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Encyclopedic Knowledge

A new look at the story behind one of the quirkiest Yiddish reference books

Rokhl Kafrissen
April 29, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

One of the most satisfying jobs I’ve ever had was in Washington, D.C., during the summer between (I think) my sophomore and junior year of college: photocopying public-domain material for incorporation into then-state-of-the-art digitized reference databases.

It was as simple as that. The nice people at the head office periodically gave me a list of titles and I made daily schleps to the Library of Congress to find them. The job didn’t have any noble purpose. I was mining our publicly shared patrimony and shipping off its raw materials to be processed into CD-ROM products, sold at a profit. Little did I know that this was merely the barest of tremors in the coming digital information earthquake: There are now 10 million public domain books available via Google Books, while the Internet Archive boasts 20 million free books as well as a wealth of other materials. And let’s not even talk about the universe of nonpublic domain books also available to anyone who’s looking. Information wants to be free, even if authors don’t.

While I was at the Library of Congress, between tedious sessions at the photocopy machine, I read according to my own pleasure. It was one of the last, beautiful, pre-internet moments of my life, when my ability to sit and focus was at its peak. I devoured books like a newly minted maskil (proponent of the Jewish Enlightenment) turned loose on a secular library for the very first time. Years later, I struggle to remember a single book I read that summer. But I remember that ecstatic feeling of being young, word-drunk, and thirsty for more.

That job popped into my mind recently, when I was taking a four-week seminar on the Yiddish poetry of Avrom Sutzkever, given by the Congress for Jewish Culture. (If you can read Yiddish and are curious about Sutzkever, I highly recommend the course.) Because I’m a nerd, I ended up doing an extra-credit assignment. Despite knowing almost nothing about poetry, I was able to bring a khap or khidesh, a novel insight, to the text, made possible only through the miracle of instantaneous keyword searches of millions of pages of world poetry. In fact, I ended up using a public domain volume of German poetry in translation, found on, a book very much like the ones I was copying during that summer long ago.

The miracle of digitization is even more stark in regard to Yiddish. The digitization of thousands of volumes of Yiddish literature has reinvigorated the once dusty field of Yiddish literary studies, and the introduction of searchable text within those books signaled a new, exciting era of scholarship within the field, one whose fruits we’re just starting to enjoy.

But that’s only one side of the information revolution coin, reaching back to the invention of the printing press and the democratization of books themselves. On the other side lies sheer human terror in the face of so many books. When Denis Diderot published his famous Encyclopedie in the mid-18th century, his was not the first attempt to collect and organize knowledge. It was, however, the first claim to a systematic ordering of all human knowledge, explicitly aimed at mass readership. The Encyclopedie “boldly told the average man that he could know what only kings, emperors, and their lieutenants were supposed to know,” writes cultural historian John H. Lienhard. “It suggested that anyone should have access to rational truth. In that sense it was a profoundly revolutionary document.”

While the digital collections of the Yiddish Book Center represent a quantum leap forward in Yiddish literary studies, such work still requires fairly advanced literacy. Not only do you need to be able to read Yiddish, but you still need familiarity with the world that produced it—geographies, key concepts, major figures, and so on—in order to actually interpret what you find. That’s a tremendous body of knowledge to master, and certainly no one can know it all.

In 2008, a magic bullet appeared on the scene: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. It was originally issued in a handsome, two-volume, hardcover set. More importantly, though, the Encyclopedia went online a few years later. When I get research questions from my non-Yiddishist friends, 75% of the time the question can be answered with a 10-second search of the YIVO Encyclopedia. In a 2009 review, Jeffrey Veidlinger, the eminent historian of Eastern European Jewry, rightly called the Encyclopedia a “monumental achievement,” with the potential to transform a discipline.

The achievement of the YIVO Encyclopedia stands out all the more when considered alongside the subfield of Yiddish language reference books. There is a small but beloved corpus of works that most Yiddishists have reason to consult at one time or another. Where the YIVO Encyclopedia is polished and professional, a beautifully executed treasure of modern American Jewry, the world of Yiddish language reference books is, shall we say, quirky. The quirkiness of these volumes reflects their origins: bruised by difficult times, shaped by the stubborn single-mindedness of their creators, but survivors nonetheless. (Yes, I can relate.) Though they remain essential to researchers, most of these important works have still not been translated into English or received updated editions.

Within the world of Yiddish reference, the subgenre of Leksikon plays a key role, offering short biographies of relevant figures, usually with references for further reading. This one, for example, focuses on literature, press, and philology. Created by Yiddish scholar and activist Zalmen Reyzen, its four volumes appeared between 1926 and 1929. The Leksikon of Yiddish theater was compiled by Zalman Zylbercweig. Six volumes were published between 1931 and 1969, with a seventh being prepared but never brought into print. As librarian Faith Jones explains in her essential index to the Leksikon of Yiddish theater, the entries were written by volunteers, resulting in an uneven tone. The paper used for one of the volumes was of such poor quality that it now poses unique conservation problems. And, having been written over three decades, with its commitment to alphabetization abandoned midway, the Leksikon of Yiddish theater is, in short, an indexing nightmare.

