A Yiddish book center in Queens lives, and so does the language it celebrates

New York Jewish Week – In a rickety Long Island City warehouse, accessible only by a footbridge that crosses under the Long Island Freeway, some 80,000 Yiddish books are stacked on shelves in a large, sun-drenched room that overlooks the Pulaski Bridge, Midtown Manhattan to the west and Downtown Brooklyn in the distance.

This is the CYCO Yiddish Book Center, whose roots date back to 1938, when it began as a space in Manhattan to provide Yiddish writers and readers with a safe haven, as anti-Semitism grew in Europe and the future of the language was forever changed.

Throughout its more than eight decades of operation, the Central Yiddish Cultural Organization was – and still is – a place of ideas, collaboration and celebration of all things Yiddish.

It’s not a bookstore, said Hy Wolfe, the Brooklyn-born Yiddish actor who runs the organization, but a book center, where New York can celebrate Yiddish culture, authors and artists. CYCO also operated as a publishing house for many years, with nearly 300 titles bearing its imprint.

But that whole story seemed in jeopardy last fall, when the Atran Foundation, which has funded CYCO through grants since 1956, decided to cut its allocation. Dianne Fischer, who had been president of the foundation for 23 years, retired and the current board decided that CYCO was not reaching enough people, or making enough money (only 3,000 to 5 $000 a year in book sales, according to Wolfe) to continue funding it in perpetuity.

Wolfe was able to secure more funding from the Azrieli Foundation, which has been CYCO’s other big supporter, but he knew time was running out. He needed to raise $30,000 to cover rent and maintenance for the year.

“I am not a good businessman. It’s the truth. I will never ask anyone for money,” Wolfe said. “Many students arrive without money. I tell them, ‘When you are successful and you have a job, you have to remember your commitment to us and send us a donation.’ It’s who I am on a handshake.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Wolfe grew up surrounded by Yiddish and watched the language fade as the children and grandchildren of secular Yiddish speakers turned to English. Today, Yiddish is a first language—growing, too—only among Hasidic and Haredi Orthodox Jews in various New York neighborhoods.

“Small Yiddish organizations have come and gone by the hundreds, if not more,” Wolfe told New York Jewish Week. “The only ones that still exist today are the ones where they have stubborn old Jews like me.”

Yiddish actor Hy Wolfe runs CYCO, the Yiddish Book Center in Long Island City, Queens. (Julia Gergely/JTA)

In addition to his acting career and serving on the boards of other Yiddish organizations, such as the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx, Wolfe also worked for decades as a bartender at jazz clubs, another New York institution that he saw slowly disappear. For his work at CYCO, which he has been doing since the late 90s, he does not take a salary. He organizes events at the center, tries to catalog books and, above all, offers tea and good conversations to all Yiddish book lovers who make an appointment.

“We are open to everyone. We respect everyone,” Wolfe said. “There has been a large draw of queer, transgender and non-binary people. Before that, there were a large number of people disenchanted with religion. Before that, it was a big draw for those who were disenchanted with politics.

Now, it seems, the next generation has arrived, in the form of two activists with a soft spot for secular Yiddish culture and CYCO work.

When the Jewish Labor Bund closed in 2004, Wolfe assembled a group to pack up its archives and bring them to CYCO. He found the flag in a briefcase which he fished out of a dumpster. (Julia Gergely/JTA)

Last November, Wolfe described his difficult financial situation to writer and artist Molly Crabapple (who wrote her own article on the organization), a conversation that Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky overheard. Instead of mourning what might have been the eventual end of CYCO, Crabapple and Lang/Levitsky took action.

They helped organize a group called Friends of CYCO, which set a fundraising goal of $90,000, nearly three times the amount Wolfe determined would be needed for rent and maintenance. Three weeks later, they have already raised over $35,000, with over 450 contributors from almost every continent.

Lang/Levitsky, a cultural worker and organizer who describes herself as “a longtime person in the Yiddish world,” only visited CYCO for the first time last November and quickly transformed from client to looking for a poetry book into a great organizer. of the revitalization effort.

“Once I spoke with friends and friends of friends, it became clear that what was helpful and possible went beyond just fundraising,” Lang/Levitsky said. “What struck me was that we could lose CYCO for this small amount of money. It’s a very possible amount for the communities that make up the Yiddish world, for the communities that make up New York, for the communities that make up the literary world.

In addition to keeping the lights on, Friends of CYCO wants to help Wolfe expand the center’s public programming.

Wolfe also hopes that, in addition to paying artists and speakers to attend CYCO events, they could hire a permanent administrator who will help digitize CYCO’s book catalog and keep the doors open for consistent hours. He also hopes, perhaps, to upgrade the computer system to something more modern than Windows 97.

CYCO’s shelves contain some 80,000 books in Yiddish. (Julia Gergely/JTA)

CYCO is not the last bastion of secular Yiddish culture. The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, has been thriving since its founding in 1980. Yiddish theater groups, klezmer groups, the Congress for Jewish Culture, YIVO, The Workers Circle, the Forward Association, the Yiddish Festival of New York and other programs kept the flame burning. During the pandemic, Yiddish language classes at YIVO and The Workers Circle have exploded.

Yet, says Lang/Levitsky, “It’s hard to overestimate the importance of CYCO. Many major Yiddish writers have had their work published by CYCO. CYCO editions and publications can be found on virtually every Yiddish book shelf. It is truly an organization that has helped keep the global web that is the Yiddish language alive and vibrant for the last 70, 80 years of its life.

The book center’s physical space “makes a whole world of things possible” for the future, she said. ” There is not much [Yiddish] remaining places in New York, where you can walk into a room and pick up a Yiddish book from the shelf.

Wolfe is grateful to his young benefactors.

“I was already prepared for the worst. I knew at the end of March we were going to have to think about how to package all these books,” Wolfe said. “But I am very optimistic. God bless Rosza, God bless Molly. These young people are caring.

“I’m getting old – I’m old,” he added. “I would love to see the next generation step up. I don’t need to step down, but if for political reasons they would rather see another face leading this then I will.

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