Museum Adventures: Yiddish Book Center

Yiddish Book Center: Something for Everyone (and You Don’t Need to Speak Yiddish)

Learning about Jewish culture and history often leads parents and children to conversations about their own family’s history, culture, and traditions.

In the Yiddish Book Center’s kindervinkl (children’s corner), three-year-old Eli dons a white apron and begins whipping up an (imaginary) meal of brisket and, for dessert, homentashn. When he’s done, he and his mother settle on a red bench nearby and begin reading picture books.

In the welcome gallery, a dad and two preteen girls enjoy a short film about the history of the Center. When the film ends, they head over to a reproduction Yiddish print shop with vintage printing equipment, including a Yiddish Linotype, a hot-lead typesetting machine used for decades at the New York Yiddish newspaper the Forverts.  
The Yiddish Book Center was founded in 1980 to save countless Yiddish books before they were thrown away by younger generations that couldn’t read the language of their immigrant parents and grandparents. Since then, the Center has rescued more than a million Yiddish books and helped return them to circulation for a new generation of readers.

But over the years, the Center has also expanded its mission, offering engaging learning opportunities for curious visitors of all ages who come to the expansive, sunny museum designed to resemble a shtetl (Eastern European Jewish small town), which sits in an apple orchard adjacent to the Hampshire College campus. Visitors don’t need to be able to read or speak Yiddish to enjoy the Center—although by visit’s end, they’ll realize they probably knew more Yiddish words than they thought (nosh, schmooze, and shlep are all Yiddish words commonly used in English), and leave knowing even more.

For the youngest visitors (and, truth be told, plenty of not-so-young ones as well), the kindervinkl is a favorite stop, with games like Yidlibs and Proverbial Pursuit that allow players to learn some Yiddish words and proverbs, as well as the pretend restaurant where Eli was manning the oven. It also includes a cheery reading area, well stocked with Jewish-themed picture books, courtesy of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s PJ Library. A scavenger hunt invites kids to be detektivs (detectives) searching for special places and objects throughout the Center.

Other exhibits appeal to adults and families with older children. The Unquiet Pages exhibit, embedded within the open book repository that sits at the literal and figurative heart of the Center, examines Yiddish literature from a range of perspectives, looking at various writers and genres and their historical context. Sholem-Bayes: Reflections on the American Jewish Home is a fun multimedia exhibit that looks at how the modern Jewish home has been depicted in popular culture. In the The Lee & Alfred Hutt Discovery Gallery, Jewish cultural identity is explored through music, family stories, photographs, and personal mementos.

In the reproduction print shop, visitors learn about the vital role Yiddish newspapers played in the lives of immigrants, helping them bridge the old world and the new; nearby, another exhibit looks at a groundbreaking ethnographic expedition to the Jewish community in Ukraine in the early twentieth century. The Center also hosts a diverse lineup of visiting exhibits—Echoes from the Borscht Belt: Contemporary Photographs by Marisa Scheinfeld will be on display through October—as well as films, live music, and other public programs.

The Yiddish Book Center offers a number of formal educational programs, including the Great Jewish Books Summer Program for high schoolers; the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, an intensive seven-week course for college students; and on-site and online courses for adults on various aspects of modern Jewish literature and culture. The Center’s field trip program allows middle and high school students to explore universal themes of immigration, assimilation, and cultural preservation through one group’s unique story.

But the Yiddish Book Center is also rich with informal learning opportunities that can take visitors into unexpected directions. As Amy Leos-Urbel, the Center’s education program manager, notes, learning about Jewish culture and history often leads parents and children to conversations about their own family’s history, culture, and traditions.

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Maureen Turner

Maureen is communications coordinator at the Yiddish Book Center. The Yiddish Book Center is part of Museums10, a collaborative of ten museums in the heart of western Massachusetts. To celebrate their 10th anniversary in 2015, Museums10 members are writing a monthly column in Hilltown Families about all there is to explore and discover in their collections.

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