Books: Outwitting History

September 23, 2011

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.

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