The Arty Semite

Congress For Jewish Culture Leaves Its Office, But Not Its Mission

By Leyzer Burko

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A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

On July 17, the New York Times reported that the Congress for Jewish Culture, one of the few remaining Yiddish organizations in New York, would close their Manhattan office at the end of the month.

The Congress’s office space, on Broadway just off 26th street, was perhaps one of the last heymish places for Yiddish culture in New York. The walls were covered with bookshelves, and old pictures and posters hung on the wall. The Congress had only been there since 2009, but the room was previously occupied by Itche Goldberg, the longtime editor of the journal “Yiddish Culture,” who passed away in 2006 at the age of 102.

The day the Times article appeared, the Congress invited students from the Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture — a summer program run by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and Bard College — to come and take Yiddish books that remained on the shelves. The rest off the books will go to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, and archival materials will be donated to YIVO.

It was depressing to see how the shelves were emptied, and how boxes of books and other treasures were scattered underfoot. It wasn’t the first time I had helped shut down the office of an old Yiddish organization. Around 10 years ago I helped empty the rooms of the Bund in New York, throwing out thousands of copies of the Bundist journal “Undzer tsayt.” When the Yiddish League moved to a smaller office a year later, we also had to dispose of many books, and I and other YIVO students carried away a bundle.

But the Yiddish League, unlike the Bund, is still active in the Yiddish world, and we hope that the same thing will be true of the Congress for Jewish Culture.

The Congress — known in Yiddish as the Kultur-Kongress — was created in 1948, in order to unify and strengthen Yiddish culture after the Holocaust. It was intended to be an international umbrella organization, and affiliated groups were established in Paris and in Buenos Aires. Eventually the other branches closed down, but the Congress in New York continued to organize concerts, lectures, readings and other events.

One of the first Congress events I attended was a book party in honor of the publication of the popular history of the Yiddish language, “Words on Fire” by Dovid Katz. The event was standing room only, and the crowd included a mix of old-time Yiddishists, Hasidic Jews and various other types who frequented such gatherings. The festivity of the occasion was interrupted when one of the guests apparently stole another book that Katz had brought along to show us — a large and expensive volume on the history of Lithuanian Jewry. It was a good illustration of the old Yiddish saying: A Jewish thief only steals books.

In recent years the Congress has operated on a budget of less than $100,000, and its executive director, Shane Baker, was the only paid employee. Around $45,000 came from the Atran Foundation, which supports many Yiddish-oriented activities and organizations. The treasurer of the Atran Foundation, Sam Norich, is also the publisher of the Forward. According to the Atran Foundation’s most recent tax filings, the Forward association also receives $45,000 a year.

With the loss of its grant, the Congress for Jewish Culture will not only have to leave its offices, but also figure out other ways to support its programs.

But for a small organization an office can be a burden, and leaving it can create new opportunities. The article in the Times left the impression that the Congress was all but dead, and that closing the office was a kind of funeral.

Fortunately, that is not true — the Congress might be a little infirm, but it’s hardly on its deathbed. Right now it is in the process of organizing its annual August 12 event at YIVO, commemorating Soviet Yiddish writers, and Baker is busy producing a book in Yiddish of previously unpublished work by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Still, this is a hard time for the Congress, an organization that has enriched Yiddish culture for more than 65 years. As Yiddish lovers, we should help however we can.


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