Incomplete and unfinished projects are not uncommon among Yiddish reference works. Perhaps the most infamous is Judah Joffe and Yudel Mark’s Groyser verterbukh fun der yidisher shprakh (Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language), originally conceived in the early 1950s. Joffe passed away in 1966, leaving Mark to guide the project until his own death in 1975.

What marked the Groyser verterbukh for infamy was its staggering ambition. Beginning as a planned five-volume, Oxford-style dictionary, it expanded to a planned 10 volumes, and finally 13 by the 1970s. In the end, a grand total of four volumes were published between 1961 and 1980, covering just the letter alef, the very first letter of the Yiddish alphabet. Ironically, what had been an audacious, financially untenable dream was simply a few decades ahead of its time. With today’s computer technology, Mark could have easily seen his grandest ambitions fulfilled. Indeed, now anyone can click over to Refoyl Finkel’s Yiddish resources page and use it to search the Groyser verterbukh.

As you can imagine, the full story of the Groyser verterbukh is fascinating, and at times, heartbreaking. My colleague in Yiddishland, Leyzer Burko, wrote its definitive history as part of his doctoral dissertation. Related details used here come from his manuscript, which he generously shared with me.

Unlike many other Yiddish reference works, the Groyser verterbukh was born of a radically altered, postwar Yiddish cultural milieu. Grief, and a kind of linguistic magical thinking, informed the work. Mark wanted the Groyser verterbukh to function, in his own words, as “a true immortalization of the spiritual life of Ashkenazic Jewry” and an “encyclopedia of Jewish life.” There was a mystical side to his approach, too. According to Burko, “he likened Yiddish words poetically to Jewish souls and to sparks of holiness.”

In a world of quirky and beloved oddballs, there is one Yiddish reference work that has proven too odd to get its due—until now. The Holocaust & the Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye is historian Barry Trachtenberg’s new history of the oddest oddball, the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye (General Encyclopedia), a 16-volume set spanning 1930 to 1966, with Yiddish volumes and English volumes, volumes for Jewish topics and volumes for general knowledge.

The Algemeyne Entsiklopedye was launched in Berlin, inspired by and dedicated to the great historian Simon Dubnow. The men (and it was almost exclusively men) who drove the Entsiklopedye forward were the elite of a certain kind of left-leaning, diaspora nationalist, literary-cultural world, one that exists only in faint traces today. Trachtenberg’s book also serves as a lovely introduction and homage to these activists and the work that drove them.

Their hope was to add a sophisticated Yiddish language encyclopedia to the already blossoming global genre of Jewish encyclopedias in world languages. The Entsiklopedye’s central tension lay between those who felt the goal should be to offer world knowledge for Yiddish readers, and those who urged the Entsiklopedye to educate Jews about their own history. It was a tension that would linger across the Entsiklopedye’s many twists and turns.

I was eager to get my hands on Trachtenberg’s book, as I’ve had one lone volume of the EntsiklopedyeYidn Alef, the first volume of the part of the Entsiklopedye dedicated to Jewish-specific knowledge—on my bookshelf for ages. It’s not quite user-friendly, with small text packed tightly on the page. It’s got a table of contents, but no index. If I were looking for information about, say, Jewish anthropology, there are a few hundred places I’d look before it would occur to me to consult an outdated article in Yidn Alef. On the other hand, when a photographer friend came to my place a few years ago to shoot my new “professional” head shots, my oversize volume of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye turned out to be the perfect prop. I’m not proud of it, but the pictures were amazing.

If a Yiddish angel had somehow dropped a copy of Yidn Alef on my desk that summer at the Library of Congress, along with a copy of Trachtenberg’s book from the future, there’s no question that I would have spent the rest of my free time reading it cover to cover. Among the many intriguing characters who crossed paths with the Entsiklopedye is Sholem Schwartzbard, the revolutionary assassin of Ukrainian pogromist Symon Petliura in 1926. After being acquitted, Schwartzbard became a traveling salesman for the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye in the 1930s.

If you don’t have the zitsfleysh (patience and focus) of a 20-year-old brain unpoisoned by the internet, browsing the Entsiklopedye offers its own pleasures. Flip to Archaeology, where you’ll find what looks like a child’s drawing, labeled “captured Jewish musicians in Babylon.” Anthropology has a full-page illustration called Yidishe tipn (Jewish types) with eight photos of Jewish faces. The key at the bottom helpfully identifies the faces as litvisher, rusisher, ukrayinisher, and so on. Is it a game? Is it a “wanted” poster? Is it something we should absolutely be hiding from antisemites? (You don’t have to read Yiddish to know the answer to that.)

