CYCO, the world’s oldest Yiddish bookstore, founded 75 years ago, is located on the seventh floor of a former industrial building in the Queens neighborhood Long Island City, not far from MoMA PS1 and next-door to a sustainable architecture firm. The bookstore occupies a large, well-lit room with a wall of windows overlooking Manhattan, and it is filled with shelves upon shelves of Yiddish books.
I visited CYCO (which is pronounced “Tsiko” and stands for the “Central Yiddish Cultural Organization”) on a recent evening for the first event in its new space. Gerald Marcus, a white-bearded painter and printmaker, read from the memoirs of the early 20th-century poet Reuben Iceland, which Marcus had translated for Syracuse University Press. Afterward, the audience ate cookies, chatted in Yiddish and poked around the shelves, looking for treasures to take home.
CYCO’s situation is similar to that of many small cultural organizations. The store is not as robust as it might be, but it’s also not as dead as people think it is. (In 2010 it had to move out of its home on East 21st Street, and an article in The New York Times declared that “the writing is on the wall — or more precisely in the shelves —for wistful enterprises like [this].”) In another way, however, it’s very unusual. Thanks to the fundraising of director Hy Wolfe, and to donors like the Atran Foundation, CYCO lacks a feature common to nearly every other such project: a Kickstarter campaign.
In recent months, the Yiddish world has put forward several Internet-based fundraising efforts, using Kickstarter or similar platforms, like indiegogo. There was Michael Wex’s proposed translation of Joseph Opatoshu’s “In the Forests of Poland,” which brought in a nice $27,836 but ultimately fell short of its $75,000 goal, and the successful reVilna project, which raised more than $13,000 to digitally map the Vilna ghetto. After being rejected by mainstream Jewish funders, Yiddishkayt, a Los Angeles-based organization, took to indiegogo to raise money for its Helix program, which takes university students on educational trips to Eastern Europe. Right now, the New Yiddish Rep is trying to get $40,000 for a production of “Waiting for Godot.”
In this, Yiddish projects are no different from any others. It seems like everybody and everything is trying to raise money using crowdfunding websites, and on balance that’s a good thing. Thanks to crowdfunding, there are a lot more amazing creations in the world than there would be otherwise. But its widespread use — and abuse — is causing a backlash that threatens to upend the entire enterprise. Yiddish is emblematic not just of the real purpose and potential of crowdfunding, but also of what we stand to lose if it doesn’t work out.