Outwitting History

Recommended Read

Lansky, Aaron. Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2004. [ISBN-13: 978-1565124295]

It stands to reason that the books reviewed on the Word Blog should be about words. And so they will be. Yet, however my knowledge of languages may restrict the rest of this blog to entries about English, happily no such restriction need apply to the subjects of the books I review. And so it is that the blog’s first review will be of Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books.

Outwitting History is the rousing, funny, affecting, and triumphant story of how a young man; his hardworking friends and peers; and a global, grassroots network of donors, volunteers, and contacts saved Yiddish literature from the brink of extinction.

That young man, Aaron Lansky, writes Outwitting History with an energy, sympathy, and passion that is infectious. He is a born storyteller and a champion of words who has lived one of the most fascinating tales in the history of contemporary world literature and, in keeping with his passion for sharing the delights of the written word, has shared with us the phenomenal story of how he saved over a million Yiddish books.

As a student in the 1970s Lansky decided to pursue Jewish Studies and more particularly his interest in the social history of Jewish culture in the past century. He quickly realized that, in addition to Hebrew and German, he was going to have to learn Yiddish as well. So, at a time when Yiddish language classes were as rare as Yiddish collections in university libraries, Lansky, a few other devoted students, and a generous professor who taught them during his spare time created their own class.

Because they couldn’t immerse themselves in spoken Yiddish, they immersed themselves in Yiddish literature—at least in the literature they could find. Before long the students found themselves wandering through Jewish neighbourhoods, knocking on doors, and drinking voluminous quantities of tea in order to track down and borrow the books they needed for school. Many of the people they met insisted they keep the books since there was no one left in their families who could read them. Lansky realized that thousands of private Yiddish collections, full of books that had survived Hitler and Stalin as well as cross-Atlantic journeys were at risk of being destroyed, or lost to damp, unfriendly basements—and he decided to save them.

At the age of 23 Lansky created the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, and started collecting books that would otherwise have been consigned to destruction. When he set out on his mission, it was estimated that only 70,000 Yiddish books were left in the world. Six months later he had already saved 70,000 books. He’s since gone on to save 1.5 million, making them available to libraries and individuals around the world.

If you love words and revere books, Outwitting History is a book you simply must read.

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