After Hitler’s rise in 1933, a number of the Entsiklopedye’s activists relocated from Germany to France, where they managed to publish six volumes. The final chapter of the Entsiklopedye’s story unfolded in New York, where its now multi-exiled editors found refuge in 1940. The fifth and final “world knowledge” volume was published in New York in 1944, making it most of the way through the letter beys. The rest of the Yiddish volumes would focus on Jewish topics, with the final two dedicated to essays on the khurbn (Holocaust).

As Trachtenberg writes, “with its sudden stops and starts, redirections, and multiple displacements, [the Entsiklopedye] reflects not only the challenges of sustaining such a complex and monumentally expensive publishing venture …but also the deep commitment of its editors to employ the Entsiklopedye as a mechanism for meeting the ever-shifting needs of Yiddish-speaking Jewry during … some of the most traumatic and transformative decades” of the last 2,000 years.

Between 1946 and 1956, four English-language volumes also appeared, called The Jewish People: Past and Present. Their aim, as Trachtenberg writes, was to link “the European Jewish past to the American Jewish future.” In their introduction to the first JPPP volume, the Entsiklopedye editors explained that after the devastation of the war, the Jews in America now bore the heaviest responsibility “to save and preserve the cultural treasures of our people and to keep up our spiritual creative work.” The JPPP, writes Trachtenberg, represented “one of the most sustained efforts” by surviving European Yiddish cultural activists to transmit the “complicated, multifarious, and culturally rich Jewish world” from which they had come. Their intent was to shape the future of American Jews by handing off their legacy to the new center of world Jewry. Though copies of the JPPP sold fairly well, it’s clear that American Jews had little interest in such an inheritance.

I had always assumed since nobody ever talked about it, none of my Yiddishland colleagues were using the Entsiklopedye for its intended purpose. Turned out, all I had to do was ask. Over a recent early morning coffee with my friend William Pimlott, a postdoctoral fellow in modern Jewish history, I mentioned that I was reading The Holocaust & the Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye. Was he familiar with the Entsiklopedye? Turns out, rather than using it as a prop, he’d often found himself consulting the Yidn Giml volume for its excellent essay on the global Yiddish press.

The story of the Entsiklopedye is understandably melancholy, though not morose. The fact that the editors continued to bring out new volumes is a monument to their resilience and tenacity in the face of destruction. But I’m drawn again to the question of its afterlife. Can it find new readers?

Ultimately, I think perhaps the question of readership is the wrong one. A few years ago, Alex Weiser, a composer, and Ben Kaplan, librettist, set out to write an opera dramatizing the creation of the Groyser verterbukh. In it, Yudel Mark receives an Ezekiel-like prophetic vision, but instead of dry bones, he sees Hebrew letters. He is haunted by the personification of the three Yiddish alefs, letters that provide three different vowel sounds: pasekh alef, komets alef, and the ever-controversial shtumer alef.

Their opera is finally approaching its completion. When I talked to them recently, I was captivated by the images Weiser and Kaplan described to me. These utopian projects, the Groyser verterbukh, the Entsiklopedye, and others, though they may be unfinished, their work in the world has clearly never ended, only changed its form.

Encyclopedia supplement: Precisely one volume of the Entsiklopedye is available in digital form. It’s the first probeheft (sample or test volume) published in Berlin, 1932. You can peruse it here … If you’re like me and you can’t get enough of oddball Yiddish reference works, join me on May 10 when I’ll be in virtual conversation with author Barry Trachtenberg in a Congress for Jewish Culture book talk. May 10 at 7 p.m. (New York time). More information and register here.

ALSO: I am consistently amazed by the mind of my friend, artist Yevgeniy Fiks. His latest creation is Yiddishland Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The pavilion opened in April and “is a hybrid online-offline project aimed at tracing and developing Yiddish and Jewish discourse in contemporary artistic practice. Yiddishland Pavilion analyzes erosion of global political constellations, practices collective remembrance, condemns war and occupation, and documents consequences of migration and politics of exclusion that target ‘Otherness.’” Fiks has a series of talks and collaborations planned between April and November of this year, and if you check on the pavilion website on May 12, you can even catch me giving a talk about my own Yiddishland … This May will see the release of Jewlia Eisenberg’s final Charming Hostess album, The Ginzburg Geography, finished by her musical collaborators after her tragic death in March 2021. To mark the release of the record, there will be a number of events and listening parties. One listening party will be at Brooklyn’s Barbes, on May 22 at 4 p.m. Others are in the works. Please follow Charming Hostess on Facebook or check the Charming Hostess website for more information on upcoming listening parties and other events … I’m pleased to see that my 2019 YIVO summer school classmate Abigail Weaver is directing a new play about modern Jewish life (and the perils of shabes lunch) called These and Those. It’ll be at the New York Theater Festival, opening May 23. More information here … Are we in the midst of a Yiddish renaissance? YIVO Director of Public Programs Alex Weiser will be leading a conversation on this very question, along with a panel of Yiddish scholars and cultural activists, including yours truly. June 1, register here for a virtual seat.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.