The Joy of Yiddish Books.

Molly Crabapple has an NYRB article (February 26, 2022; cached) about a bookstore hanging on by its fingernails:

CYCO books is not New York’s last Yiddish bookstore. Yiddish bookstores do a brisk trade in Hassidic Brooklyn, where some 150,000 people still speak the language as a mother tongue. It is, however, the last bookstore to deal in the sort of Yiddish that once dominated New York’s Lower East Side: that of socialist rabble-rousers and sweatshop poets, which their upwardly mobile descendants were glad to leave behind and forget. Suffice to say, CYCO is now the only place in the city to get your Avrom Sutskever or Sholem Aleichem in the original.

The Central Yiddish Cultural Organization was founded in 1938. It was both a renowned publisher of Yiddish books and a nonpartisan cultural space in a fractious literary world, and it had branches as far away as Argentina. CYCO was one of many Yiddish organizations that, like other boosters of minority languages, saw their tongue as deserving of respect and civilizational status as French or any such language of empire; and despite their lack of money, power, or a state, they believed they could will their equivalents of institutions like the Académie Française into being.

That decades-old global heritage has persisted in this corner of Queens. Jam-packed, eccentrically indexed, and run by a wisecracking actor named Hy Wolfe, CYCO is more than an independent bookstore; it is a bohemian survivor from a world that was nearly lost.

Sadly, today’s New York has little place for such survivors. Last fall, the Atran Foundation, CYCO’s main supporter, cut off its annual stipend. After eighty-three years, the store seemed poised to close forever—until a crew of young Yiddish lovers launched a defiant campaign to save it.

Crabapple talks about her own experience with the language (“I first visited CYCO Books in 2019. I had then been studying Yiddish for six months, in order to write a book on the Jewish Labor Bund, and I was on the hunt for the official four-volume history of the political party”) and about the proprietor (“A white-haired, barrel-chested man in an old T-shirt, with a thin face and habitually sardonic expression, Wolfe mixes tough street talk with polyglot literary allusions in a way that’s utterly New York”), then gets to the current crisis:

In 2012, the Atran Foundation sold its building on Twenty-First Street and moved CYCO’s 50,000 books to a Long Island City warehouse. The foundation continued to pay a yearly stipend, though that $20,000 now barely covered the rent. At the new venue, customers trickled in: the shrinking number of elderly visitors was bolstered by Hassidim in search of secular literature and by the younger Yiddish devotees whom YIVO and the Workmen’s Circle had trained. Needless to say, it was hardly a commercial proposition. […]

It was in 2019, the year I fell in love with CYCO, that the Atran Foundation decided to end its subsidy and, while offering to pay for a final removal, said that, in its view, the store was no longer “viable.” The store had no other sources of financial support, Judah Fischer, the board’s president, told me, and Atran wanted to focus on funding groups that did. When Hy Wolfe spoke about the foundation’s decision, his frustration was evident. “We were told, ‘we can’t fund everyone in perpetuity.’ But you can and you should…. Nonprofits don’t make money.” And why cut CYCO’s funding just when interest in the language seemed to be blossoming anew, and more and more people—like me, and from all walks of life—were coming in?

When I visited last winter, Hy seemed defeated. He had written to universities and Yiddish institutions, offering CYCO as a partner. There were no takers. No libraries seemed interested in the collection. Without the foundation money, he could no longer afford rent. In a few months’ time, he would have to close up shop.

My fellow browser that day was a cultural worker and organizer named Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky. We both listened aghast to Hy’s lament. This was a travesty. More than five hundred small businesses had died during New York’s first Covid year; beloved institutions, kept alive by care and grit, had been replaced by legions of empty storefronts. How could we also lose our Yiddish book palace—and to lose it for $20,000? Hadn’t anyone heard of crowdfunding?

