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

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“Incredible . . . Inspiring . . . Important.” —Library Journal, starred review “A marvelous yarn, loaded with near-calamitous adventures and characters as memorable as Singer creations.” —The New York Post “What began as a quixotic journey was also a picaresque romp, a detective story, a profound history lesson, and a poignant evocation of a bygone world.” —The Boston Globe “Every now and again a book with near-universal appeal comes along: Outwitting History is just such a book.” —The Sunday Oregonian As a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, Aaron Lansky set out to save the world’s abandoned Yiddish books before it was too late. Today, more than a million books later, he has accomplished what has been called “the greatest cultural rescue effort in Jewish history.” In Outwitting History, Lansky shares his adventures as well as the poignant and often laugh-out-loud stories he heard as he traveled the country collecting books. Introducing us to a dazzling array of writers, he shows us how an almost-lost culture is the bridge between the old world and the future—and how the written word can unite everyone who believes in the power of great literature.A Library Journal Best Book A Massachusetts Book Award Winner in Nonfiction An ALA Notable Book

336 pages, Paperback

First published October 5, 2004

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About the author

Aaron Lansky

7 books12 followers
Aaron Lansky (born in New Bedford, Massachusetts) is the founder of the Yiddish Book Center, an organization he created to help salvage Yiddish language publications. When he began saving books in the early 1980s, most experts believe that there were fewer than 70,000 Yiddish volumes extant. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989 for his work.

Lansky is the author of Outwitting History (2004), an autobiographical account of how he saved the Yiddish books of the world, from the 1970s to the present day. It won the 2005 Massachusetts Book Award.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 344 reviews
Profile Image for Kressel Housman.
972 reviews224 followers
January 25, 2022
In the final chapter of this book, Aaron Lansky tells a story about his grandmother, but I’ve heard variations of it regarding many Jews of that generation. When she arrived on the shores of America, her brother, who had emigrated before her, met her at the dock. She was carrying one suitcase containing her most cherished possessions, including her Shabbos candlesticks. Her brother took the suitcase from her and threw it into the sea, as if to say, “You won’t be needing that here.” The cost of life in the New World was throwing away the Old.

But, Aaron Lansky continues, he grew up as an American. He was so secure in his place here, he wanted to plumb the depths to recover what previous generations had thrown away. As a baalas teshuva, a Jew raised secular who chose Orthodox practice, I can certainly relate. The difference is that I sought the depths in Torah. Aaron Lansky did it by rescuing and restoring Yiddish books.

Many in the Orthodox world would say that Yiddish literature Lansky sought to save deserved to be forever lost and forgotten. Authors such as Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and I.L. Peretz were rebels against the Torah. The taste of their writing that this book will give you proves it. Their voices are distinctly and authentically Jewish, but that only goes to show that nobody can give a shtuch to the Jewish world like a Jew. (Translation: Nobody can stick it to the Jewish world like another Jew.) We’re seeing it now with the rise of OTD memoirs (memoirs by the formerly Orthodox.) Shulem Deen may be this generation’s Sholom Aleichem.

Well, call me unorthodox, but I’m still impressed by Aaron Lansky’s efforts. In the 1980’s, he collected Yiddish books from elderly, left-leaning Jews. In the 1990’s, after the fall of communism, he found even rarer books all over the former Soviet Union. And in the 2000’s, he began digitizing his massive collection so that scholars all over the world can access books once thought to be lost. Yes, in most cases, these are the voices of the rebels, but they, too, are a part of Jewish history. Consider The Zelmenyaners by Moyshe Kulbak, a tragicomic novel about the fate of a Jewish family during Stalin’s collectivization of farms. It’s been translated into English, thanks to Aaron Lansky. Doesn’t it sound like a rich source of information?

Aaron Lansky spices up his story with portraits of the quirky but charming old Jews who donated their books. He also sprinkles in interesting Jewish tidbits. My two favorites are that Meir Kahane tutored Arlo Guthrie and his siblings in Hebrew when they were kids and that the precursor to Co-op City in the Bronx was a smaller bunch of cooperative apartments founded by union activist Jews in 1927. Co-op City, for those who don’t know, is one of the most successful affordable housing developments still in existence in New York. The current mayor ought to look to it as a model.

