Take a page from our books: Why Jewish literature should be part of your engagement strategy
Programs introducing Yiddish and modern Jewish literature can be an important pathway to forming a deeper connection to Jewish identity and community.
In the many conversations taking place in the Jewish community around the importance of Jewish literacy, modern Jewish literature is often not part of the equation. What role can modern Jewish literature play in deepening Jewish identity and engaging young people in Jewish life?
Here at the Yiddish Book Center, we are surrounded by thousands of Yiddish books. They represent the first sustained literary and cultural encounter of Jewish writers with the modern world: a window onto Jewish history, a precursor of modern Jewish writing in English, Hebrew, and other languages, and a springboard for new creativity.
These books and those they inspired deserve a place in how we think about Jewish literacy and Jewish education.
Many of the best-known Yiddish writers — Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, Isaac Bashevis Singer — are rarely taught in most Jewish educational spaces; but these writers and so many more have much to offer. Just a couple of examples can illustrate the potential of using these texts more broadly in Jewish education:
Yenta Mash, born in the former Soviet Union and exiled to the Siberian gulag, began writing only after emigrating to Israel in 1977. Mash’s story A Seder in the Taiga offers students an introduction to a harrowing chapter of the Jewish experience in the FSU. In addition, the story delves into the holiday of Passover and what it means to celebrate a miraculous redemption during times of great hardship.
The great Yiddish writer Avrom Sutzkever’s poem “The Lead Plates of the Rom Printers” draws heroic mythology out of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. It interweaves history with fiction to tell the story of Jewish partisan fighters in the Vilna ghetto, who turn the Hebrew letters of a Jewish printing press into bullets with which they can fight the Nazis.
Yiddish literature offers plentiful material, but authors writing in English or Hebrew are equally powerful. In Pulitzer Prize-winning author Grace Paley’s 1959 short story “The Loudest Voice,” Shirley Abramowitz, a Jewish student in a public elementary school, is asked to be the narrator of her school’s Christmas pageant. Shirley is excited about the opportunity, but her parents — Jewish immigrants who left Europe for a better life in New York City — disagree with each other about whether she should do it. In depicting American Jews trying to navigate the Christmas season, this story points to the many dilemmas faced by Jews and other immigrants living as minorities in America.
These works, whether translated from Yiddish or Hebrew or written originally in English, offer insights into Jewish history, tell compelling stories, ask big questions, and offer opportunities for a new generation to find their own voice and to define themselves as Jews.
A decade ago, the Yiddish Book Center launched the Great Jewish Books Summer Program, a weeklong residential program for rising high school juniors and seniors. During the program, these teens read selections from important works of modern Jewish literature and consider how they speak to the opportunities and challenges we face today. They are exposed to Yiddish literature, modern Hebrew literature and contemporary American Jewish literature that represent the diversity of the Jewish experience. Participants come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and their Jewish educational experience and observance vary widely. The one thing they share is a love of books. Under the guidance of college professors, they consider how the rich legacy of modern Jewish literature can inform us in the 21st century.
A program evaluation commissioned by the Center last year and conducted by Tobin Belzer (an applied sociologist whose research focuses on Jewish identity) found that 76% of participants in the program felt an increased sense of connection to their Jewish identity.
Among the participant responses collected for the evaluation, one alum shared how the program provided “a framework for thinking about Jewish community and identity” that they have used consistently since participating. Another shared that increased awareness and appreciation of Yiddish culture and the abatement of the Yiddish language in America “helped me have a much clearer understanding of American Jewry and the American experience of many Jews my grandparents’ age, who grew up children of immigrants. Understanding Yiddish culture is imperative to understanding the story of American Jewry.”
“Learning about the importance of Jewish community influenced my college search,” wrote an additional alum. “Because of how amazing I felt among peers in the [Great Jewish Books Summer Program], I looked for colleges that could offer a similar community, like active Hillels and Jewish studies programs, and decided I want to go on a birthright trip.”
In conclusion, the evaluation found that engaging with Jewish literature engendered and expanded participants’ connections to Jewish history and culture, expanded their understanding of Jewish expression and influenced their sense of self as Jews.
All this suggests that programs introducing Yiddish and modern Jewish literature to teens can be an important pathway to forming a deeper connection to Jewish identity and community. To address this challenge, the Yiddish Book Center is not only working directly with teens but also launched programs to introduce Jewish day school teachers, rabbis and synagogue educators to the possibilities for integrating this content into their schools and learning communities.
It is our hope that we will find partners in this work — in the day school community, among synagogue educators and program directors, and among the many organizations thinking about how to engage new generations in Jewish life. The books that surround us here at the Yiddish Book Center are much more than a relic of the past. They are an opportunity for the future.
Susan Bronson is the executive director of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.