AMHERST – From its earliest days more than four decades ago, the Yiddish Book Center has dreamed big.
In 1980, Aaron Lansky, the center’s founder, and a band of Yiddish enthusiasts fanned out across the country to gather invaluable Yiddish books from the collections of a generation of aging Yiddish speakers.
Beyond rescuing the books from being discarded or lost, their ambitious idea was to spark a renewed interest in Yiddish, its lively culture and rich body of literature penned by Jewish luminaries, among them Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, I.L. Peretz, and Blume Lempel.
Yiddish, the expressive language that’s been spoken by Ashkenazi Jews for 1,000 years, was barely hanging on after generations of assimilation and the murderous reach of the Holocaust.
Against all odds, the Yiddish Book Center has blossomed into a thriving, award-winning institution with more than 1 million books; an accessible digitized library; a trove of oral histories; and a publishing imprint of its own.
It offers a robust array of programs, concerts and courses, both online and at its stunning building on the sprawling Hampshire College campus in Amherst.
Remarkably, the center has inspired young people who have embraced the Yiddish-speaking world of earlier generations.
Now, the center has achieved a new milestone, hitting all the right chords with “Yiddish: A Global Culture,” its new core exhibit.
The festive opening on Oct. 15 attracted some 500 visitors and featured an all-star Klezmer concert.
The exhibit transforms the center’s multilevel space into an engaging, interactive museum-quality experience that sheds light on how Yiddish has evolved from its Eastern European roots, carried by Jews to the Americas and to Cuba, South Africa, Israel, and Australia.
“Our new exhibition celebrates Yiddish and the distinctly modern literature and culture that it generated around the world,” said Lansky, the center’s president.
“ ‘Yiddish: A Global Culture’ will surprise and delight diverse audiences, even if they can’t read a single word of Yiddish. After viewing this exhibit, they’ll never think of Yiddish in the same way again,” he said at the opening.
“You’ll step inside our beautiful, light-filled building to find a Yiddish Palace of Varieties, or a Yiddish World’s Fair,” said David Mazower, the exhibition’s chief curator.
“We’ve created a bright, colorful space full of powerful stories and wonderful objects that make you think, but also touch the heart and soul.”
The exhibit of 350 artifacts is arranged in thematic displays that range from theater to radio, Soviet Yiddish, the press and politics, the Holocaust, and women writers. Among the dozens of books on view are rare translations of “The Old Man and the Sea” and “The Little Prince.”
Other treasures include Yiddish typewriters; theatrical posters; the last Yiddish Linotype typesetting machine; children’s books; and Bella Chagall’s 1945 memoir, featuring illustrations and an inscription by her husband, artist Marc Chagall.
Visitors can immerse themselves in the literary world of I.L. Peretz (1852-1915) in a charming recreation of his intimate Warsaw living room salon, where Yiddish writers of the early decades of the 20th century gathered for the advice from the masterful and influential Yiddish writer.
Displays with local interest include a poignant video of the late Morris Hollender, a Holocaust survivor who was the Torah reader at Waltham’s Temple Beth Israel.
A tour de force is “Yiddishland,” a 60-foot colorful mural by illustrator Martin Haake that captures key moments and people in Yiddish culture.
One of the mural’s illustrations, which depicts Mexico’s first Yiddish day school, delighted Ilan Stavans, the renowned Amherst College professor of Latin America and Latino culture, who grew up attending the school in Mexico City.
Stavans, a Yiddish scholar and coeditor of “How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish,” had high praise for the exhibit.
“It is absolutely impressive. It takes the visitor on a journey across the historical and present-day world of Yiddish,” he told the Journal in a recent phone conversation.
He was mesmerized by the display about Jewish gauchos in Argentina, one of several that reveal the significance of Yiddish south of the border.
He also was moved by a stirring display on the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Argentine Mutual Israelite Association, the central Jewish organization in Buenos Aires.
“There’s a lot to take in. It’s very well presented. It’s a nutshell through which you can really understand a broader culture,” Stavans said.
What most stands out is that the exhibit is truly transnational, he observed.
“It decentralizes Yiddish culture from Europe to many other parts of the world … going beyond borders, beyond linguistic backgrounds and different milieus.”
The opening was a source of family pride for Ruby Zuckerman, a 25-year-old from Los Angeles who was there with her 92-year-old grandfather, Marvin Zuckerman. His Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents are featured in a display, “A Worker’s Library,” which includes a video interview with Marvin, the coauthor of “Learning Yiddish in Easy Stages.”
Ruby participated in two of the center’s student programs and last summer taught the Great Jewish Books Program for high schoolers.
She encouraged her peers to check out the exhibit and the center.
Too often, young people hear only about the persecution of Jews, she said.
“While that’s so important, it often overshadows the beautiful culture … It wasn’t just a story of victimization. There’s also a lot of incredible art, literature and theater that can be a source of pride in Jewish identity.”