Kara's Reviews > Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books

Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky
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Feb 14, 09

it was amazing
bookshelves: books-about-books, judaic-americana

Like a knife in the chest, I read about the books buried in rubble, decaying into dust, drowning in the rain, the books that were censored and burned, destroyed, or forgotten. But with elation I also read about a man who understands the importance of books, and how he saved thousands and thousands of books from dumpsters, wrecking balls, attics and basements, describing another world along the way.

Lansky has been on a three decade long quest / journey / crusade / mission / treasure hunt that took him from New Bedford to New Jersey to Russia, to Canada to Africa to Cuba to Poland to South America, talking with a rapidly dying out generation, convincing men and women in their eighties and ninties, who, after wintessing a tumultuous century, need someone to perserve their written world before it was to be - often literally - thrown in the trash by childern and grandchildren who didn't know anything about the Old Country, and, being Americans, weren't interested. He recounts the numerous meals of every Kosher food under the sun he was forced to eat when bubbes and zadyes insisted that he couldn't possibly lift boxes of books on an empty stomach, telling him the stories of the personal libraries they were giving to him as well as their own life stories.

Lansky's experience is not just about Yiddish books - it's about all books, and how they have the power to remember and pass own the wisdom and world of people long after the writers are dust, and his story is not just about Jewish history - its about all history. Jewish/Yiddish books and people were never in a vacuum - they were an integral part of history: a book about a man amassing a library of Yiddish books also becomes a story about the Cuban Revolution, the spread of Marxism, the early efforts of American unions, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Woodie Guthrie's songs, Abbie Hoffman's writing, the fall of the USSR, Stalin, Hollywood, Broadway, the Catskills, leftists, rightists - Yiddish was a witness and recorder to it all.

For all that the story mourns the losses that assimilation brings, this story also proves that to know the story of Yiddish literature is to better understand the links between the Old World and the New World.

This is about death and birth - two sides of that crazy coin called life. Yes, a world has past where Yiddish was a part of everyday life - but there has been a birth of something new. As a member of my age group - those born in the 1980's - I take it for granted that any liberal arts college will offer at least one course on the Holocaust or Jewish studies at least once a semester and that I can walk into any reasonably sized bookstore and find books on Jewish studies, Holocaust studies, Jewish Feminism studies, Israel politics, Yiddish / English dictionaries, Jewish cookbooks, and the occasional copy of Hamlet translated into Yiddish; Lansky describes going to college in the 1970's, and it was a shock to read that he attended the first ever course on the Holocaust, and that a Yiddish / English dictionary was as rare as hen's teeth. He describes the beginning of Jewish studies as something besides the religion itself, and how Yiddish is a fundamental part of that.

Basically, I cannot praise this book enough and everyone interested in books, in history, in why the past should be remembered, should read this book.
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