Why on earth would anybody be interested in Yiddish books?
Outwitting History describes the rescue of the world’s stocks of Yiddish books from destruction. It’s a great Horatio Alger tale of a college kid who got interested in the history of the Jewish people, and turned it into a career as the head of the non-profit National Yiddish Book Center, which now houses over 1 million books. But it’s much more than that. It’s a story about why knowing history is central to being at home on earth.
Yiddish emerged, beginning in the tenth or eleventh century, along the banks of the Rhine. It evolved into a universal language to allow the Jews of the diaspora to communicate with one another. It’s a Germanic language, so that if one knows German, one can guess what’s going on. And it’s a profoundly evocative language, one that must be so to capture the agony endured by the diaspora. For centuries, driven from place to place, denied the right to work in certain professions or live outside of the ghetto, the Jews have preserved their joys and sorrows in a literature of astonishing breadth.
In 1975, there were almost no Yiddish books in libraries. They were stored in the homes of elderly Jews, in decaying union halls, in the warehouses of obscure publishers—everywhere except where they would be secure. After World War II, there had been a decision taken in the American Jewish community that Hebrew would be the language of the Jews. Yiddish was for grandmothers.
And so, Aaron Lansky set out on a frustrating, hilarious, exhausting journey to rescue books from all over the world. He was fed to the limits of human endurance by well-meaning supporters and he rescued books from dumpsters. He heisted books from the Newark public library (with the collaboration of the librarians, who were rescuing them from malign neglect). He brought books into Lithuania at a time when the imploding USSR did not recognize the authority of Lithuania to issue travel documents and the wrong documents could have landed him in the gulag. And he was greeted by an overwhelming response from the Jewish community to preserve this history, culminating in the establishment of the National Yiddish Book Center at Hampshire College.
The story in itself makes the book worth reading. But in between the lines, one learns about the subtleties of language and culture that make it clear why the loss of a language is as much an occasion for sorrow as the loss of a species. Above all, one learns why the elderly, with their store of memories, are such a treasure: those memories tell us from whence we came and who we are.
It’s a heroic story, but also very funny. And it affirms the notion that if you just do what you love, you will end up doing something wonderful.