5/12/04

Check it out

Joseph Berger writes in the Times about the newly re-opened Seward Park branch of the New York Public Library. In the next few months, the entire staff (and mascot) of Twenty-Fourth Street Books will be moving down Grand Street way, so I was happy to see the piece. The elegy for the Jewish Lower East Side makes its requisite appearance:

But [the librarian] also pointed to another bookcase that captured an era's passing. The library's Yiddish and Hebrew collection was reduced to three forlorn shelves, and almost all the books were still there.

Now, I agree that the audience for these books certainly isn't all that large, and must be overwhelmed many times over by the Chinese-reading public. But "an era's passing"? There must be a number of readers of Hebrew and Yiddish still around on the Lower East Side, which is home to a sizeable Jewish community.

I think two factors explain this paragraph. One is that the "disappearing Jews of the Lower East Side" is a cliche, and the coverage of Jewish culture by non-Jewish media (and by Jewish media too, as far as that goes) is generally a montage of cliches. Yiddish is dead, too, dontcha know? Orthodoxy (or Israel) is the repository of "true Judaism." Etcetera, etceterorum.

Second, I bet there are people (yeshive-bokhrim, Charedim, old folks, academics, us weirdos, and the like) who do read these books. I wonder, though, if New York's Hebrew and Yiddish readers use the NYPL's extensive collections in these languages. The Library's 2003 report, though interesting, lacks specific information on non-English use. Most Yiddish speakers I talk to aren't even aware that the NYPL has books in Yiddish.

In other library news, some government officials in Kiryas Joel want to quit paying taxes to support the Monroe Free Library (the closest public library to KJ). These officials say the KJ residents don't use the Monroe library, so why support it? But the director of the Monroe library says no, there are Chasidim there all the time. When I looked into this story a bit deeper (for an upcoming Forverts piece), it turned out that this controversy, as with everything else Satmer, is a Zalman Leib/Aron dispute [an old link, but informative]. One group says Let's start our own library that isn't so goyish! And the other says: No! Starting our own library would mean we have to own goyish books!

(I am not misrepresenting the argument here. Trust me.) Of course, the Chasidim must be finding something to read in the Monroe Free Library, no?

I'll translate the Forverts piece if someone asks me to.

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