February 2005

John Detrixhe

nonfiction

Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books

As one would expect of a gentile, I don’t know any Yiddish. For that matter, before reading Outwitting History, I couldn’t tell you if Yiddish was a distinct language, or just another name for Hebrew. I was wrong about Yiddish -- enough so that I would have gotten the answer wrong in a game of Jeopardy. But not so much so that I’d lie about it in a book review.

For much of its history, Yiddish, which means “Jewish,” existed only as a spoken language. It was spoken by millions of Jews in Eastern Europe, and according to Aaron Lansky, some considered it a “bastard tongue, bad German, a linguistic mishmash, hardly a language at all.” Furthermore, Yiddish “was written in the Hebrew alphabet and derived as much as twenty percent of its vocabulary from Hebrew and Aramaic. There are words from Latin, French and Italian, picked up in the course of earlier Jewish migrations.”

Lansky didn’t grow up speaking Yiddish, but he knows the history of Yiddish as well as almost anyone, and he’s also one of the main reasons Yiddish literature has survived. Yiddish books were being discarded in America in the early 1980’s for many reasons, but principally because its readers were largely gone. A vast percentage of Yiddish-speaking Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and a generation of Yiddish-speaking survivors was passing away. The children of these Jews, American born, often didn’t speak Yiddish. In some cases Yiddish was simply lost on the children, but in other instances, parents made the decision that their children would speak English. If their children were to speak another language, then perhaps they would speak Hebrew, the language of the Torah and the official language of Israel. But not Yiddish.

As a graduate student, Lansky studied Yiddish at the only class he could find, at the University of Massachusetts. After two years of study with a handful of friends, under the tutelage of their Karl Marx-looking instructor, Jules Piccus, they were running low on books. Venturing into New York’s Lower East Side, Lansky, then twenty-three years old, walked into the Garden Cafeteria, patronized mostly by seventy-year-old Yiddish speaking Jews, to inquire about Yiddish books. After being kissed and fussed over by most everyone in the cafeteria, Lansky began the quest that would become his life’s work.

Lansky realized almost immediately that although Yiddish books still existed, they were rapidly being destroyed. For Lansky, as a scholar, and as a believer in culture as an agent of political and social change, the destruction of the recorded experience of a thousand years of culture and art was unacceptable. As he was quoted in the The New York Times, (June 16, 1977), “somewhere along the line it became apparent that what was in the books was a whole civilization, a whole world, and it was disappearing from memory, too.”

Lansky helped form what would eventually be called the National Yiddish Book Center. There were many who were willing to donate their personal libraries, and for Lansky the collection process was often a cultural ritual. When called to a collection site, typically a home or an apartment, members of his group would move the books, while another member was designated to listen to their donor’s stories, to drink the tea, to eat the potato latkes and chopped herring. Many of these donors were homegrown intellectuals, and these libraries were their keys to revolution, and in many respects to freedom. Lansky quotes Isaac Baghevis Singer, who was the first Yiddish writer to accept the Nobel Prize in literature: “[This award] is also recognition of the Yiddish language, a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which posses no words for weapons, ammunition, war exercises, war tactics; a language that was despised by gentiles and emancipated Jews.”

Throughout Lansky’s telling of History, there’s a sense of pride tempered with modesty, which permeates the narrative. It’s a very personal story that isn’t overly scholarly, though it easily could have been. It is alive with enthusiasm, and the prose is littered with exclamation points (!), which is reasonable from a man who has spent nearly his entire life involved in grassroots work.

History isn’t a hard-covered plea for donations, although the book certainly won’t hurt the Center’s ability to collect funds. More importantly, History is as a reminder that to remember Yiddish means to remember a thousand years of oppression, of the near extinction of an entire civilization’s art and literature. Lansky succeeds in reaching to Jews and gentiles alike, to preserve a culture where preservation is most important: in the minds of the living.

Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
ISBN: 1565124294
316 Pages