Friday, December 27, 2019

The Yiddish Decade

It's almost the end of the 2010s, in case you hadn't heard. Jewish Week is running a decade's end wrap up series and they were kind enough to commission something from me. My contribution is a reflection on The Yiddish Decade. It should more properly be called the Yiddishist Decade, but that's really for the quibblers among you.

It won't surprise you that my major theme is the insanity of New York real estate. Biology may have been destiny once upon a time, but around these parts, it's location, location, location.

And as it pertains to Yiddish, I’m now old enough to have had my hopes raised, and utterly dashed, more than once by tantalizing plans and promises for a new, centrally located, brick-and-mortar social space for New York’s thriving Yiddishist community. Not only did we NOT get that dedicated space, our existing spaces kept slipping away:
The loss of CYCO’s prime location was reported as the “nail in the coffin of Yiddish.” But since I moved here over 20 years ago, the churn of unchecked development has increased every year, pushing everyone but the wealthiest residents to the edges of the city. Yiddish is no more a victim than the countless other linguistic, cultural and artistic communities lacking millionaire benefactors.
That reference to "millionaire benefactors" was not accidental. I didn't have room to get into it for the JW piece, but the longer I reflected, the more pissed off I became, and I kept coming back around to the saga of Makor.

In 2001, mega-donor Michael Steinhardt made a historic donation to the 92nd Street Y. He gave the Y a Central Park West brownstone whose purpose was to serve as a clubhouse for young, well to do Jewish singles. As the New York Times reported at the time: 
The five-story, 22,000-foot brownstone will become the eighth center in the Y's chain of cultural institutions. It is valued at $16 million and has a cafe, a 72-seat screening room and an art gallery. ... 
''I am convinced,'' Mr. Steinhardt said, ''that the 92nd Street Y can give Makor programs and synergy and marketing muscle that will take it to the next level of visibility and impact.'' Later, he said he was ''thrilled to have made this shiddach,'' using the Yiddish word for an arranged marriage.
Unlike the Y, Makor has a specific mission: to attract people in their 20's and 30's to events that will teach them about Jewish culture. The center will be renamed the 92nd Street Y Makor/Steinhardt Center and will retain its current focus. Its annual budget and programming will be managed by a committee of board members from the Y and Makor.
In 2006, the 92nd Street Y was looking for funds for renovation of its original Upper East Side location. The leadership of the 92nd Street Y decided to sell the CPW Makor brownstone, now valued at $25 million and use the profit to fund the renovation.

Makor was relocated to a Tribeca location, where it remained between 2008 and 2013. 

I was a fairly frequent visitor to the CPW Makor townhouse, but I think I visited its Tribeca location maybe once or twice in five years. As I recall, to get there you needed to cross a pedestrian bridge, pray, and be prepared to never see your loved ones again, because it was in such a god forsaken spot.

In 2013, the 92nd Street Y executive director released a letter explaining their decision to close the Tribeca location and say goodbye to Makor forever:
"We believe 92Y can best serve the community now and in the future by investing our resources into our flagship location uptown on Lexington Avenue...” 
But the organization would continue “to invest in strategic partnerships and technologies that allow us to offer our programs and create communities far beyond the walls of any building — livecasts, online classes, partnerships ..."

So, to summarize. At the turn of this century, mega-donor Steinhardt buys a $16 million townhouse to serve as a social club for the coveted young, single Jewish demographic. Like with Birthright, a big part of the agenda was getting these unicorns into physical proximity (and serving them in the swanky style to which they were presumably accustomed.) 

Pretty quickly, Steinhardt donates the new social center to the 92nd Street Y to be run and programmed by them. In less than a decade, the 92nd Street Y decides to use Makor (now valued at $25 million) as a piggybank for their own needs and by 2013, Makor was no more. All those magical NYC singles were expected to find their needs met on the Upper East Side, or be on their own.

So, that was a $16 million investment down the toilet in a matter of less than 15 years. Of course, $16 million is pocket change for Steinhardt, whose fortune is estimated at $1 billion. And it's not like the choices of the 92nd Street Y are going to redound to the Jewish singles whose interests were supposedly being served. No one is going to throw up their hands and say it's just pointless to try to reach them or that this was the nail in the coffin of Jewish singles. It would be laughable.

Of course, during those same years,Yiddishists watched many offices/spaces of legacy Yiddish organizations either shrink radically, or disappear altogether, for want of far, far smaller cash infusions. 

And indeed, the brutalities of the real estate market were inevitably interpreted as the death of Yiddish and lost offices were the nail in its coffin

In my opinion, the only Yiddish organization that came out ahead at the end of the decade is YIVO, with a state of the art, centrally located space and (relatively) bright financial future. And YIVO is terrific and hosts many wonderful, irreplaceable classes, events and meetings. But (for various reasons) it can never take the place of a social center run for the benefit of artists and activists.

Just imagine if some donor (mega- or not) had seen fit to donate just a fraction of that Makor money to Yiddishists and other Ashkenazic culture workers. Ours is a demographic which, if anyone actually bothered to ask, skews quite young. And our achievements, mostly on the wispiest of budgets, are quite impressive. 

But maybe don't imagine what might have been, because the reality is just too damn infuriating.

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