The Meshuggener Who Keeps the Last N.Y.C. Yiddish Bookstore Alive

Only 150,000 Americans speak Yiddish as their mother tongue, but the man running New York’s sole Yiddish bookstore says anyone who thinks the language is dying must schlep to Queens to witness its revival

Tzach Yoked
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CYCO bookstore owner Hy Wolfe. "People have been pronouncing the death of Yiddish for 200 years," he says.
CYCO bookstore owner Hy Wolfe in New York. "People have been pronouncing the death of Yiddish for 200 years," he says.Credit: Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

They call Hy Wolfe every few weeks and ask if they can come along, whispering so no one will hear them speak. When they arrive, they enter and leave in the blink of an eye, making sure no one sees them. The books that those yeshiva boys come to read, at Wolfe's CYCO bookstore in Long Island City, can’t be taken back to the Torah world they come from. All they can do is read them here – grabbing a page of Shalom Aleichem here, another chapter of Isaac Bashevis Singer there.

“I have Hasidim from Kiryas Joel, Williamsburg, Monsey. They are the ones who want to read,” Wolfe tells Haaretz in an interview at his store, only a short ride from Manhattan.

It’s the last Yiddish-language bookstore in New York – or as Wolfe likes to boast, “probably the only Yiddish bookstore in America.”

He sits behind an old wooden desk. Behind him are shelves laden with books. Like the language itself, the bookstore is old-fashioned, disorderly and lusterless. It has cardboard boxes, rusty pipes, a bare concrete floor and classical music playing from a vintage tape recorder.

Also like Yiddish, the store is rich in spirit: the type of place you walk into and can immediately smell the history. The old metal shelves are bursting with books that go back 100 years or more. The store has some 120,000 books – from sharp Jewish humor of the type only Yiddish can convey, to memoirs by Holocaust survivors. Shalom Aleichem can be found near holy tomes. In the center is a long wooden table, simple plastic chairs arranged around it.

>> A look at the history of the Yiddish literature in America <<

The students coming to his store are smart kids, he says. “They read English, Yiddish, Hebrew, they’re very educated." And why are they choosing to read in Yiddish? It’s more personal when you read that way, says Wolfe. “They want the original – it’s a more fulfilling experience to read Bashevis Singer in Yiddish than in translation,” he adds. But literature isn’t their only source of interest: Some come to read books about the Holocaust, notes Wolfe.

No one in their communities knows about these clandestine visits, especially the rabbis. “If you had a wax museum, I don’t think the rabbi would mind if the students see George Washington or Marie Antoinette,” says Wolfe. “But if you have a bookstore, the rabbi would be more concerned about that. Yiddish books or theater or music – this is much more enticing than a wax museum.”

FILE PHOTO: Borough Park, a neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York that is home to many ultra-Orthodox Jewish families. Sept. 20, 2013.Credit: AP

He, of course, welcomes them with open arms. As far as he’s concerned, anyone who comes to the store provides more oxygen to a place that’s dying for customers.

The store was located in Manhattan for more than 70 years before being forced to relocate to the other side of the East River, to Queens. On the one hand, you can there from Manhattan in 10 minutes by car. On the other, it’s no longer in the center of things. Just like Yiddish.

Nourishing the soul

The bookstore was established in 1937 by a group of people who wanted to publish Yiddish literature: they started an organization called the Central Yiddish Culture Organization (hence the store’s name).

The people behind CYCO included Zionists, socialists and non-socialists, all united by a desire “to write and get their work out there,” recounts Wolfe. “The idea was that you had a safe haven where you could come, have a coffee, discuss, read your piece.”

Many of the Yiddish pioneers were from Poland, he adds. “You have to remember, in 1921, the doors of immigration closed in America up until 1939, with the war. So there is a whole period of time when immigrants didn’t come,” he notes.

Among the immigrants eventually allowed into America were Wolfe’s parents – Holocaust survivors from Poland who met after the war in a Displaced Person’s camp in Germany.

Wolfe’s older brother, Moshe, died in Auschwitz. His parents, meanwhile, settled in Brooklyn, where his father, a businessman, had to take work in a clothing factory. “He had to sew with a needle, but he had big hands, he couldn’t do it. He was really bad at it but didn’t care; he provided for his family,” says Wolfe.

The CYCO bookstore in Long Island City, New York. The store has some 120,000 books, which is almost as many as the number of Americans who speak Yiddish.Credit: Tzach Yoked

Yiddish was Wolfe’s first language, but he picked up English on the street. Since then, he’s been dancing – mostly singing, actually – between two worlds. He performs for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, sometimes in English but mostly in Yiddish. He sings, does some stand-up, performs in plays and releases CDs. In between all of this, he’s also been managing the store alone for nearly 20 years.

Although he isn’t religious, something about Yiddish brings out the Jewish spark in him, he says. “I won’t perform on Shabbat in Yiddish, but I will perform on Shabbat in English. That’s my hypocrisy,” he explains. “I’m not religious, but I can respect these people.”

His performances attract mostly older people, but not exclusively. “Sometimes we have 100 people, sometimes 200 – it doesn’t make a difference. I’m from the old school of acting: If there’s one person there paying to see me, I perform. I have no ego,” he says.

Indeed, a stroll around the store confirms that anyone with an ego wouldn’t last very long here. Wolfe washes the floor, dusts and cleans the restrooms himself. Running the store is hard work and doesn’t bring in much money, but for Wolfe it’s a labor of love. “Thank God there are donors who help us keep the place alive,” he says, adding defiantly, “As long as I can, I will continue to come here.”