If you love Jewish history and are open to the contributions of all types of Jews, then you will find this book as heart-warming and informative as I did. As Aaron Lansky points out, what he has achieved is not all about nostalgia. We are of our own times. But history is always a part of who we are, and Jewish history has both rebels and traditionalists. Perhaps now that it’s the 21st century, we can finally learn to deal with our differences, unify, and usher in the Messianic age of world peace.
Profile Image for Linda.
916 reviews141 followers
March 20, 2012
This was a delightful read - at times a romp, at times very sobering.
I picked it out of the stacks mainly because it was about books - the cover image grabbed me. But I know almost nothing about Jewish history or Yiddish. What a delightful surprise. I knew nothing of this organization or its story, and I feel like a whole new window has been opened. I found myself affecting a Yiddish accent at times. I have new phrases now. But not like The Joy of Yiddish - but with the backstory to go with it.
I found out much more than I could have anticipated about the Jewish experience, outside of the Holocaust. The experience in Russia stands out: "Every week Moscow would send the librarians a list of the latest banned books they were supposed to destroy. Every library had a special fireplace in the courtyard just for this purpose, and every week my mother had to join her colleagues all across the country in burning another batch of Yiddish books." p245
Can you imagine? It goes against everything books stand for. Everything a library represents. It's like Fahrenheit 451 come to life. I don't know how people suffer things like this - and much worse. It makes me very happy to have my local branch libraries and our great, beautiful central libraries (of which I have access to two, being in the Twin Cities - how lucky am I?).
This book was as much about hope as about books - hope of a future generation, hope of a world in which people can live in peace, no matter what their differences.
This was the best serendipity that I've come across in the stacks in a long time, and one of the main reasons why I don't only rely on my online requests. If I wanted to, I could go no further than the pick-up shelves. But I'm often glad when I venture on.
Profile Image for Miles.
257 reviews15 followers
June 7, 2015
Aaron Lansky's unprettified tale of rescuing Jewish books is deceptively simple. He takes a simple story and retells it again and again, changing details each time, and advancing a larger narrative with each retelling. It goes like this. Someone called and said "come save our Yiddish books, they are (1) being thrown in a dumpster; (2) sitting in a basement that is about to flood; (3) moldering in an attic; (4) being thrown out because my parents just died; (5) etc." The author rents an old truck, gets some friends or coworkers together, drives through rain and snow, meets some interesting people, gets fed food from a long ago land, sits and listens to their stories, loads up the books into an old truck as they rest on the edge of destruction, and brings them back to his warehouse to save a culture and redistribute the books to new readers.

This work continues throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as the last Yiddish speakers fade away, and continues to this day. He tells this story again and again, and each time we slice through a new corner of the Yiddish world that was, from North America to Eastern Europe to Latin America. We are reminded that this Yiddish speaking world was not all happy Rothsteinesque ("The Joy of Yiddish") cute one word expressions that you can throw into your conversation, but was filled with sophisticated intellectuals and political activists, people who hated each other to their dying day - communists who wouldn't speak to socialists, socialists who despised culturalists, religionists who despised them all, and many more - all of who whom were determined to go to their deaths waging war against their fellow travelers in the land of Yiddish, even as they built a Jewish literature in the larger cultural universe. Indeed, there once was a world. It washed up on American shores and lived fully, but was not able to transmit itself to the next generation.

As Lansky travels from scene to scene, from old age home to dumpster to basement, hunting for every Yiddish book in existence, he introduces us to beautiful people and bitter people alike, and to a vast dying linguistic civilization. It's really fascinating.

For his work Lansky received a McArthur "genius grant" and founded the Yiddish Book Center which collects, preserves, digitizes and distributes Yiddish books. But much more deeply, he meditates on the varieties of Jewish identities and civilizational choices. There was a time in the late 19th century early 20th century when Zionism was just one possible Jewish future, while Yiddish culture debated many others too- a Soviet future, a socialist future, a secularist future, even an American future. Hitler and Stalin annihilated most of those, with only the Zionist option left standing, together with a deracinated American version.

