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.
The current sense of animosity began in March, when screenwriter Rob Thomas raised more than $2 million in less than 24 hours to make a movie based on his CW television network show “Veronica Mars,” which had been canceled in 2007. At the end of one month, the venture had received more than $5.7 million. Then in May, actor and director Zach Braff succeeded in getting more than $3.1 million for “Wish I Was Here,” a follow-up to his 2004 film, “Garden State.” Most recently James Franco, the actor, writer and artist everyone loves to hate, launched a campaign to make a film trilogy based on his own fiction, asking fans to kick in some $500,000.
Projects like these have prompted volumes of Internet debate about how platforms like Kickstarter are used. Should ordinary people be asked to fund for-profit projects that will be distributed by major companies? Should they bankroll celebrities who already have a lot more money than the rest of us? Is helping the rich and famous become more rich and more famous what crowdfunding is really all about?
I share these misgivings and have a few others, besides. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy I was solicited by crowdfunding campaigns for small businesses that had been destroyed or damaged by the storm. In most cases, I sympathized with those who had suffered losses. I wished for their success, but I was not willing to donate to a for-profit business as if it were a charitable cause. Perhaps if there had been an option for an interest-free loan, I might have been willing. But simply asking for free money to build, or rebuild, a business doesn’t strike me as an appropriate use of crowdfunding.
Fortunately, Kickstarter appeals aren’t always like that. In most cases, they’re for projects that are unlikely to ever make any money, for anybody. Independent films have been a major recipient of crowdfunding largesse: According to a 2012 article in The New York Times, 10% of the films at that year’s Sundance Film Festival had been funded by Kickstarter. There are plenty of accomplished artists who are not considered commercially viable but have been able to continue working thanks to Kickstarter. Legendary animator Ralph Bakshi, for example, has been able to start making a new film thanks to fans’ donations.
Yiddish, as it turns out, is another example of crowdfunding potential. Like many minority languages, it has lost much of its social and economic basis, but not its inherent value. All languages express unique aspects of human experience, and losing any of them, no matter what the reason, is a loss for humanity. The same thing could be said for all kinds of cultural expression. Symphony orchestras, for example, struggle regularly for survival, but that doesn’t mean there is no value in orchestral music.
This dilemma — how to maintain human creations that have lost their natural sources of sustenance — has always been with us. Shifting social and technological forces cause some things to grow and others to wither. But with the destruction wrought by the Internet, the issue is particularly acute. Journalism, as we all know, has been hit particularly hard. Daily newspapers in cities across the country have difficulty staying solvent, even though there is as much need for them now as ever.
But, to borrow a phrase, what the Internet taketh the Internet giveth away. I don’t believe that crowdfunding is the answer to all these problems, and it has a negative potential, as well. If it is used in place of sound business models, or is invoked by donors to turn down otherwise worthy causes, it will have done more harm than good. It should be seen as a supplement to other types of funding, not as a replacement for them. But even if it isn’t the answer, it is an answer, and a heartening one.
The success of crowdfunding is one of the wonders of the Internet, and as a society we shouldn’t take it lightly. The power of ordinary people to make things happen in the world simply because they want them to happen is an amazing phenomenon. It allows us to support all kinds of art and culture and human creativity that otherwise would never exist. It makes the world a better place to live in — for Yiddishists as well as for everyone else.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @EzraG