Berkeley undergrad maps California Yiddish culture with help from Magnes Collection

Spreading a page of Yiddish type in front of her, 21-year-old  Erin Faigin’s eyes light up.

The flimsy, stapled book with hand-drawn lettering is a 1960s-era edition of Kheshbn, a literary journal published for six decades by the Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club. It’s one of the items Faigin is researching as an undergraduate through a program at the U.C. Berkeley-affiliated Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life — one of the world’s pre-eminent Jewish museum collections.

Erin Faigin

“I really like these journals,” she said.

Faigin, who gave a talk on her work on Dec. 2, has been at the Magnes for three years as part of Cal’s undergraduate research apprentice program. She has been focused on Yiddish works (books, pamphlets, journals and the like) published in California over the past century; the bulk date from the 1940s and ’50s, and most were published in Los Angeles, where Faigin is from.

Working so closely with the Magnes has allowed her the kind of access to primary sources that undergraduates don’t always have. According to Magnes curator Francesco Spagnolo, giving undergraduates access to concrete items in a research museum setting gives them a new perspective.

“The past, or culture in general, is a very unruly thing,” he said.

Faigin’s interest in Yiddish began with one of those serendipitous moments. Interested in the American West, she had enrolled in a Spanish-language course but it didn’t agree with her. “Spanish class was very stressful and awful,” she said with a laugh.

Looking for another language to take her into local history, she hit on Yiddish and never looked back, even becoming involved in summer immersion and travel programs, including one sponsored by Yiddishkayt, that took her to Poland and Lithuania to learn about the language in historical context. “It’s really been the best thing I’ve ever done,” she said.

“D.A.R. lern-bikhl far birgershaft,” published in 1938 by the Daughters of the American Revolution in San Francisco

The undergraduate research project brings six to 10 students into the Magnes each semester. They start by learning how to handle the objects in the collection and soon segue into research.

“We create research projects that are also targeted to the students’ skills,” Spagnolo said.

As a Yiddish learner and history major, it made sense for Faigin to begin by cataloguing the California Yiddish books and pamphlets at the Magnes. She then moved on to research the lesser-known literary and cultural publications of West Los Angeles, where the focus was less on politics and more on keeping Yiddish culture alive.

“I feel they did it pretty successfully, because Kheshbn was published [from 1946] until 2008,” she said.

One result of her work has been the creation of a digital map that overlays about half the collection onto a map of California, with clickable links to the digital versions of the documents. With so many of the books and journals published by individuals or committees, Faigin was able to find home addresses to pinpoint exactly where the people creating the works lived.

The map, made using the website Findery, also can be viewed as a composite with all Findery maps created by other users. Faigin likes that part of it.

“By putting these books on this map we see that these books exist in a wider context,” she said.

Having tools like Findery and Archive.org is part of how the Magnes Collection is encouraging the young scholars it works with, or as Spagnolo calls them, “digital natives.”

“We all learn from that,” he said.

Besides research, the Magnes has galleries open to the public and hosts regular programs and lectures. In her talk, Faigin spoke to a midday audience of about 25 and answered questions. The talk was part of the Magnes’ series of pop-up lectures, combining a presentation with objects from the collection — in this case a typewriter and a copy of a Yiddish children’s book published in Los Angeles in 1947.

It may have been Faigin’s first time presenting her work, but that’s part of the Magnes’ mission, too — giving budding scholars a chance to shine.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a journalist based in Oakland, CA, and Budapest, Hungary.