When I lived in Israel in the 1980s, and was busy learning Hebrew, my aunt Elenore Lester, a theater critic in New York, told me about the Yiddish revival. I could not have been less interested - Yiddish was old news and I saw little future for Jewish life in America. Now, in middle-age, firmly rooted in the diaspora, I find questions of Jewish civilization in the diaspora much more engaging and important than questions involving Israel. For me the eternal Jewish question is not to regain the land, but to live in the condition of diaspora, galute. Yiddish civilization and literature puts me in touch with the last moment before the Holocaust and the rise of Israel when we Jews wrestled deeply and long with our place as a diaspora people. Yiddish will not be a spoken language (outside of the Hassidic world) in America again, but the questions raised by its literature are more relevant than ever to the Jewish project of building and maintaining a thriving diaspora civilization, and a unique cultural position within a multi-cultural mosaic.
Profile Image for Lesley Looper.
2,189 reviews66 followers
March 25, 2011
This was a surprisingly well-written book, with stories that kept me interested, even fascinated, throughout! Lansky had to deal with a very wide range of issues, including marketing, fundraising, storage, domestic and international travel, and digitization, while working with people on an individual level, learning their personal histories at the kitchen table. I recommend this book very highly!
Profile Image for Rachel.
227 reviews8 followers
July 18, 2009
In 1980, Aaron Lansky stumbled somewhat haphazardly upon the plight of Yiddish books, which were being destroyed en masse by the very families of the people who had so painstakingly collected them over the preceding century. With rampant assimilation and secularization, Yiddish was quickly becoming a dead language, and its literature was no longer considered useful to rising generations of Americanized Jews. Lansky, then twenty-three years old, decided that something must be done to save the remaining Yiddish books, and has since dedicated his life to saving these books -- not just the 70,000 scholars believed to be remaining, but more than 1.5 million altogether.

The collection grew so quickly that Lanksy decided to found the National Yiddish Book Center, which has evolved over time to be one of the most valuable resources to the Jewish community worldwide, offering a variety of multimedia resources to educate visitors about Yiddish language and literature, Jewish community and culture, history, and more. What started out as one man's dumpster diving to save a few books has grown into an amazing cultural resource.

This is the remarkably engaging story of Lansky's quest to save the world's Yiddish books -- but more than that, it is a story of nostalgia, neglect, revival, and rebirth. Lanksy's efforts not only saved more than 1.5 million Yiddish books, but they helped to revive the language and people's interest in the culture of Eastern European Jews and their American immigrant counterparts. The story is told with humor and compassion, and is by turns both outright hilarious and deeply moving, bringing the reader to laughter and tears as Lanksy recounts the stories of the Jews who once owned the books now forsaken. Above all, the story is immensely inspiring, and shows what a difference one man's efforts can make, even when all seems lost.
Profile Image for Lisa Feld.
Author 2 books21 followers
September 9, 2016
Let's just get this out of the way: this book is essentially a long-form fundraising appeal by the director of the Yiddish Book Center, describing the unique treasures of Yiddish literature and the dire need to rescue this language and culture before its last native speakers die of old age and their tattered books are thrown in the dumpster. And, at every turn, the ways that even a small amount of money makes the difference between success and failure on missions into the Lower East Side, the gang-torn Bronx, Soviet Russia, and Cuba. It's a persuasive and persistent sales pitch.

But if that's all it was, I wouldn't have finished the book. I found myself caring about the older couple who had supported Yiddish writers as young radicals and now spent their golden years rescuing Yiddish books, and I ached as they began to decline, knowing what was coming. I was fascinated by the religious Jews who didn't want to disrespect books by destroying them, but were determined that no one should ever read them and be corrupted by them. And I was intrigued by the thumbnail descriptions of political tracts from the Russian Revolution, poems by eighteenth and nineteenth-century women, postmodern novels, and Holocaust-era sociological studies, offering a raw and complex view of Jewish and world history. Despite the fact that I'm terrible at languages, Lansky makes me want to know more.
Profile Image for Wojciech Szot.
Author 16 books1,065 followers
July 7, 2020

Jaka to jest smakowita książka!