Although it was Lang/Levitsky’s very first time at CYCO, she was determined to lead a campaign to save the store. Working closely with Hy, Rosza gathered a crew of six young Yiddish devotees under the banner of Friends of CYCO. Some were involved in music, like her, and others were teachers, translators, or performers, but all were committed to Yiddish not as “a museum piece, but part of everyday life,” in Rosza’s words, and all wanted CYCO to continue to be a place where this sort of culture could blossom. They dreamed of a reading room cum salon space, full of song, performance, and cultural ferment, that welcomed the diverse and growing Yiddish world.

“I keep thinking about the importance of physical spaces where people can be for long enough to have chance encounters with other people or with unexpected books,” Rozsa told me. “Maybe you’ll spend an hour, or four, and maybe you’ll get in a long conversation that will change the direction of your day, your month, or your life.”

The Friends knew that to give CYCO the chance of a new lease on life they had to do more than just cover the rent. They needed to hire people to catalog the books, to keep the store open at regular hours, and to put on events. This would allow Wolfe to focus on what he loved: publishing books, teaching, performing, and having long, fulfilling conversations about Yiddish over cups of tea. They set the ambitious goal of raising $90,000 for a first year’s budget.

“This little place is a jewel,” Hy told me, when we sat in his shop last week. He spoke about the incredible will of the Yiddish language to live. So many people had predicted, had wanted, its death. Yet it endured, small and stubborn, renewed by those who needed it. Soon afterward, the Friends of CYCO launched their crowdfunding campaign. Within a day, 150 people had donated (at time of writing, they’d raised over $11,000).

I just checked the crowdfunding site, and as of now they’ve raised $62,779 (70% of $90k goal). Isn’t that great? Good for everyone concerned!

By the way, Rosza, who comments here as rozele, sent me a link to this Maya Rosen interview with Tal Hever-Chybowski and his efforts to bring attention to “diasporic Hebrew”; it’s full of interesting thoughts:

MR: In the Hebrew subtitle of Mikan Ve’eylakh, you use the term “Ivrit olamit,” (“world Hebrew”), which is not a direct equivalent of the English subtitle “diasporic Hebrew.” What is captured by the word “olami” that is not captured by “diasporic”?

THC: “Ivrit olamit” and “diasporic Hebrew” are not the same thing, but I think that they are complementary. “Olami” can be translated as “world,” and it can also be translated as “eternity.” Historically, the term has this duality of space and time. Simon Dubnov, maybe the greatest modern Jewish historian, translated the title of his history of the Jewish people into Hebrew as Divrei Yamei Am Olam, or the history of “the world people,” the people scattered throughout the entire world, and also “the eternal people.” Part of what I have tried to do with Mikan Ve’eylakh is to say that diaspora is not only in space; diaspora is also in time.

I very much like Y.L. Peretz’s line (quoted in the interview) “you have to fight for the rights of the oppressed but I tremble the day that they will get power, the moment when the oppressed will become the oppressor.” Words to bear in mind. Thanks, rozele!


  1. It really is great! Or, if you will, in outdated Hebrew slang, olami: the first significant dictionary of Israeli Hebrew slang, by Ben-Amotz and Ben-Yehuda (no relation), was called Milon olami le’ivrit meduberet, ‘An awesome dictionary of spoken Hebrew’ (the dictionary came up before, here).

  2. John Emerson says

    Out of curiosity, are there and of the old socialis / humanist / secular Yiddish books which are still read by the Hassids.

  3. I’m interested to know, too: I’m thinking not of Hassids/Haredis “still” reading secular Yiddish, but young ones starting to develop an interest in it, whether openly or not. Is that starting to be a thing?

  4. David Marjanović says

    Rosza (twice) or Rozsa (once)?

