After years of frustration with Jonathan Brent, the CEO and executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Marty Peretz, a board member and the former longtime owner of The New Republic, walked out of YIVO’s budget meeting on Monday March 7 and resigned.
“I think Jonathan Brent is … irresponsible, dictatorial,” said Peretz in a phone interview later that day. “I had been tempted to quit several times in the last years.”
YIVO is an organization that houses 23 million Jewish and Yiddish archival materials relating to language and religion among other cultural aspects. Peretz was on the board briefly in the 70s, resigned, and returned about seven years ago. He said his relationship with Brent, who came to YIVO in 2009, was an unhappy one.
“Marty, as I think everyone knows, is volatile. He is demanding,” Brent said in a phone interview.
Board members were aware that Peretz disagreed with some of YIVO’s endeavors.
“Marty was uncomfortable with the general direction of YIVO and with Jonathan Brent,” said Bruce Slovin.
When asked about Peretz, another board member said some members wished the institute would focus on areas other than digitizing the Vilna Collection, its major archive of tens of thousands of works. The project was a major focus for YIVO in 2015.
The board budgeted $691,000 for the project and a web redesign, and it exceeded expectations by collecting $1.2 million from donors.
Peretz said his other frustrations with Brent included Brent’s not knowing Hebrew, failing to make money at several past benefits, and portraying himself as heroic in marketing films for the institute. He also claimed last year the institute saw a deficit of $500,000, which both Brent and other board members denied. One explained that Peretz’s misunderstanding might have stemmed from the fact that a portion of YIVO’s gifts go straight into the $10 million endowment and the rest is set aside for activities. Because of this, the budget numbers appear as smaller amounts to internal staff.
Peretz expressed other concerns as well. At Last November’s 90th Anniversary Gala — which The Forward covered — Roz Chast, a cartoonist at The New Yorker, was honored and claimed to have had to Google “YIVO,” though she later joked about how her parents used Yiddish to secretly talk about her. Peretz didn’t understand why Brent had chosen to honor someone with no knowledge of YIVO.
The final straw Peretz said however, was Brent’s refusal to host an exhibit to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Yitzak Leibush Peretz’s death last year, more commonly known as I.L. Peretz, the Yiddish writer and Peretz’s ancestor.
“I think that was in retaliation for my causing troubles for him,” said Peretz.
He acknowledged Brent does have “fans” on the board, but believes other people will soon quit. Slovin said he plans to stay and several board members reassured the institute is robust and strong.
“We are in very good financial health,” said Brent, but he paused for several seconds and laughed when asked if YIVO lost major donors. “Well, uh, we’ve gained some and we’ve lost some,” he said.
Britta Lokting is the Forward’s culture fellow.