Keeper of culture: Christa Whitney turned her discovery of Yiddish literature into a career

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 12-16-2022 3:13 PM

As Christa Whitney sees it, chance has played a big part in her life. But so has her love of history and literature.
Whitney is the director of the Wexler Oral History Project at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, a program that has recorded interviews with over 1,000 people — native Yiddish speakers, Klezmer musicians, academics and writers, Holocaust survivors and their children — to document their stories and build a deeper connection to Jewish culture and history and the Yiddish language.

A California native and a 2009 graduate of Smith College, Whitney has traveled across the U.S. and overseas — to Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Australia, and many countries in Europe — to tape more than half of these interviews, many of them in Yiddish, along with some in English and Spanish. Over the years, she’s immersed herself in the language and literature and in Jewish history, finding in this work “a real passion.”

“I’ve really had the privilege to travel all over to connect with Yiddish speakers,” she said during a recent interview at the book center, where some of the oral histories are also recorded.

Yet Whitney isn’t Jewish. Her father is an atheist and her mother is Catholic, and Whitney went to church and Sunday school for a time when she was growing up. However, organized religion, she says, was only briefly a serious part of her life.

“My parents really stressed learning and the arts and the importance of nature,” she said. These days, literature and poetry are a central part of what she calls her “inner life,” though dance and visual art have also held long appeal for her.

Growing up, she also was interested in World War II-era history — one of her grandfathers was a war correspondent in Europe during the conflict — and a high school elective class on WWII that she took gave her her first real exposure to the Holocaust.

When she came to Smith in 2005, Whitney says, she wanted to continue exploring those subjects and also to “do dance and learn a language and read a lot of great books.” But a first-year class on the Holocaust taught by professor Justin Cammy, who specializes in Yiddish literature and culture, ended up pointing her in a more specific direction.

“I remember the class was pretty big, and Justin looked out at us and said, ‘Isn’t it interesting that we have all these students enrolled in a course on dead Jews — I wish we could get the same enrollment for courses on living Jews,’ ” Whitney said.

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“That was a wake-up call for me personally,” she noted. “Do I really want to be studying a genocide the rest of my life?”

Whitney ended up majoring in comparative literature and also studied Spanish — she spent her senior year in Spain — but she was especially drawn to Yiddish literature. In addition to taking other Smith courses on the topic and an independent study with Cammy, she studied Yiddish literature at the Amherst Book Center through a Five Colleges course.

All of that work helped build the framework for what’s she doing today, Whitney says.

“Learning about Jewish culture and Yiddish in particular opened up a whole new world to me, full of beautiful literature, dramatic figures, tragic and heroic stories I hadn’t known existed,” she explained. “Once I started reading Jewish literature and learning Yiddish, I just wanted to keep learning more and more.

“So much of my path has been influenced by amazing teachers and serendipity — just being in the right place at the right time,” Whitney added. “I would credit Justin Cammy with really sustaining my interest and challenging me to think about making a contribution to the field and creating something new.”

Whitney’s path, in fact, mirrors Cammy’s to some extent: In an interview last year, Cammy told the Gazette he became entranced by Jewish literature and Yiddish as an undergraduate himself and switched his major from political science to Yiddish studies.

Preserving stories — and history

Whitney, who has worked at the Yiddish Book Center since graduating from Smith in 2009, has also made three separate trips to study and work in Vilnius — known in the Jewish community as Vilna — Lithuania’s capital and largest city and a vital center of Jewish life and culture before WWII (Whitney has some Lithuanian ancestry herself).

Though the Nazis murdered most of the city’s Jewish population and demolished their neighborhoods during the war, enough has survived to make studying in Vilna a memorable experience, Whitney said.

“Being in Vilna and learning the language in a place with such a deep history — that was pivotal for me,” she says. Among the people she met was a Yiddish partisan who fought the Nazis during the war.

Planning and conducting interviews for the book center’s Oral History Project has deepened those connections. “Meeting so many people for whom Yiddish is central to their family’s culture or their own identity, their own connection to Jewishness, and then the pivot to oral history, that’s gotten me even more engaged.”

She’s sometimes encountered skepticism or raised eyebrows from people who wonder why a non-Jew is involved with this work, or how deep her knowledge of the culture can be; a student at the Yiddish Book Center once called her a “shiksa.”

“There will always be, I presume, this question of ‘Why would Christa Whitney be speaking Yiddish and be working at the Yiddish Book Center?’ ” she said. “But I’ve discovered there are other non-Jews in this field, and the level of art that’s in this language appeals to them, too … there’s something for everyone.”

Among those she interviewed were the late Leonard Nimoy, the actor and photographer; Harold Bloom, the late literary critic; and a former Jewish-American dancer, the daughter of immigrants, who was 103 when Whitney met her.

“She told us this amazing story of going on tour in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and performing in unheated schools,” Whitney said with a laugh.

She also interviewed Israeli actress Hadas Kalderon, the granddaughter of the famous Yiddish poet Avrom (Abraham) Sutzkever, in Israel several years ago, which led in turn to the Yiddish Book Center documentary “Ver Vet Blaybn?” (Who Will Remain?). Whitney produced and co-directed the film, which has won several awards and was screened at the Amherst Cinema last month.

As Whitney explained, Kalderon “pitched the idea” to her, as Kalderon had already compiled some film of a visit she had made to Vilna to trace her grandfather’s legacy. Sutzkever, called the greatest poet of the Holocaust, spent much of his early adult life in Vilna and escaped the city during the Nazi occupation; he later documented that experience in his poems and a memoir.

For “Ver Vet Blaybn?” Whitney and her co-director, Emily Felder, a UMass Amherst alumna now living in California, combined period photos and film with Kalderon’s footage to tell Sutkever’s story and examine how that affected his family and descendants.

“We spent five years on that project,” Whitney recalls. “It was a lot of work but so rewarding.”

Today, she noted in a follow-up email, the oral histories the Yiddish Book Center has recorded and preserved “are now primary source references for Yiddishists in the academic field as well as the broader cultural world.”

To be part of that, Whitney says, feels like a huge honor — to help people who are curious, or who have lost a previous connection to the language, make new connections to the “mostly untranslated well of history, culture, and art that has been created in the language.”

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