored in depth in Salo W. Baron’s The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets. Fleeing poverty and persecution or seeking freedom and economic opportunity, they emigrated to the far corners of the earth. They went to Shanghai and Harbin, to Paris, and London, to Cape Town and Melbourne, to Buenos Aires and Caracas, to Mexico City and Montreal, to the great metropolises of the United States and to Ottoman and then British Mandate Palestine in the Middle East and the modern State of Israel after 1948. Penn’s Yiddish collections document and in some respects memorialize this dynamic pre-Holocaust global Yiddish culture and honor the surviving post-war Yiddish-speaking diaspora and its literary history.

The circulating collections in Van Pelt contain multi-volume sets of the classics of Yiddish literary prose, including the collected writings of Mendele Moykher Seforim (Sholem Abramovitsh), Sholem Aleichem (Sholem Rabinovitsh) and Yitskhok Leybush Peretz, as well as the publications of many 20th-century Yiddish poets and writers such as Avrom Sutzkever and Isaac Bashevis Singer, the first Yiddish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize. Yiddish women poets represented in the library stacks include Kadya Molodovsky, Celia Dropkin, Anna Margolin, Malka Heifetz Tussman, Rokhl Korn, and others. Kathryn Hellerstein, Professor of Germanic Studies (Yiddish) in the Department of Francophone, Italian and Germanic Studies, the Ruth Meltzer Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Penn and a prize-winning scholar specializing in Yiddish, has spent decades intensively studying, translating, teaching, and researching this material. She also has played a critical role advising and helping to develop this circulating Yiddish collection.

In the Jay I. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts are many rare highlights of the global diaspora of Yiddish life and literature. One such item is a scarce printing of Śimḥeh Elberg’s Aḳeydes̀-Ṭreblinḳe (Sacrificial Martyrs of Treblinka), a volume issued in Shanghai in 1946, memorializing the Jews killed at Treblinka, the Nazi death camp. Another is a rare copy of Sefer Zikhroynes (A Book of Memoirs), a printed Yiddish memoir by a Lithuanian-born Jew living in Cape Town, South Africa in 1916. Louis Meiselman, Penn’s rare Judaica cataloging librarian, has drawn attention in his cataloging record to the Yiddish title page, which lists rabbis, judges, reverends, cantors, kosher butchers, and ritual circumcisers living in South Africa in the early 20th century (“lisṭe fun rabonim, dayonim, reṿrends, ḥazonim, shoḥṭim und mohlim in Soyṭe Afriḳe.”)

The provenance, or chain of ownership, of Penn’s copy of Sefer Zikhroynes traces to an extraordinary gift in 2019 made by the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town. The Centre’s Director, Adam Mendelsohn, entrusted the Penn Libraries with their collection of Jewish books systematically looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. After the war, the Allies recovered these books and brought them to the Offenbach Archival Depot to be sorted and returned to their owners. The Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR), a representative communal organization recognized by the U.S. Military Government in the American Zone of Occupation, oversaw the restitution of heirless Jewish cultural property. In 1949, the JCR distributed a selection to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. The part that came to the University of Cape Town is now at the Kislak Center. For more about the JCR and the restitution of Jewish books after the war, see Elisabeth Gallas, A Mortuary of Books.

Unusual printed works of literary and cultural translation at the Kislak Center include Dos Gezang fun Neger-Folk (The Song of the Negro Folk), the first Yiddish translation of Langston Hughes’ poetry, and additional African-American spirituals and folksongs. Penn’s copy is one of 500 numbered special printings, published jointly in Sighet-Maramures (contemporary Romania) and Chicago in 1936 with cover illustration by Y. Tinovitzki. It is signed by the author/translator Zishe Bagish, a pseudonym for the Polish-Jewish author B. Vaysman, born in Lodz, who was murdered in Auschwitz. To learn more about this remarkable translation, see Lillian Schanfield’s “Lost in Translation: Reading Langston Hughes in Yiddish.”

An example of a rare Yiddish work translated into some 30 languages is the Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel’s Night. The original Yiddish text, Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Was Silent), differs substantially from the French translation published in Paris in 1958 and the English translation published in New York in 1960. These subsequent, abbreviated editions are the versions most often read. The Kislak Center copy of Un di velt hot geshvign, personally inscribed by the author, was published in Buenos Aires in 1956. This first edition, issued by the Tsentral-Farband fun Poylishe Yidn in Argentine (Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina), has become a critical point of reference for recent scholarly debates about the differences among the Yiddish, French, and English editions.

We also have been able to build our rare Yiddish holdings in partnership with Penn’s Jewish Studies Program. With their support, we privately purchased in 2017 the Russian-Jewish avant-garde artist Isaachar ber Ryback’s spectacularly illustrated Shtetl, Mayn Khorever Heym - a Gedekhenish (“My little town, my destroyed home, in memory”), produced in a folio-sized volume in Berlin in 1923 and subsequently in a rare color-illustrated French edition under the title Mon Village.

The Penn Libraries’ Yiddish holdings also include one of the world’s most important collections of Yiddish music. The Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Sound Archive offers a vast treasure trove of thousands of Yiddish song-recordings. Bob Freedman, who pioneered the first Yiddish computer font for data entry, has meticulously described each item at the track-level over the course of more than half-a-century. The holdings are now searchable via the Freedman online database.

Along with the circulating collections in Van Pelt Library and the special collections housed in the Kislak Center, the Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies (LKCAJS) is a significant holder of Penn’s Yiddish collections. The LKCAJS is home to the library of Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, the first state-accredited graduate school in Judaic studies in the world. Among the more unusual Yiddish works is a Yiddish-Arabic phrase book printed in New York in 1916, written by the journalist and Egyptologist George (Getzl) Selikovitsh, for the use of the Jewish legion in Ottoman Palestine: Arabish-Idisher lehrer: ṿeg ṿayzer far di Idishe legyoneren in Tsiyon (Arabic-Yiddish dialogue for the use of the Jewish Legion in Palestine). Other important Yiddish works at the LKCAJS include masterpieces of western literature translated into Yiddish, such as Shakespeare’s collected works and Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

LKCAJS is also home to perhaps the two most amazing Yiddish manuscripts in Penn’s Judaica Collections: the Last Will and Testament and the “Epitaph” to be chiseled into the tombstone of the beloved author and humorist Sholem Aleichem, written in his own hand shortly before his death in 1916. Sholem Aleichem is perhaps best known for his Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman) stories, later immortalized by the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. In his will, he asks his friends and family to gather each year on his yortsayt (memorial date) to read aloud the will and its ethical precepts, a practice that has been maintained annually for more than 100 years. You can read more about Aleichem and his last wishes in Jeremy Dauber’s The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem.

In short, Yiddish books, manuscripts, sound recordings, and translations are a critical part of the rich and diverse cultural history of Jewish expression to be discovered in Penn’s Judaica collections. Our Yiddish holdings and the story of how they came to Penn in turn constitute an integral part of the Libraries’ strategic commitment to build diverse collections of all kinds.

Banner image: Eye chart composed with Hebrew letters in various sizes for testing vision. Distances are given in feet and meters. The chart advertises the printing business of Sol Haber, whose office was located on “Sioth Strit Filadelfia PA (South St. Philadelphia, PA),” around 1900.



January 25, 2023