Wolfe is a pleasant man with a theatrical presence and the low voice of a cantor, who sprinkles his remarks with numerous words and phrases in Yiddish during our interview (which was conducted in English). Only once does he get unnerved and raise his voice. That’s when I ask why the store deserves to survive if, as he himself admits, it doesn’t cover its costs and is dependent on donations.

“What nonprofit is profitable?” he says, a dash of anger in his voice. “Does Habima [theater] make money? Does a hospital in Jerusalem make money? Why, when it comes to books, do people change their standards? Do you think reading and nourishing the soul don’t help people to live better? Of course it does – we nourish the soul. So what does it matter how many people come here?”

Trying to make ‘kvetch’ happen

For many years, the fate of Yiddish has been a source of much debate among scholars and intellectuals in Israel and abroad. Pessimists see it as a language on the verge of extinction, destined to be confined to the closed ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) communities where, to this day, Yiddish is the vernacular of tens of thousands of Hasidim and yeshiva students.

On the other hand, there are others who point to the growing registration for Yiddish Studies in universities, the success of the Yiddishpiel Theater in Tel Aviv and the various klezmer music festivals.

A comprehensive American Community Survey on language use in 2007 found that about 159,000 people spoke Yiddish at home in the United States – a 50 percent drop from 1980. And a later survey, conducted in 2011, found that the number had dropped by another 4,000, leaving 154,763 people speaking Yiddish as their mother tongue in the United States.

Since most, if not all, Yiddish speakers come from the ultra-Orthodox community, it’s no surprise to learn that 82 percent of America’s Yiddish speakers live in New York (which has the greatest concentration of Haredim). Another 4 percent live in the Miami area and 2 percent in Los Angeles, meaning that nearly 90 percent of America’s Yiddish speakers live in only three cities.

Wolfe listens to my theories about the imminent demise of Yiddish, but isn’t impressed.

“People have been pronouncing the death of Yiddish for 200 years,” he shrugs. “The resurrection of Yiddish is not really a miracle, it’s a habit, a phenomenon. What was Hebrew 100 years ago? It was dead. If I’d have told you 70 years ago, would you believe that this language would rise from the ashes to have Nobel laureates writing literature? The Jews made a habit of languages – the patient is not dead yet.”

Wolfe, for whom Yiddish is both a passion and a way of life, describes a world of subversive Yiddish culture that continues to exist globally. “You have 270 students learning Yiddish at the Workmen’s Circle [New York’s leading center for Yiddish language instruction]; you have the Yiddish Forward, which is a Jewish newspaper. Yes, they no longer publish daily and publish weekly, but they are online. You have 10,000 books online because Steven Spielberg paid for the digitization of books so you don’t have to buy them, they can be downloaded.

“And it’s not just Jews,” he continues. “There are more Europeans interested in Yiddish now than in America. You have festivals in the city of Krakow and Warsaw. One just finished in Romania, in Strasbourg, in London, in Mexico City – you have festivals everywhere.”

A language in no-man’s-land

Prof. Agi Legutko is director of the Yiddish language program at Columbia University and echoes Wolfe’s thoughts with her own example. “Five years ago, when I came to Columbia, we only had six students,” she tells Haaretz. Now, though, she has “30 students who learn Yiddish in pure-language classes and 11 in Yiddish literature classes.”

Prof. Agi Legutko, director of the Yiddish language program at Columbia University. "We have a PhD student from China who wants to be the first translator of Bashevis Singer from Yiddish to Chinese."Credit: Dan Demetriad

Legutko divides her students – and secular Yiddish speakers in general – into three categories. “Most of the students who study are Jewish; many of them come to the language because of family and heritage. Many people will say that one of their parents or grandparents speaks Yiddish.”

She continues, “The second group is related to identity. Yiddish is the third way, in a sense: This is a connection with authentic Jewish culture that was flourishing for a thousand years in Europe, but it’s not affiliated with Judaism or with Israel in any way.

“The third group who learn Yiddish is related to research, scholars of history or literature. We now have a PhD student from China and she wants to become the first translator of Bashevis Singer from Yiddish to Chinese.”

Prof. Gennady Estraikh, a Jewish history professor and Yiddish instructor at New York University, also refuses to join those who are worried about Yiddish’s fate.

“I left Russia 26 years ago, and since then I was almost always involved in Hasidic Yiddish causes. People always talk about the revival of Yiddish, but I have to tell you, I don’t see any revival – I simply see a steady case,” says Estraikh.

However, he adds one unusual example where interest in Yiddish has apparently soared: Sweden, where, he says, “the number of people involved in Yiddish activities went up dramatically in recent years – Sweden, of all places.”

Estraikh teaches a weekly online course in Yiddish boasting Jewish and non-Jewish registrants from across the globe. Most are from Eastern Europe, but there are plenty of Americans as well, he says.

“Of course Yiddish will survive,” he states. “Demographically, Hasidic Jews have more than one child, as you know, so I have no doubt the language will continue to exist for a long time. That’s not even a question.”

Both Estraikh and Legutko talk about the great advantage of Yiddish as a “neutral” language, one devoid of ideological baggage or national identity.

“What’s important about Yiddish is it’s usually a neutral ideology,” says Estraikh, “so you can be Jewish, non-Jewish, religious, secular. It’s kind of a no-man’s-land – accessible to all.”

Legutko concurs, calling Yiddish “the language of a land without borders. It’s a global community that is not tied to a particular country.

“I also always think about the immigration theory of [American historian] Marcus Lee Hansen, who said that the first generation of immigrants tries to make it, the second generation tries to forget where they came from, and the third generation tries to remember.

“I have a feeling,” she sums up, “that many of my students now are trying to remember where they came from and connect with the cultural heritage of their family.”

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