Two students spend summer plunging into the mamaloshen

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A hand opens the cover of an old Yiddish book and a long-lost memento drops out.

Sometimes it's a dried rose or a forgotten bookmark. At other times, it's a yellowed postcard or a shopping list tucked away nearly 80 years ago.

On rare occasions the memento is part of the book itself — an inscription penned by a forlorn lover or a ditty written by a bored schoolchild.

Joah McGee, a summer intern at the National Yiddish Book Center, often finds himself wondering about the personal history attached to each book.

"How many hands have felt this before?" he asks himself at times.

McGee, a Sonoma County man raised in Occidental and now living in Sebastopol, is one of two young Bay Area residents who worked at the western Massachusetts book center since June. He and fellow intern Joanna Epstein, of Tiburon in Marin County, have spent the past eight weeks studying Yiddish in the mornings and sorting tens of thousands of donated books in the afternoons. The program ends today.

Though McGee and Epstein arrived with different levels of Jewish knowledge and interest, the internship has changed them both.

Before this summer McGee, raised with both Jewish and Christian traditions, knew only the four Hebrew letters marked on a dreidel. Last week, the 18-year-old was able to read, albeit with difficulty, a Sholem Aleichem short story in the original Yiddish. He also has picked up a newfound respect for Yiddish culture and literature.

"It blows my mind how a world of scholars let all the Yiddish books in the world slip away into rubble," said McGee, a sophomore majoring in international studies and French at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

By contrast, 21-year-old Epstein was raised in a Conservative household filled with Yiddish words and expressions. But until about a year ago, even she didn't know that Yiddish was written with Hebrew letters.

Soon, however, she and a fellow intern hope to begin translating a 1928 anthology of Yiddish women's poetry that she discovered this summer. Epstein may pursue Yiddish studies in graduate school and dreams of speaking the mamaloshen at home someday.

"I find more and more that Yiddish is really where it's at for me," said Epstein, a junior majoring in Judaic studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Their reactions to the work and study are exactly what intern director and bibliographer Neil Zagorin hoped for. Ostensibly, the 10 interns came to the center's South Hadley headquarters to unpack, sort and shelve 30,000 to 35,000 books.

"But the ulterior motive of this internship is to find talented young people and expose them to Yiddish and hope they do something with it," Zagorin said.

The book center was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky, then a 24-year-old Yiddish literature graduate student. Lansky is still the organization's president. At that time, scholars estimated that 70,000 Yiddish books still existed in North America.

Today, Zagorin said, the book center has collected more than 1.25 million volumes. About a thousand more arrive each week.

Though the center now has a year-round staff of more than two dozen, interns do most of the sorting and shelving.

"It's real work. It isn't make-work," Zagorin said.

The center is neither an archive nor a library. The out-of-print books are redistributed to scholars, students and individual readers, mostly via universities and research institutions such as the Library of Congress, Harvard and Columbia.

The Yiddish book center also sponsors programs, creates curricula, and tape-records spoken Yiddish. Last year, its Yiddish story series aired on National Public Radio.

McGee applied for the internship because of his deep passion for all literature, his desire to study a new language and his interest in spending a summer on the East Coast. Though it's unlikely that he will become one of those interns who pursues a Yiddish-related career, the experience of handling these books for weeks on end has transformed him on several levels.

These days, McGee not only finds himself opening up English books from right to left and reading cartoons backward, he has also picked up a new pride in his heritage.

His family always celebrated Chanukah and Passover, but McGee had almost no formal religious education and didn't have a bar mitzvah.

"I've fought a Jewish inferiority complex a lot," said McGee, who just a year ago wanted nothing to do with organized religion.

This summer, however, he met people who believe that "being Jewish is the best thing in the world." McGee still considers himself an agnostic but now feels strong ties to Jewish culture, literature and mentality.

During the summer, interns even absorbed the inflections of the Yiddish mindset. If someone complained of a sore foot, for example, another might respond like Great-uncle Izzy: "You should be so lucky to have a foot!"

For Epstein, the internship has deepened a growing love for Yiddish culture.

At Brown, a former book-center intern in Epstein's Hebrew class inspired her to begin studying Yiddish. At the time, Epstein was also becoming interested in Jewish folk culture and klezmer music.

In studying Yiddish, Epstein has discovered a link to the Jewish people that she had not found in studying Hebrew.

"It's an emotional connection," she said.

For her, one of the summer's most memorable experiences was the book center's weeklong conference at nearby Mount Holyoke College.

"It was really wonderful to hear 100 people speak a language that you think no one speaks anymore," she said.

As a result of the internship, Epstein may become part of the new generation of Yiddish scholars who are creating a "small-scale but really intense revival" of the language.

"It's this world I'd really like to learn more about," she said.