Wiem, że brzmi to jak slogan dopasowany do nazwy wydawcy (Smak Słowa), ale nic na to nie poradzę - to pierwsze, co przychodzi mi do głowy po lekturze “Przechytrzyć historię”. Aaron Lansky bezpretensjonalnie gawędzi o niezwykłym dziele, którego się podjął, w fascynujący sposób zachęcając do nauki języka jidysz, pokazując najważniejszych autorów i autorki, a - co chyba najistotniejsze - przypominając, że za każdym egzemplarzem zgromadzonym w olbrzymiej aktualnie bibliotece Yiddish Book Center stoi ich właściciel i ich wspólny los.

Lansky w latach 80. studiował historię literatury jidysz na koledżu w Massachusetts i sfrustrowany ciągłym problemem z dostępnością książek dla studentów, wpadł na pomysł, by zacząć je gromadzić. Umierali ich właściciele, którzy przeważnie jeszcze przed wojną przywieźli książki do Stanów, likwidowały się organizacje żydowskie, których liczba członków dramatycznie spadała, a książki lądowały na wysypiskach śmieci.

Specjaliści twierdzili, że w całym kraju w prywatnych zbiorach znajduje się zaledwie kilkadziesiąt tysięcy egzemplarzy książek w jidysz. Jak szybko udowodnił to Lansky i jego pomocnicy - byli w dużym błędzie. W mieszkaniach, piwnicach, magazynach znajdowały się setki tysięcy książek, a młodzi ludzie, którzy ogłosili, że chcą je zachować dla potomności zaczęli jeździć od domu do domu i zabierać je do swojej organizacji, która dość szybko przeobraziła się w Yiddish Book Center - dziś jedną z najważniejszych organizacji upowszechniających kulturę jidyszową na świecie.

Książka napisana jest prostym językiem, chwilami jest może zbyt lokalna i nazbyt anegdotyczna, ale warto przymknąć oko na jedną czy dwie historie, gdzie fascynacja Lansky’ego nie spotyka się z naszą, by utonąć w jakiejś opowieści, po której nie można zasnąć i chce się więcej. “Przechytrzyć historię” czyta się bowiem jak powieść sensacyjną z wątkiem edukacyjnym. Sam pisze, że “Żydzi są nazywani narodem kaznodziejów” i nie da się ukryć - Lansky potrafi prawić kazanie. Trafnie, acz nienachalnie opowiada historię literatury jidysz, przeprowadza czytelnika przez zawiłości związane z jej recepcją wśród samych Żydów, którzy - zwłaszcza w Izraelu i Stanach - odcinają się od jidysz jako języka, który powinien wymrzeć. Z drugiej strony - nie mogą umrzeć książki, bo Naród Księgi jednak zachowuje każdy egzemplarz, nawet jak nim pogardza.

Nie da się ukryć, że Lansky preferuje historię żydowską pisaną z amerykańskiej perspektywy - Stany to taki lepszy “erec”, w którym wszystko jest możliwe - także organizacja taka jak Yiddish Book Center. Momentami książka - mimo pasji autora i tego jak dobrze się ją czyta - jest taką przesadzoną reklamówką organizacji, którą założył.

“Przechytrzyć historię” Lansky’ego ma słuszny podtytuł - “przygody” - nie jest to powieść wybitna literacko, czy intrygująca strukturalnie, ale historia, którą czyta się z przyjemnością, choć chwilami gorzką. Książkę przełożyła Agnieszka Nowak-Młynikowska i trochę nie ufam jej przekładowi w kwestiach jidyszowych - brakuje mi jakiejkolwiek glosy od tłumaczki jakie decyzje podjęła, czy jest to “jeden do jednego” przekład z wersji Lansky’ego, czy gdzieś jednak zapis jidysz uległ zmianie. Bo np. ciekawe czemu u Lansky’ego pojawia się zapis “l'khayim” zamiast znanego nam “l'chayim”. Ja bym chętnie się więcej dowiedział na ten temat.

Za to na pewno źle są skonstruowane przepisy - niekonsekwentne, czasem naiwne, jak wtedy gdy pisze, że takie słowa jak “mucid” czy “mucus” “we współczesnej angielszczyźnie” są rzadko spotykane.