    I’m guessing the second, because Hungarians everywhere, but…

  5. it actually is rosza (and is an old family hypercorrection – the hungarian in question actually being a roza), and i like [s] but don’t have strong feelings about the voicedness.

    and @JE, @Y:

    within the yiddish-speaking hasidic world, from what i know (which only goes so far), there isn’t more reading of veltlekhe yiddish writing than there was a hundred years ago. i’d bet there’s substantially less, actually, because there’s a lot less awareness that it even exists, with hasidim now lacking daily contact with other flavors of yiddish-speaker. then as now, though, the enforced norm is not to touch books that aren’t from within the community or vetted by the community authorities, even ones from other halakhically-observant communities.

    i have the sense that some folks leaving the yiddish-speaking hasidic world (and folks living one foot in / one foot out) do look to non-hasidic yiddish literature as a way to keep connected to the culture and language they grew up in. i’m interested to see how that slice of the yiddish world develops – i think it’s going to be exciting over the next few decades!

    and one of my hopes for CYCO is that we can be a place that those folks can come and get books (or sit and read, if it’s not safe to bring veltlekhe books home). i think the slightly odd location may help with that: we’re in long island city, which is quite easy to get to from satmar south williamsburg and from much of manhattan (and a simple subway ride from boro park), but far enough away that someone visiting is unlikely to run into an inquisitive neighbor, and not a neighborhood with a hasidic population.

  6. i have the sense that some folks leaving the yiddish-speaking hasidic world (and folks living one foot in / one foot out) do look to non-hasidic yiddish literature as a way to keep connected to the culture and language they grew up in. i’m interested to see how that slice of the yiddish world develops – i think it’s going to be exciting over the next few decades!

    That’s exactly what I was hoping you were going to say!

    And hurray for tne foot in/one foot out people. They have been around as long as there has been a Jewish religion.

  7. Wait, rozele, you’re speaking of CYCO in first person plural. If you’re actually one of the “crew of young Yiddish lovers” saving the bookstore, let’s hear more!

    And to add my own more trivial question that’s not quite relevant, since not Yiddish. On Passover I noticed a word and commented that my daughter’s name was in the Haggadah – Nora being the name, and nura the word, translated in the Haggadah as fire. Naturally I didn’t initially notice the diacritic that changed the vowel. My in-laws were at pains to explain the difference. To them, it invalidates the relationship, whereas my sense, based on roughly a million “Child Names Explained” websites, is that there might still be a relationship. That Nora might just be the English realization of nura when used as a name. It’s a name we chose because my wife believed it a Jewish name. I associated it mostly with James Joyce’s wife at the time.

    Maybe it’s just shortened Eleanora, and a few secular Jews have tried to give it a Hebrew (or Aramaic?) pedigree after the fact. It’s hard to google anything reliable because of said Child Names sites, but I bet someone here knows the background.

  8. Wait, rozele, you’re speaking of CYCO in first person plural. If you’re actually one of the “crew of young Yiddish lovers” saving the bookstore, let’s hear more!

    See above, from the Crabapple story:

    My fellow browser that day was a cultural worker and organizer named Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky. We both listened aghast to Hy’s lament. … Although it was Lang/Levitsky’s very first time at CYCO, she was determined to lead a campaign to save the store.

  9. PlasticPaddy says
  10. @Ryan: Nora has been used as a nickname for both Honora/Honoria and Eleanor/Eleanora. The former has an obvious etymology, but the origin of the latter (and the related name Aenor) is unknown. (Tolkien, presumably aware that there was no accepted etymology, gave it a Sindarin origin, as the name of a flower from Lorien that Sam Gamgee adopted for his eldest daughter.)

