Saving a culture through books
When Aaron Lansky began studying Yiddish as a college freshman in the early '70s, it was hard to find books. Though once spoken by three-quarters of the world's Jewish population, few Jews of his generation, or even of his parents', knew how to speak, much less read, the language. When a professor sent him to scour New York's Lower East Side for Yiddish texts, Lansky's fate was sealed. At age 23 he set to the task of rescuing Yiddish books from oblivion.
At the time, scholars estimated there were some 70,000 Yiddish volumes gathering dust in private libraries and moldering in people's attics and basements. Tracking them down would be quite an undertaking, Lansky imagined. He had no idea. A quarter of a century later Lansky and his National Yiddish Book Center have saved 1.5 million Yiddish books, books that have been put back into the hands of readers and preserved in some of the major libraries of the world. Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books is his infectious account of this Sisyphean undertaking.
Armed with dilapidated rental trucks and a few obliging cohorts, Lansky started collecting books from elderly Yiddish-speakers who were moving from their homes or from heirs who had inherited whole libraries they could not read. The old Jews he meets in his travels are from a forgotten time, and they regale him with stories of labor unions, leftist politics and the once-vibrant Yiddish culture. Every book pick-up becomes a lesson in personal history, usually accompanied by an artery-clogging meal. Many of Lansky's adventures among the aging Jewish immigrants are hilarious; a few bring a tear to the eye. All underscore the rich legacy of Yiddish, a legacy that has been preserved and is growing in popularity among a new generation of Jews in no small part thanks to the indefatigable Lansky.
More than once in this inspiring chronicle, someoneoften an assimilated Jewasks Lansky what point he sees in saving books that so few can read. After reading Outwitting History there can be little doubt that this is more than just a mitzvah or good deed. Lansky and the National Yiddish Book Center have done more than outwitted history, they have reversed it.