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The Joy of Yiddish Books

Molly Crabapple

Hy Wolfe, the director of CYCO Books, Queens, New York, February 2022

Molly Crabapple

Hy Wolfe, the director of CYCO Books, Queens, New York, February 2022

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.

*

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. I rode the subway to a still-industrial edge of Long Island City, crossed the rickety footbridge over the railway tracks, and opened the creaking door on the seventh story of a nondescript warehouse to find Hy Wolfe seated behind his desk, regaling a visitor with old theater gossip in his booming Brooklyn voice. 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.

I knew at once I had come to the right place. The Bund’s red flag hung over the door (nearly two decades ago, after the Bund’s dissolution, Wolfe had dug the flag out of a dumpster). While I quickly found the volume I was looking for, I goggled at the sheer quantity of books around me. CYCO’s rows of gray metal bookcases were jammed from floor to soaring ceiling, with memoirs of ghetto fighters, histories of murdered political movements, avant-garde poetry, translations of Shakespeare, glamorous theatrical folios, and brightly bound literary compendiums—almost all of them decades out of print. The books were stacked two or three deep, with more in cardboard boxes on the floor, all jostling for space with Yiddish typewriters, old phono records, busts of writers, mottled coffee cups, and dusty cleaning supplies. Classical music played from some hidden radio. Hy offered me tea. I left with as many books as I could carry.


A book shelf at CYCO with a bust of I.L. Peretz

Molly Crabapple

A bookshelf at CYCO with a bust of I.L. Peretz, Queens, New York, February 2022


When CYCO was founded, there were an estimated 11 million Yiddish speakers in the world. Within a few years, five million of these speakers would be murdered by the Nazis. After the war, survivors of the secular leftist literary Yiddish world banded together in New York City to preserve the remnants of their institutions. They were helped by Frank Z. Atran, a millionaire philanthropist who had been a Bundist in his youth, who purchased a building on East Seventy-Eighth Street in Manhattan and turned it over to this constellation of organizations, including CYCO, whose denizens dreamed, disputed, and talked shop in the building’s basement cafeteria. (The building is now owned by Michael Bloomberg.) Atran gave the first grant to CYCO in 1956.

The intervening years were not kind to Yiddish. The language was harshly suppressed in the Soviet Union and, in nonviolent but otherwise effective ways, in Israel, while in America it was largely abandoned. The old-time speakers died, and their children moved to the suburbs, where they become doctors and lawyers, sent their kids to Hebrew school, and shunned their parents’ language as an embarrassing relic from a defeated world. CYCO was one of a dwindling number of institutions that plugged on, with the faith that someday a new generation would realize that this was their language, an inheritance worth saving. These Yiddish activists were aging but stubborn. Though, in many cases, Nazis had killed their mothers, they would not let their mother tongue be killed.

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Hy Wolfe was one such. He was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, soon after World War II, to parents who were both survivors. His father had fought as a partisan, and Hy was named after a half-brother murdered in Auschwitz. In Hy’s youth, Brownsville was a Jewish enclave, where, by his description, all the adults had a number on their arm and everyone spoke Yiddish.

Hy fell in love with the theater at an early age. During his long career, he has performed on stage and on TV, in the US and in Europe, in both Yiddish and English, as an actor, a director, and a singer. It was his theatrical work that first brought him to CYCO in 1998, on the hunt for new material.

By then, CYCO had become not only a publisher but a retailer as well. Wolfe remembered two book-crammed rooms at the Atran building, now on Twenty-First Street, where Yiddish quips flew between nonagenarians who had known one another for their entire lives. The Jewish Labor Bund was down the hall, as was the Congress for Jewish Culture. It was a tiny world, but a world nonetheless: warm, bookish, sarcastic, it felt like home. CYCO’s manager, David Kirszencweig, invited Hy Wolfe for lunch. Mir veln redn yiddish, we’ll speak Yiddish, he promised. From there, Hy was hooked.

The next year, in 1999, Kirszencweig got sick. His elderly colleagues gave Hy the keys and asked him to watch CYCO till Kirszencweig got better. Twenty-three years later, Hy Wolfe is still there.

*

The Yiddish revitalization movement began, arguably, in the late 1970s—some date it to a particular concert held in honor of klezmer musician Dave Tarras—but it has bloomed over the last decade. The crucial institutions, of course, have been chugging along for the best part of a century, but at last, a critical mass of younger people are taking an interest. Some sought a secular Jewish identity not tied to Israel. Others just wanted to connect with their grandparents’ mother tongue. Growing numbers of people signed up for language classes at the Workmen’s Circle (founded in 1900 by working-class revolutionaries who’d fled to New York from Tsarist Russia) and at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (founded in 1925 by leftist intellectuals in Vilnius). And the latter’s current center in downtown Manhattan, was where I read my first lines of Yiddish poetry.

The language slew me from the start. Its Germanic syntax sounded back-to-front to an English reader, and its vagabond vocabulary, garbed in Hebrew letters, laid constant traps for my tongue. Some of the vocabulary enchanted me: I could hear the warm echoes of Arabic in khoylm (dream), and guess the ideology behind Apikoiris (heretic), derived from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, but I would have surrendered in defeat at its difficulty and density if it wasn’t for the poetry and songs. They were redolent of an old world, barely sensed, of black earth, gallows humor, murderous gangsters, and defiant, ferocious aspiration. The first song I memorized was Shtil di nakht, the ballad of a partisan girl, written in the Vilna Ghetto by the poet Hirsch Glick:

A moyd, a peltsl un a beret,
Un halt in hant fest a nagan,
A moyd mit a sametenem ponim
Hit op dem soynes caravan

A girl, in a little fur coat and beret
Holds tight a Nagan pistol in her hand
A girl with a face of velvet
Watches for the enemy’s caravan

For me, Yiddish will never be easy, but I can read it, with effort. It has ceased to be a wall, barring me from history; instead, it became a door. In New York, over the past decade, these language classes have been augmented by an efflorescence of festivals, concerts, and theatrical performances. A handful of publishers released an impressive number of new translations. In 2020, a Swedish organization put out Harry Potter un der filosofisher shteyn. But even as a few larger institutions flourished, some smaller and more eccentric organizations were fading away.

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.

“We never made money,” Wolfe said. “We sold $3,000 a year, $5,000.” I once overheard Hy tell a customer: “When die, say I’m an honest man, but a bad businessman.”

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In his late sixties, Wolfe still made his living as an actor and kept CYCO going mostly without pay. The shop opened by appointment only. Lacking investment and often exhausted, Wolfe never took steps to bring the shop into the Internet age. There is no online storefront. Vast chunks of the collection remain uncatalogued. CYCO has little of the professional polish of other Jewish nonprofits (nor does it have metal detectors at the door). Instead, it has an old and tactile magic: books you can touch, tea in old mugs, and long sit-downs with a Brooklyn thespian who mixes his Yiddish proverbs with Shakespeare and scrawls receipts on carbon paper printed with the address of a long-departed building.

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).

After I finished my tea with Hy, I bought a copy of Yiddishe Gas (Jewish Street), by Sutskever. On the ferry ride back to Manhattan, I held the copy close. I thought of the poet’s question, and his answer:

Who will remain, what will remain? A syllable will remain behind,
primeval, to cultivate its creation again in time.


An earlier version of this article misidentified the publisher of the Yiddish edition of a Harry Potter book; it was a Swedish organization, not the Yiddish Book Center. The article has been updated.

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