Yiddish 2.0

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It’s weird and somewhat scary to realize that you can put a cap on the number of Yiddish books ever published — and, by most reckonings (for the secular world, anyway), the number of Yiddish books that will ever be published. But that’s exactly what the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library says in its introductory statement: “Over ten thousand Yiddish texts, estimated as over 1/2 of all the published works in Yiddish, are now online” — and the implicit notion is, there aren’t going to be that many more Yiddish works published.

der purim-berThis by no means diminishes the excellent, massive, and spotlessly-presented Yiddish library on Archive.org, which came online a few weeks ago — one of the most unbelievably selfless and thorough nonprofits on the Web. They’ve been collating every single website since 1996 and keeping track of them (so, if you ever wanted to see your first-ever freshman-year I-just-learned-HTML site, you can), and they also have a massive Live Music Archive with tens of thousands of concerts.

In a way, perusing their archive feels kind of like looking at a time-capsule after the end of the world: It’s a perfect fossil record of the Web at any point in time. Michael Chabon, while talking about the impetus to write his Yiddish Policemen’s Union, spoke of finding a Yiddish travel phrasebook with translations like “How much is a ticket to Lublin?” and instructions for ordering in restuarants…like a key to a lost world. If the world was no more, and all that remained were the echoes of the Internet bouncing off distant quasars (I know that isn’t how it really works), Archive.org would be the container with every nuanced bit of what we are contained inside, from badly-scrawled blogs to even worse-scrawled CNN and MSNBC reports, and all the beauty that they contain.

der purim-berThe Spielberg Archive is kind of like that, only using Yiddish books instead of websites. Der Purim-Ber is a children’s book, as far as I can tell, narrated by the bear itself. A Shá¹­eá¹­ele in Poyln is a travelogue of the author’s trip to his hometown of Ciechanowiec — which, like Chabon’s idea, no longer exists.

This, of course, doesn’t include the hundreds of new Yiddish books being published every year, almost exclusively by religious Yiddish publishers, for the Haredi public…one of which my daughter is currently chewing on at this very moment. I don’t speak Yiddish, but we can both read it. It’s kind of the exact opposite of this archive — I certainly didn’t grow up with this language, but in the place where I live now, it’s almost certain that she’ll learn it in school, and it will almost undoubtedly come in handy at some point.

Posted on March 18, 2009

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