In the First Hebrew City, a Final Farewell to Yiddish

In a two-day event held this week, the Tel Aviv municipal library unloaded its entire Yiddish book collection.

Tomer Appelbaum

It was a tiny advertisement in an online Yiddish publication that first caught Thomas Kleiner’s attention, and within days, the retired Protestant minister was on board a flight from Germany to Israel.

What he learned in that advertisement was that the Tel Aviv municipal library would be giving away its entire Yiddish book collection – an opportunity, from his standpoint at least, that could not be missed. “I came with an empty suitcase, and I plan to fill it entirely with these books,” says Kleiner, who hails from Dusseldorf, where he began learning Yiddish about five years ago. What he’s mainly in the market for, he reports, are Yiddish-language biographies and diaries.

Kleiner was among dozens of Yiddish-language aficionados rummaging through the stacks of a musty storage room during the opening hours of the great book giveaway held at Beit Ariela, the main branch of the municipal library, on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

In many ways, the event symbolizes the end of an era for Israel’s cultural capital, one in which the Jewish language of Eastern Europe was widely spoken – or at least spoken widely enough to justify having a dedicated Yiddish section at the local library.

It’s not everyday that a library gives away a collection of 5,000 books. But as Miriam Posner, the director of Beit Ariela explains, there are few customers for them these days. “About two years ago, we moved all our Yiddish books from the main library down to the storage room, but we simply don’t have the means to maintain and preserve them anymore,” she says. “There are other institutions that still have Yiddish collections, and we were happy to donate many of our books to them as well.”

Posner notes that before the Yiddish books had been moved into storage, only 14 had been checked out from the library over the course of an entire year.

It is not only its Yiddish collection that the library is unloading. Also because of low demand, says Posner, Beit Ariela is in the process of ridding itself of its German and Spanish books. “On the other hand,” she notes, “we’re increasing our collections in French and Russian because we have more readers in those languages. We’re also considering starting a new collection in Arabic.”

The Yiddish book giveaway at Beit Ariela, Tel Aviv. Photo: Tomer Appelbaum

It is not a pretty sight that greets visitors to the underground storage facility that houses Beit Ariela’s Yiddish book collection. Dusty, tattered books are thrown haphazardly on shelves, some scattered in messy piles on the floor. Shards of broken glass, shredded book pages, empty cardboard boxes and partly unraveled rolls of toilet paper are strewn underfoot. The large quantities of dust and grime in the air make it virtually unbreathable.

“It’s so sad, all this neglect,” laments Rachel Meshorer, a retired Yiddish teacher from Rehovot, who had made a day trip to Tel Aviv with a friend hoping to find some treasures buried in the mess.

“It’s like visiting a cemetery,” says her friend, Rifka Friedgut, who describes herself as having “Lithuanian” roots, alluding to the crème-de-la-crème, or at least those who consider themselves as such, among Eastern European Yiddish speakers. “We Lithuanians have a very strong connection to the classic Yiddish,” she says a trifle haughtily.

Like this particular pair from Rehovot, many of the other visitors pulling books off the stacks are of a certain generation that grew up speaking Yiddish at home. “It was my mama loshen,” as Meshorer puts it, using the Yiddish term for mother tongue.

But not all. Elad Zeret, a 31-year-old student at Tel Aviv University completing his master’s degree in Yiddish literature and culture, became acquainted with the language relatively late in life. Currently writing his thesis on Isaac Bashevis Singer, Zeret thought he might find some works by the great Yiddish master hidden among the stacks here. “No, it’s not a pleasant sight,” he says, observing the scene around him. “Basically, the city is ridding itself of the last remnants of Yiddish culture.”

For Kleiner, the tragedy is not that the library is giving away its entire Yiddish collection but that there are so few Yiddish readers left in the world. Explaining his personal interest in the dying language so heavily influenced by his own mother tongue, he says: “It is a marvelous bridge between the Jewish and German people.”

Not a pretty sight. Photo: Tomer Appelbaum

Daniel Galay, chairman of the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Israel, has already put 20 books aside that he intends to bring home with him. As delighted as he is with these finds, he says he’s sad about the circumstances. “What we’re seeing here is not only a tragedy for Yiddish literature but a tragedy for Hebrew literature as well,” he notes. “Yiddish literature is the basis for Hebrew literature, and you can’t really comprehend Hebrew literature without it.”

Zeret expresses surprise when he randomly grabs a book off a shelf and discovers that it’s a Yiddish translation of Tolstoy. “Well, that’s definitely going to be a challenge to read,” he muses.

Walking across the aisle, Joan Talkowsky, an English-speaking translator who has been taking Yiddish classes in Tel Aviv over the past few years, is eyeing another book suspiciously. “I don’t know,” she says. “This one has holes in it, so I’m assuming it had book worms. Do I really want to bring this into my house?”

Esti and Irit Shpitalnik have decided to make a mother-daughter day of it. Esti, the mom, grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home, but as many proud young sabras of a certain generation, wanted nothing at all to do back then with the language of the shtetls. “I regret that now,” she says.

In recent years she began taking Yiddish classes and, as she puts it, “I absolutely fell in love with the language.” So, too, did her daughter Irit, who is now completing a doctoral dissertation in Yiddish literature.

“It makes me happy that there are people who still want to study and research this language,” says the kvelling mom.

Observing the demographics of the crowd, Galay says he also feels a bit encouraged. “I see many people here in their 30s and 40s,” he notes. “These are people clearly not ashamed of their Ashkenazi roots. There’s a certain team pride about them, and it gives me hope.”