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Major gift establishes Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture

April 26, 2010

The Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at UW–Madison has received a $1 million endowment from Sherry Mayrent and Carol Master, via the Corners Fund for Traditional Cultures, a Donor advised fund of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, to establish the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture. 

The institute will be the only one of its kind, devoted to fostering an understanding of the world of Yiddish through the arts, and directed by Henry Sapoznik, an expert on klezmer music and Yiddish and American popular culture, who is expected to join the University of Wisconsin in January 2011. 

“Ever since he started KlezKamp over 25 years ago, Henry Sapoznik’s name has been synonymous with Yiddish culture.  Having him here to direct the Mayrent Institute is sure to put Madison on the map as a center for bringing an appreciation of Yiddish arts and letters to all generations,” says Pamela Potter, Director of the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies and renowned musicologist. 

As director of the Mayrent Institute, Sapoznik will bring the headquarters of “KlezKamp: The Yiddish Folk Arts Program” to Madison, continuing the annual winter KlezKamp in the Catskills and adding a summer version in Madison.  Plans are also afoot to hold regular conferences on Yiddish studies, including all aspects of Yiddish language, literature, history, music and folk arts; and sponsor visiting artists and scholars in the fields of Yiddish music, theater, dance, language and literature to augment the offerings in Yiddish culture provided by UW–Madison faculty.

The endowment will also support the centerpiece of the institute, Mayrent’s entire collection of over 6,000 78-rpm discs of Jewish music, which she plans to donate to UW–Madison’s Mills Music Library.  The library will provide on-line access to digitized recordings from the collection and to an information-rich database.  The institute will produce publications and recording series including, but not limited to, editions and reissues from the collection.

The Mayrent Institute will also further the aims of the Center for Jewish Studies toward adding new faculty positions in Yiddish studies and laying the foundation for a Yiddish concentration within the Center’s undergraduate degree programs in Jewish Studies. Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies Lifetime Member of the Board of Visitors, Frances L. Weinstein, notes, “Since the founding of the Center by my late husband in 1991, we have sought to provide a wide spectrum of Jewish studies courses.  This fantastic gift will now enable us to include Yiddish culture—meeting ever increasing student interest.”

Mayrent and Master, both of Massachusetts and Hawaii, singled out UW–Madison for their gift after years of participation in and philanthropic support of KlezKamp — and in response to the resounding success of the UW–Madison’s Arts Institute’s 2009 Interdisciplinary Arts Residency of Henry Sapoznik and the concurrent symposium of the Center for Jewish Studies’s Conney Project on Jewish Arts. 

“We are proud and delighted to be making this gift to the University of Wisconsin.  Making this important cultural material universally accessible and ensuring the longevity of KlezKamp are two long-term dreams of mine,” says Sherry Mayrent.

Mayrent is an established teacher and performer of traditional Yiddish music. She joined the staff of KlezKamp in 1995 and became associate director in 2001.

She is also a preeminent collector of rare Yiddish and Hebrew music; her collection of 78-rpm recordings is the largest and most comprehensive private collection of such period recordings in the world. At over 6,000 discs and growing, it represents over 7,000 unique performances, and spans the full gamut of genres commercially recorded from 1895-1955 considered the golden age of Yiddish culture: cantorial, Yiddish theater, klezmer and spoken word. The discs have all been fully cataloged, with nearly 40 percent of the recordings already meticulously transferred and digitally preserved by the Grammy award winning sound engineer Christopher King.

Sapoznik, a five-time Grammy Award nominee, is currently the executive director of Living Traditions; founder of KlezKamp, now in its 26th year; and creator of the Yiddish Radio Project, broadcast in a series on National Public Radio and winner of the 2002 Peabody Award.

He founded Living Traditions in 1994 to bring the bounty of Yiddish culture to new generations by focusing on the active engagement with the arts and the spoken word to experience first-hand this rich and vibrant culture that originated in Eastern Europe and lived on as a formative component of American popular culture.