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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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A. Soyfer: Los Angeles and the Yiddish Book, Pt. 1

"Los Angeles and the Yiddish Book" by A. Soyfer 
As appears in Khesbn (The Reckoning), vol. 1 (1946): 37- 43.
Translated by Mark L. Smith.

We present here a list of the books published in Los Angeles during the period 1916 to 1945. The reader will notice at once that from 1916 to 1925 only three books were published, the remaining forty-eight books being published in the twenty years from 1925 to 1945.
A number is very often an embellishment1  — a language in disguise. Deciphering this number, one can read: Until 1916 — with regard to Yiddish — Los Angeles was a dorf [village]. From 1916 to 1925, Los Angeles was a Jewish shtetl [town], and from 1925 it began growing, becoming a Jewish shtot [city]. At present, one finds about 175,000 Jews here.
But for even so large a Jewish city, forty-eight books (and booklets) in twenty years is a very large number, and when the list was compiled, four or five books that were ready to publish were not included.
What explains such a crop of books? Does it have to do with . . . the climate?
Here there are Jewish farmers, but Yiddish books do not grow on trees. “Sunny” California has not attracted more writers than “windy” Chicago; nevertheless, even Chicago, with its larger Jewish population and also larger number of writers, has not published proportionally so many books as Los Angeles. Where does such abundance come from?
Chance — one will say. By accident Yiddish writers settled here, and where there are writers — there are books. More books are published here? The writers are probably richer. There are some publishers here that publish the books? If the writer has a few dollars, he publishes a book of his own.
This saying ought to explain the large crop, and is in one way an insinuation — there is nothing to be surprised about. It is of little consequence that writers publish their books. It is another question whether a publisher will publish them . . .
Our task here is not to judge whether the books that were published here are good or bad. We intended to report on the books and, granted that not all are the very best, we still believe that approximately fifty books in twenty years is a cultural achievement of which very few provincial cities in the country can boast. We will nevertheless take note of the wealth of the local writers, the subject of publishers, and other matters related to publishing Yiddish books.
Acknowledging that in Los Angeles every other person is “a star or a fool,” we must say that the writers do not belong to the first category. Perhaps they can shine with their books, but assuredly not with their bank books; simply put — they are paupers. But even if they had the money, they are not such fools as to pay several hundred dollars for one pair of covers . . . what is a book if not a pair of covers? A writer does want to see his writings printed, but he wants even more for his writings to be read. Shouldn’t one seek the cause of this crop of books in the number of readers and booksellers here in the city?
Let’s see.
Indeed, there is no publisher [of Yiddish books] here. But where is there one? Today [after the Holocaust], in Paris there is already a publisher, but in New York there is no private Yiddish publisher, and if “Rabbi has not taught it, from where could R. Hiyya know it?If New York has no publisher, should Los Angeles have one? In any event, Yiddish books were published by other means, namely, by the authors themselves, by friends, and organizations.
With regard to the wealth of the local writers, we have already spoken. We want to add that, according to the list, very few writers published their own books; the majority appeared with the help of friends and organizations.
With regard to the wealth of the local writers, we have already spoken. We want to add that, according to the list, very few writers published their own books; the majority appeared with the help of friends and organizations.
“God save me from my friends,” Yiddish literature would have to say — “they give me more troubles than my worst enemies.” Some of the critics have expressed themselves in this manner about the “friends” who publish books.
We would admit that the “friends” don’t always do a favor for Yiddish literature when they publish a book by a writer friend of theirs. But the critics must also admit that the same “friends” have also published good books, and if we would make a detailed analysis it might become apparent that “the profit is greater than the loss,”3 that more good books than bad books have been published. Incidentally, how does it happen that here in Los Angeles there are so many “friends”? Where are the friends of the writers in other cities?
A great many books have been published by organizations. In New York, there are the CYCO and YKUF publishing houses; in the list [below] one can see books published by the Culture Club, Culture Society, YKUF, reading circles, Yidisher natsyonaler arbeter farband [Jewish National Workers Alliance], and International Workers Order. The imprint of an organization is perhaps not the most kosher witness regarding the quality of a book, but it tells very much about the willingness to help publish and distribute Yiddish books. This is the proper concern of an organization, a committee, or friends, in publishing a book — distributing enough books to cover the expenses. The matter of distributing the book is very important. It is perhaps the key to the abundance of books here in the city...

1 Translator’s note: This phrase is a Yiddish play on words, A tsifer iz gants oft a sifer.
2 Translator’s note: quoting in Hebrew from the Talmud, Eruvin 92a.
3 Translator’s note: quoting in Hebrew the expression, “Yatza hef’sedo biskharo.”
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