Learning about and through the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

By Simon Rabinovitch.

The most important research center for studying the history, culture, literature, politics, religion, and society of Eastern European Jewry is today located in New York City. The idea to found a Jewish historical and ethnographic archive and a Jewish research institute (and eventually a museum) devoted to the study of Eastern European Jewish life and history began among Jewish intellectuals in the late Russian Empire (I discuss the political dimension of this project in my book Jewish Rights, National Rites). Jewish refugees in Berlin following the 1917 Russian revolutions and subsequent civil war, with its wide-scale anti-Jewish violence, felt the need to establish a repository for the materials they had brought with them from Russia and Ukraine and an institute to study the living culture of the Jews in newly independent Poland and the Baltic states to be ever more pressing. The Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut–the Yiddish Scientific Institute–known popularly by the acronym YIVO, was established in Vilna (today Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, then Wilno in independent Poland), in 1925 (the photo above is of YIVO’s original building). The scholars, based in Berlin, Warsaw, Vilna, and other urban centers, founded a communal institution that was devoted to the study of Jewish life and culture from a modern academic perspective and treated Yiddish, the vernacular language of East European Jewry, as an object of serious scholarship. The history of YIVO’s founding is told by Cecile Kuznitz in her book YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture and the incredible story of how much of YIVO’s collections were saved during World War II is told in David Fishman’s book The Book Smugglers. Below, Eddy Portnoy, today’s YIVO’s Academic Advisor and Exhibitions Curator, tells the engrossing story of how the YIVO Institute ended up in New York.

Eddy Portnoy gives a short history of the YIVO Institute.

Today the YIVO Institute cares for a vast archive of documents, photos, recordings, and artifacts, as well as the YIVO Library. YIVO also hosts public programming, classes, and exhibits (such as the popular Yiddish Fight Club exhibit, stemming from Eddy’s research for his book Bad Rabbi, which I covered here). Some of YIVO’s valuable resources are available for the public to explore online, such as the Edward Blank YIVO Online Collections and the Ruth Rubin Legacy Archive of Yiddish Folksongs. For a comprehensive resource incorporating the full range of digitized documents, sounds, and images from YIVO’s collections browse the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (which I regularly use in my teaching).

Finally, see the short video below about the avante garde design of the YIVO icon:

Simon Rabinovitch is Associate Professor of History. You can follow him on Twitter @sjrabinov.

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