If you’re obsessed with the written word (and if you’re reading this blog it seems safe to assume you are), you’ll understand the woe that is a reader without books. When I first learnt Italian, I realised that I now had a whole new section of any bookshop to rummage through, and my joy was unsurpassed. I’ll admit that I used to feel a little proud of myself, reading Verga and Capuano in Italian on the train, although the fact that it took me 30 minutes to read a page (with much swearing and consulting of pocket dictionaries) somewhat undermined the impression of scholarly accomplishment. Even so, it was and is easy to track down pretty much any classic of Italian literature, either second-hand or new, and build yourself an Italian language library. Unfortunately, Yiddish doesn’t work like that.
The difficulty faced by a UK-based student of Yiddish is that you just don’t tend to find Yiddish books in bookshops. Yiddish is only taught at a handful of UK universities, and without a core of native speakers, new books aren’t going to be easy stock to shift. In fact, it’s very rare to find books in Yiddish for sale in the UK at all, and those specialist bookshops that do cater for Yiddish readers tend to focus on high-end antiquarian fare. Even then, the books that show up most often tend to be religious ones, so unless you want to hone your Yiddish by reading biblical exegesis, this approach is rather limited.
Now while I never expected Yiddish books to pop up in bookshops, what I hadn’t anticipated was that this scarcity is mirrored online. It’s possible to buy modern Yiddish translations of contemporary and classic literature, which can be huge fun, but finding Yiddish literature in Yiddish is remarkably tricky. What is out there can be incredibly expensive, especially when it’s being shipped from the US, and there’s no equivalent of the £3 Mondadori Italian paperback. It’s easy to find cheap editions of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz in English, but in Yiddish? You’ll need to fork out some serious cash.
The saddest aspect of this Yiddish book famine is that from the 1890s to the 1950s there were plenty of Yiddish speakers in the UK who were literate and eager to read, but their books are likely to have ended up as landfill due to the subsequent decline of Yiddish. And it’s those books that I really want to read, because I’m not just obsessed with reading in general, I’m obsessed with second-hand books.
All my favourite books are ones that have been pre-owned. They smell of pipe tobacco and that bright, sweet scent of decaying paper. These books have scuffs and dents in the covers, perhaps someone has written some little comments in the margins (the best ever was a note next to an essay about the influence of Plato on Dante, which just said “Balls”). I understand why some people love brand new books, with their pages that are still clean and their shiny covers, but pristine books make me uncomfortable. I might as well drop it down the stairs now and crease the spine, otherwise I’ll be too worried about smudging it to read it.
This is about more than just my inherent clumsiness, though. A second-hand book links you with the readers who went before you, whose names are sometimes inscribed in the front cover, so that you’re in dialogue with them as well as the text. Second-hand books are often beautifully made, like the pocket edition of Paradise Lost I found that had a linen cover decorated with gold fleur-de-lys and which included a red silk placemarker ribbon. Milton definitely wouldn’t have approved, but what does he know.
Second-hand books that have been inexplicably customised are even better, like my copy of Harkavy’s wonderfully named English-Jewish Pocket Dictionary, which has a handmade paper cover painted in blue and red, with Jewish Dictionary pencilled neatly onto the front with such force that it appears to be embossed. Someone called Aron Owen used to own this book, so maybe he was the cover artist, but it seems more like the work of a careful child than a dude with personalised bookplates.
Sometimes the personality of the previous owners is right there in these books. My 1967 edition of Uriel Weinreich’s College Yiddish was previously owned by some kid called Louis Feldman, which I know because he’s written “Lou Feldman the Great” in both English and Yiddish inside the front cover.* Looking at the state of the book, Lou didn’t make it past Lesson 4, but I guess that was all the Yiddish he needed.
And then there’s my 1910 edition of Longfellow’s הײאַװאַטהאַ or Hiawatha. This book was published in New York but the library stamps inside its front cover show that it went first to Rownem in the Ukraine, then on to Tel-Aviv, before it came to me in the UK. The pages in this book are heavy, almost like blotting paper, so they've stayed crisp even though the cover has been knocked and scuffed at the corners. At some point in its life someone has recovered this book in a peculiar, plasticized fabric that I can't place; it feels like a 1960s twinset that has been ironed on too high a heat. Another stamp in the back cover lets me know that this book was fumigated by "Hadar" on May 21st 1996. Judging by the unidentifiable insect crushed in the endpapers (are book weevils a thing?) this seems to have been a very timely intervention. Cheers, Hadar.
(דער אַװעקפֿאָר פֿון הײאַװאַטהאַ)
Ultimately, this is what I’m missing with the absence of second-hand Yiddish books. All those bookmarks and stamps and inscriptions that provide the briefest link to the world that has been lost, where Yiddish was still spoken and read and sung by my family and countless others in the UK. So, while I am supremely grateful that the resurgence in Yiddish allows me to buy Lord of Rings in translation, that doesn’t even come close to the joy of finding something like my 1917 edition of Noah Steinberg’s יונג אַמעריקאַ (Yung Amerika), a series of essays on Yiddish-American writers. This volume has been drilled through by bookworms, the cover’s all שמוציק (shmutsik – dirty), and it looks like someone’s tried the lick the title off the spine, but damn it’s beautiful.
However, this overall lack of Yiddish books means that when you do track one down, it’s nothing short of a נעס (nes - miracle). Every torn page, chewed edge and dented corner is evidence that these books faced some pretty steep odds and some pretty persistent insects, but they survived all that to cross the Atlantic and get cherished by me. So my Yiddish library might be growing more slowly than I’d like, but given the number of books already in the house, that’s נאָך אַלעמען אַ טובֿה**.
*In Yiddish it’s לו פֿעלדמאַן דער גרױסער. I love that kid.
** Or “Nokh alemen a toyve” - a blessing in disguise.