    However, there is no reason why the name Nora cannot be treated as a variant of the Hebrew נורא, meaning fire (emphatic). In fact, there is a longstanding Jewish tradition of wordplay in the choice of Hebrew names for children with non-Hebrew legal names. I have mentioned several times that my older son’s middle name is James, while his second Hebrew name is Chaim, so we sometimes call him Hymie, even though the names are etymologically unrelated (and James is actually a separate Biblical name). However, I wonder, now whether this might be another element from Yiddish culture that is dying out with the replacement of Yiddish by Hebrew as the common language of Jewish discoirse

  11. @Ryan @hat:
    yup, i been outed (as the least young of the crew)!
    (not that i know anyone else who goes by rozele, so it’s not like i’ve been particularly hard to find if anyone was looking)

    i’m sure i’ll be bringing up things from CYCO here as we get to work on cataloging (>1000 shelf-feet, mostly double-shelved!) and beautifying the space (i have fantasies about this kind of bukovinan/galician-style painted ceiling). but i don’t have much to add to molly’s piece, which i think does a lovely job of laying out where things were at when we started the fundraising campaign (which has been most of what we’ve done since then).

    one thing that might be of interest to the hattery, for now:

    on my last trip to the space i left with three gorgeous little books of poetry, each with a very different cover design style (calligraphic in an almost ottoman mode; geometric and op-art-y; line drawing à la ben shahn). they’re all in a ~5″x~6″ format, running 125-200 pages, published in the mid-to-late 1970s USSR at 50 kopeks or less – and all by poets i had never heard of: rive baliasne, dore khaykine, and shifre kholodenko (who turns out to be dovid hofshteyn’s sister!). none of them were literary newcomers when these books came out (all three in their 60s; at least one already imprisoned & ‘rehabilitated’), but it’s still a fascinating window into the re-opening of space for soviet yiddish writing in that period. the one of the books i’ve spent time with so far didn’t impress me a lot, but that hardly matters compared to knowing that the work is there to be read!

  12. Ryan, Aramaic nura is not used as a name (and it’s a masculine noun). However, it is cognate to Arabic nūr ‘light’, also masculine, but used as part the title of the present Queen of Jordan.

    Hebrew נוֹרָא nōrā́’ (also masculine) means ‘terrible’; as in English, formerly meaning ‘inspiring fear’, and more recently ‘very bad’. נוֹרָה nōrā́ means ‘he was shot’. Neither is a good name to give a child.

  13. And, in Modern Hebrew, nurá is also homophonous with נוּרָה ‘lightbulb’ (innovated using the Aramaic).

  14. @Y: Queen Noor’s husband died in the previous millennium. The current queen consort is Raina, wife of King Abdullah II. Interestingly, the wife of the Jordanian king is not automatically queen consort; it requires a separate pronouncement from the king. I would imagine this is holdover from traditions of the not-so-distant past, when a Hashemite monarch would have been expected, as a matter of course, to have more than one wife. Noor’s husband, King Hussein, did have four wives, but never more than one at a time. (I just noticed that Hussein’s first wife, Dina bint Abdul-Hamid whose marriage to the twenty-year-old king was—unlike his later unions—an arranged one, married a Palestine Liberation Organization commander in October 1970. That seems like it could have been an extremely provocative action—the king’s ex-wife marrying a P. L. O. officer while the the Jordanian state and the P. L. O. were engaged in a bitter conflict. The marriage would have come right on the heels of Black September, when the P. L. O. attempted to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy.)

  15. Thanks all for interesting answers.

    Y – I had run into the Yamim Nora’im usage at Rosh Hashana as well. It sounds like it hasn’t developed along the lines of English awe. At the time, I suggested she might think of the name as meaning awesome. Hmm. “Terrible”, huh? I won’t mention that to her. But there are moments… As with any kid.

    We’ll stick with Aramaic nur / Modern Hebrew nura “light” as our wordplay derivation.

    I hope the CYCO project is successful. One day I hope to come and see the Bukovina ceiling.

  16. Interesting, isn’t it, how English “terrible” and “awesome” moved from being synonyms to being antonyms…

  17. I am now curious about that outdated oath of my youth, Bloody Nora! I can’t find any convincing explanation of the origin online…

  18. PlasticPaddy says
  19. Am I the only one to whom Latinization experiments like in Unzer Shrift⁩ look like Gellerese?

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