Feature Stories

Q & A with… Aaron Lansky

Aaron Lansky

AMHERST – Ten years ago, the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. re-mastered and distributed many “Redndike bikher” or talking books for the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. This became the Sami Rohr Library of Yiddish Literature—a series of around 50 audio books on CD re-mastered from the Montreal Jewish Public Library’s cassettes. They consisted of works by Sholem Asch, I.J. Singer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Moyshe Kulbak among others. Book Center Executive Director Aaron Lansky recently learned of 225 more recorded Yiddish books, which he  believes is the world’s largest remaining collection of unabridged recordings of modern Yiddish literature. The collection includes reel-to-reel tapes recorded in the 1950s-1970s with writers like Chaim Grade, Jacob Glatstein, Avrom Sutzkever, Itzik Manger, Rokhl Korn, Allen Ginsberg and Leonard Cohen – many reading their own work. In May, two Book Center fellows made the trip to Montreal to pick up the more than 200 recorded books and bring them back to the Book Center where they can be re-mastered, digitized and then shared for free with the public. A fundraising effort has been launched to fund the project.
Lansky recently shared information about this new find and what it means for Yiddish lovers everywhere.

How did you come to find these new Yiddish recordings?
A: I was in Montreal recently with my 17-year-old daughter Chava when we stopped to visit the city’s famed Jewish Public Library.  In the course of a casual conversation, I mentioned to the director, Eva Raby, how people continue to ask for the 15 “Redndike bikher” or “Talking Books” we had re-mastered and distributed for the library 10 years ago. Eva mentioned that the library had recently found a lot more recorded books in their archives. When I asked her how many is a lot she guessed another 225 books.
In the course of our efforts to work with the library to retrieve and digitize the additional audio books, we received an email from Zachary Baker, the Judaica bibliographer at Stanford University, alerting us to the existence of “a large number of older, reel-to-reel recordings in the basement of the Jewish Public Library.”  Our young fellows followed up on this lead and, with the help of librarians in Montreal, discovered an astonishing 1,500 reel-to-reel tapes, totaling 3,000 hours of recording time.
The reel-to-reel tapes include interviews with Yiddish writers recorded in Montreal in the 1940s and 1950s, and recordings of lectures and “literary evenings” held at the Jewish Public Library from the 1940s through the 1970s.  The recordings feature virtually every major Yiddish writer of their day, including Chaim Grade, Itzik Manger, Rokhl Korn, Sholem Asch and many others.  In most cases, these are the only known audio recordings of these writers, almost all of whom are long-since deceased.   There are also a small number of recordings of Jewish writers and artists in English, including Saul Bellow, Leonard Cohen, and Allen Ginsberg.

How many of these recordings are there?
A: We’re in the process of cataloging the tapes. The collection includes 235 newly-discovered Yiddish audio books, and 1,500 reel-to-reel tapes that include interviews taped at the JPL.
According to my quick calculation, more than a thousand additional hours of audio book recordings. It would take a half a year just to listen to them all and we estimate that the reel-to-reel recordings represent about 3,000 hours of recording.

What exactly is your goal for these recordings?
A: Each recording will be digitized and re-mastered, and posted to the Internet Archive, where it can be heard online or downloaded in a variety of formats such as WAV and MP3,  iPods, and laptops.  In addition, we anticipate using these recordings for educational purposes at the Center.  For example, they will be used by faculty during our Steiner Summer Program for college students.  They will also be an important resource for our on-site weekend courses for adults.
What does this mean in practice? Say you’re looking for I. J. Singer’s “Di Brider Ashkenazi” (The Brothers Ashkenazi), one of the greatest Yiddish novels.  At the moment, you can go to our website and either read the book online or download it to your computer.  Once we digitize the audio books and load them to our website you’ll have a third option: to  “Listen Now,” either on your computer or as a free file that you download to your iPod, iPhone or other portable device.

How long will this take?
A: The first full-length audio book recordings should be online by late fall, and the entire collection of more than 1,000 hours will be freely available within the year.

How much money needs to be raised to accomplish this?
A: We need to raise $45,000 to digitize the audio books and we estimate upwards of $100,000 to restore, catalog, re-master, and digitize the reel-to-reel collection.

Why are these recordings such an important find?
A: What makes the tapes so important is that they’re one of a kind – they can never be produced again.  In the 1980s and 90s, the library had the foresight to enlist some of Montreal’s last European-born native Yiddish speakers to record the most popular Yiddish books in a makeshift studio in the library basement.  The resulting recordings are the last chance most of us will ever have to hear Yiddish literature in the voices of its original readers. The interviews recorded on the reel-to-reel tapes include rare recordings, most likely the only existing recordings, of renowned Yiddish writers. Because of the age and fragility of the reel-to-reel tapes, it’s imperative that they be professionally digitized and re-mastered.

How can people hear the Yiddish tapes that the Center completed 10 years ago, as well as those new ones?
A: The tapes that were completed in the past are available for sale at our bookstore, they were manufactured as CDs. Ten years later, new technology will allow us to digitize and post the recordings online, where they can be downloaded free of charge.  They’ll be available through the Internet Archive, the non-profit group that hosts our digitized Yiddish books.

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