Yiddish was in the air last week in the nation’s capital as the Yiddish Book Center received the 2014 National Medal for Museum and Library Service in a White House ceremony. “Nachas” and “kvelling” were the words that most immediately came to mind for Aaron Lansky, the founder and president of the Center, one of ten U.S. institutions to win the honor.
First Lady Michelle Obama presented the medals in the sun-filled and brocade-adorned East Room of the White House where Lansky and other Center staff sat in the room’s gold gilt chairs to wait for their moment of honor, prompting one visitor to whisper in Yiddish “Ven dos mazel kumt, shtelim a shtul.” If fortune calls, offer him a seat.
“The Yiddish Book Center is a treasure of our people,” said Shmuel Herzfeld, rabbi of D.C.'s National Synagogue, adding “Everything in Yiddish is better. When Shakespeare was translated into Yiddish it was promoted as ‘ibergezetst un farbessert’— translated and improved.”
In 1980, Lansky started the collection that became the Yiddish Book Center (based in Amherst, Massachusetts), while he was an Eastern European Jewish Studies graduate student in Montreal.
On the way to the White House, my Nigerian cab driver described the event as a “mekhaieh,” a pleasure or great enjoyment, one of several expressions amassed after years of driving in Jewish suburbs of DC, while Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Mass) who nominated the Center for the award, praised Lansky’s “groyseh hasmodeh, dogged determination, at a reception for the Center following the White House ceremony. A mekhaieh indeed.
Francesca Lunzer Kritz is the senior reporter for NewPublicHealth, the public health blog of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the president of Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington.