The bright hallways, expansive staircases and sleek sofas don’t reveal what is beyond the glass doors at the Center for Jewish History in New York City. It was a rare visit at a historical juncture where few ever walk in the hallways of the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, known today as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, at 15 W. 16th St.
After walking through a maze of back hallways, cubicles, walls covered with black donor plaques in Yiddish and an elevator ride up is a simple, brightly lit room lined with shelving holding archival boxes.
Historians, history professors, biographers and reporters could only dream of what lies in those boxes: stories, narratives, history. Said to include more than 4 million documents, with only a fraction in the weather-controlled room on an unusually warm December afternoon, it is one of the few places where such a rich archive of Jewish history can be found.
To give an idea of what the collection includes, Stefanie Halpern, director of the archives, pulls out a large, frail, yellowed map of Jewish agricultural colonies in Belarus in the 1920s. The back of the map is crammed with Yiddish writing. She admits that she cannot read it, but believes that it is someone’s personal history. “Some people’s writing is just terrible,” she says. “I guess if I spent days and days I could [figure it out], but I just don’t have the time.”
But there is surely someone who could read it. An expert in Yiddish writing in an Israeli city. Or even a Chassidic Jew in the Borough Park neighborhood in Brooklyn.One of them may be Fruma Mohrer, who was an archivist at YIVO for more than four decades. In 2020, in what YIVO referred to as a budget issue, she was laid off. But one librarian who worked there for a decade-plus and was a part of those who were fired said it was much more than a budget issue. “There was a schism on policy,” is all he would say, worrying about his current job at another archive in the city.
For younger Jewish history enthusiasts, it was long in coming and a relief. “Every time you wanted a document,” said Yehudah DovBer Zirkind, an expert on Yiddish writer Chaim Grade, “[Mohrer] insisted that there be a vetting process.”
Rick Prelinger, professor of film and digital media at University of California Santa Cruz, called it in a 2007 paper copyright maximalism. “Many institutions sequester their holdings behind walls of copyright,” he wrote, “policy, or indifference, rendering them inaccessible to many.”
It is the reluctance to embrace technology, wrote Prelinger, that the resistance to providing public access to archives is marginalizing them when they could otherwise be addressing new audiences and building new constituencies.
‘There is always something new’
Halpern says that YIVO is one of the best-kept secrets. “I wish it weren’t,” acknowledging that it was partially the archives fault by being slow to embrace openness. “We’ve been trying to be more accessible to an everyday person.”
She says that this includes moving away from being gatekeepers, the ones who protect these materials at all costs. Rather, the mission today is to provide access in whatever way possible. “There is no point in having historical materials if no one has access to it.”
Executive director and CEO of the archives Jonathan Brent takes Jewish history seriously. Seated in a simple office flanked by bookcases and a 1933 Yiddish poster of a show of a strongman proclaiming himself as the “Polish Golden Star,” Brent, who took the position in 2009, talks enthusiastically about the archives and its mission.
Zirkind, who has also written a guide on Yiddish archives, visited YIVO just for that. He was researching writers Chaim Grade and Hillel Ceitlin. In some ways, they symbolize the religious world, going through some kind of crisis of faith, “while still being connected to where they came from.”
He would come to the archives daily for weeks at a time. It was nitty-gritty work, looking through old finding aids — tools that help researchers — many of them not digitized, and searching for names. “If you were lucky, the name would appear, and then you will find a box and folder number,” he recalls.
You needed to have more luck that the archivist would be willing that day to let you photograph or make copies. Just like that 1920s map, with the testimony on the back, which was recently made available online, Zirkind says with the material being digitized, the goldmine of YIVO has now become much more accessible.
The current veteran archivist at YIVO, Leo Greenbaum, was an anomaly among the archivists. He chose to adapt to the new generation and remained in his position when the cuts at YIVO were taking place. He says that every morning he heads to work not knowing what that day will bring. “There is always something to do, something new.”
He explains that the basic function of any archive is to collect and preserve, but “just sitting on materials is not very productive.” It needs to be accessible to the public, and YIVO has in recent years embraced that.
“It used to be that we were only used by scholars,” says Halpern. “It is hard to walk into an archive.” YIVO has strived to make the archive a more welcoming place. It is the attitude, the changing of policies and the digitizing of the archives.
To Greenbaum, the digitizing is another plus. “Many [documents] are very fragile; the more you handle them, the more they deteriorate,” he says. Digitization gives you back-up copies in case of a fire or another calamity. But it also makes the material more accessible
‘It has been a slow process’
Since becoming the director of the archives, Halpern has made giving the public more access her mission. “It has been a slow process,” she says, but she has an advantage on her side. “We have a whole slew of new archivists, a generation of individuals to whom this material is not so personal.” They have all embraced the open policy.
Of course, there are risks involved; people could choose not to give credit to the archives for the manuscripts they use. Some also thought that without proper attribution by users, it could cause funders not to realize the extent of the need of the archive.
However, says Greenbaum, having material online has caused more publicity of what YIVO has. It has brought discussions on social media, and more authors are using their material. “I don’t think it made things worse,” he believes.
Letting people in, information out
Back in the small YIVO conference room, Brent an academic, author, historian and publisher, is adamant that Jewish history is not just about religion, but about culture. The food Jews ate, how they dressed, the songs they sang, the relations between men and women or the way they raised their children — all of this needs to be learned and studied.
For many today, he says, that culture might be construed as the Holocaust, lox and bagels and “Fiddler on the Roof.” He says that has been a part of why an entire generation of Jews have lost interest in Jewish life.
For those who do take interest in their family history, it many times focuses on the genealogy. “It completely ignores where they came from,” he laments. “They get it in a bottle. They don’t have to do any work. It is a good-feel thing.”
He says that YIVO is devoted to how Jews got from the religious communities in Spain and the Middle East to communities that participated in the secular world, but retained their Jewish identity. “The materiality of Jewish life,” he says, “and its social development.”
To facilitate this, the archive has recently reached two significant milestones. Besides making available online the papers of writer Chaim Grade and his infamous wife, Inna Hecker, YIVO has reached beyond the archive it physically controls. In cooperation with the Lithuanian government, it digitized 2.5 million documents and 12,200 books — representing 500 years of Jewish history in Eastern Europe — under the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project.
The YIVO archive, he continues, can offer more substance on what Jewish life was in the communities their ancestors came from. Once this was much more difficult to access. With the archives’ change of direction, says Brent, people could come to YIVO to discover more about their roots: “We are letting people in, and we are letting information out.”
It is for that reason, he notes, that over the past few years, “we have grown and flourished.” ■
Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance writer.