I had never heard of Aaron Lansky or his book, Outwitting History, when I found it at the top of a box of books my sister sent me recently. It’s the sort of book I would have read years ago if I had known about it (it was published in 2005). It has everything – history, especially regarding the Jewish people, books, a foreign language, lots of stories about interesting people and places, and a handful of idealists engaged in a seemingly impossible task.
I know no more Yiddish than a handful of those words that have made their way into English (and I had no idea that some of these were Yiddish until now). I’m sure many of my ancestors on my mother’s side spoke Yiddish, but she never considered herself Jewish despite her ancestry (her father brought her up in Christian Science), and I grew up without any idea of the rich cultural heritage that was lost to me.
From various books I have read about languages, I knew something about Yiddish, but I don’t know if I ever gave any thought as to whether there were books written in the language. As Lansky explains, it was primarily a spoken language, but for about a hundred years or so there was a remarkable outpouring of literary output in Yiddish. Then the tides of history turned, and Yiddish became a dying language.
Lansky and his friends started looking for Yiddish books in order to help them learn Yiddish, initially for the purpose of academic study (at least in Lansky’s case). Like other young Jews, Lansky had not grown up speaking Yiddish. But unlike so many others, he wanted to save the books treasured by the older generations, rather than throwing them out as a relic of an embarrassing past.
His book is primarily a collection of stories about where he found books, how he was able to recover them, and the people he met along the way. From dumpsters, basements, warehouses, and synagogues, some books in mint condition (still in the publisher’s wrappings) and others covered in mold or years of dust, Lansky and his friends collect books by the hundreds and sometimes by the thousands.
Starting with a shoestring budget and gradually developing a network of donors and volunteers, Lansky amasses an incalculable treasure of books, some of them the only copies left in the world of a particular title. Just as he started out to find books for the purpose of learning, however, he doesn’t collect books to keep them, but to distribute them to people and institutions around the world to spread the language and heritage of his forefathers.
Near the end of the book, he relates his experience taking Yiddish books to Jewish schools newly established in previously Communist countries, where the language and heritage had been nearly obliterated. Here in America, few people will greet Yiddish books with such joy and gratitude as those in Eastern Europe, but here also he sees a growing interest in Yiddish.
Some changes are irreversible, and he doesn’t expect that there will ever be a Yiddish culture and literature to match what there was in the past. The historical circumstances that gave rise to it are past. But by saving over a million books, he preserved enough of that history that people all over the world can learn from it. He made Yiddish the first literature to be entirely preserved in digital format. And he is working now on getting its most significant works translated into English, so that more people can read and appreciate them.
An English translation can’t convey all the richness of the original, of course. And my brief review here can’t convey the fascinating story that Lansky tells. If you like books, history, and a well-told story, buy or borrow a copy of Lansky’s book and read it for yourself.