JPL’s Yiddish audio collection to go digital

David Shlitt, a fellow of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., examines a tape in the Jewish Public Library archives. [Michael Carroll photo]

MONTREAL — Thousands of hours of Yiddish audio books and literary programming taped at the Jewish Public Library (JPL) from at least the early 1950s are about to enter the digital age.

They are a rare, if not unique, treasure of the Jewish people, in the opinion of scholars, and should be made available to everyone.

The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., has embarked on a two-year project to remaster and digitize these cassettes and older reel-to-reel tapes and put them online where they may be heard free of charge anywhere in the world.

“We believe this to be the world’s largest remaining collection of unabridged recordings of modern Yiddish literature,” said the book centre’s founder and president Aaron Lansky about the audio books. And they were all produced by dedicated Montreal volunteers.

The recorded lectures, readings and interviews bring alive the voices of such literary luminaries as Chaim Grade, Itzik Manger, Rokhl Korn, Avraham Sutzkever and Sholem Asch to name a few.

“In most cases, these are the only known audio recordings of these writers,” Lansky said.

Prominent English-language Jewish writers are also in the collection, including Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, Leonard Cohen, Mordecai Richler, even beat poet Allen Ginsberg and piano-playing humorist Victor Borge.

Zachary Baker, who was a JPL librarian in the 1980s, later worked at YIVO and is now a librarian at Stanford University, agreed: “This is probably the largest and most readily accessible corpus of recordings of Yiddish authors… [It’s] a gold mine.”

In 1952, JPL board member William Ostreger bought what was then state-of-the-art technology: a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He then recorded virtually all public events at the JPL, a mecca for Yiddish culture.

Most of the leading Yiddish writers and intellectuals from around the world spoke at the JPL.

Ron Finegold, a JPL librarian from 1967 to 2003, recalls Ostreger lugging that 40-pound machine around, faithfully preserving what he recognized would be of historical value. When the JPL moved into its present location in Cummings House in 1973, taping was integrated into the PA system.

As Nancy Sherman wrote in the centre’s magazine Pakn Treger, “No one concerned about the fortunes of Yiddish literature can fully grasp its wit and wisdom without hearing it spoken aloud… And those born to the language speak it with an easy vitality that can’t readily be replicated.”

A total of 1,500 reel-to-reel tapes and about 300 cassettes, totaling 3,000 hours, are in the collection.

In the 1980s and ’90s, volunteers working in a makeshift basement studio recorded all the Yiddish “talking books” (Redndike bikher), about 235 in all. It was started by another JPL stalwart, Hirsch Rosenfeld, who thought shut-ins, such as his wife, would enjoy listening to books dramatically read by those whose mother tongue was Yiddish, Finegold recalled.

At least a couple of the readers were renowned writers themselves: the late Chava Rosenfarb and Yehuda Elberg.

For years, these gems have been stored in the JPL’s basement archives, if not forgotten, at least not circulated or listened to in many years.

They were carefully inventoried in handwritten ledgers and, in recent years, have benefited from a climate-controlled environment. But, as Lansky noted, even under optimal conditions, tapes have a finite life.

What makes these Yiddish talking books so special, according to Lansky, is that they were read by some of Montreal’s last European-born native Yiddish speakers. “These recordings are the last chance most of us will ever have to hear Yiddish literature in the voices of the language’s original readers.”

He is familiar with Montreal, having completed graduate studies at McGill University in the late 1970s. He went to many memorable lectures at the JPL during that time.

He founded the centre in 1980 when he was 24, in order to rescue Yiddish books from oblivion. Today, it houses a million volumes, a significant number of them coming from donors in Montreal. For years, Lansky drove here regularly to pick up books.

The centre still collects books, but it is focusing increasingly on its digital library, as its 37,000-square-foot premises in a quiet college town is reaching its limits.

“We feared the worst, but the [JPL] tapes are in remarkably good condition, very clear, surprisingly professional,” Lansky said. “I literally got goosebumps when I heard Chaim Grade.”

Together, the tapes will be known as the Frances and Hubert Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library, in honour of the Lido Beach, N.Y., couple who are the principal donors.

New technology has made the cost of digitization audio less prohibitive than it was even a decade ago when producing expensive CDs was the usual option.

However, finding a company that can transfer fragile magnetic tape to digital format was not easy, Lansky said. Working with reel-to-reel is especially painstaking.

A Boston company with that specialization will remove background noise like hisses and static, without altering the authentic sound, Lansky assured.

The recordings will go online unedited and in real time, accompanied by written text. The JPL will be given both raw and MP3 files to preserve in its archives.

In addition to the centre’s website, the recordings will be available, also without charge, through Apple’s iTunesU and downloadable to a portable device. The first recordings are expected to be online this summer, even as the recovery continues.

Staff from the centre, mostly young book centre fellows devoted to the Yiddish language, have driven to Montreal in a van twice to retrieve tapes, and more trips are to come. They bring a mobile film studio to record interviews with Montrealers who can contribute to the story behind the JPL’s foresight in preserving the sound of Yiddish.