Niezależnie od tego opowieść Lansky’ego to ważne świadectwo wiary w zbieractwo. Jidysz sam w sobie magazynuje tysiące lat żydowskich doświadczeń i wrażliwości. Jidyszowa literatura jest kluczem do zrozumienia żydowskiej historii, o czym wiele osób próbowało jeszcze nie tak dawno zapomnieć, a niektórzy wciąż nie pamiętają. Lansky w swojej hiper-optymistycznej, amerykańskiej wizji świata stara się powiedzieć, że współcześni Żydzi muszą oddawać się niekoniecznie nostalgii za utraconym shtetl, ale czerpać z tradycji siłę do budowania nowego świata. Co ciekawe dzięki inicjatywie Lansky’ego mogą to robić też goje, bo jidysz sam w sobie nie daje żadnych już odpowiedzi, bez wszelkiej maści popularyzatorów będzie językiem martwym. I dlatego autor uważa, że trzeba “przechytrzyć historię”. Słusznie, choć ten amerykański duch wielkiego sukcesu od pucybuta do milionera nad tą książką unosi się trochę jak dla mnie za blisko. Ale warto, bo Państwa to wciągnie na długie godziny.
Profile Image for Bookmarks Magazine.
2,042 reviews727 followers
February 5, 2009

Lansky's quarter-century quest not only helped keep Yiddish literature from slipping into history, but also provided him with plenty of terrific material for his first book. Granted, a story about collecting old volumes in an obscure language initially sounds less than thrilling. But thanks to Lansky's storytelling skills, this memoir lives up to the "amazing adventures" advertised in its title; it's quickly clear why he's been dubbed "the Yiddish Indiana Jones" and "the Otto Schindler of Yiddish literature." Lansky's recounting of his personal mission may come off as self-aggrandizing to a few readers. But most will likely view the book as a great tale filled with memorable anecdotes and a rich cast of characters who reflect the endangered culture they're trying to save.

This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

313 reviews
December 29, 2008
If you grew up in a family that spoke Yiddish (even your grandparents) drop everything you're reading and read this next. Even if you're not Jewish, read it. It appeals to everyone. Lansky almost accidentally started to help preserve what scholars thought were 70,000 extant Yiddish books in the world. At last count, he's found (saved, really) over 1.5 million. For Jews of Eastern European heritage, you'll hear your grandparents voices in real life, not borscht belt comedy. Lesn, kinder, lesn!

Even if you're not jewish, you'll see what perseverance can produce. Most of the book focuses on the process of collecting the books, often one by one from elderly Jews moving to nursing homes, but sometimes in groups of several thousand, oddly enough from Hassidic groups who felt that ordinary literature was worthless.

The real purpose of the National Yiddish Book Center, of course is not so much to be a library, but to redistribute the books to a new generation of readers. Unfortunately, Lanky doesn't explain how this is done very well - well, maybe in a sequel.
Profile Image for Mark.
896 reviews10 followers
August 17, 2012
Lansky makes a compelling case that the loss of Yiddish and more particularly Yiddish literature would rob the world of an understanding of 19th century Jewish history and culture. The book primarily chronicles Lansky's commendable decades long mission to rescue Yiddish literature from it's apparent demise. It is filled with great stories, and wonderful history. I would have given it 4 stars, but felt that some of the stories began to feel repetitive. Glad I read it though.
Profile Image for Heather.
390 reviews9 followers
January 8, 2021
I love reading about modern hunts for lost treasures and this book did not disappoint. It educated me, a 13th gen WASP, on some of the historical perspective and culture of Jewish and Yiddish life. Some of it was a bit hard to grasp for me towards the end, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t well written. Highly recommend for anyone who loves books or wants to learn more about Jewish and Yiddish life.
Profile Image for Corn14853.
13 reviews
May 15, 2012
A highly enjoyable book! It's got everything that a good personal story requires - shmaltz, shmaltz, and more shmaltz! But through that shmaltz and TV-image yiddishkayt you get the somewhat sad story of a whole era passing.

The Holocaust, creation of Israel (and use of Hebrew), the Soviet persecution, and assimilation (both in US and USSR), all contributed to Yiddish passing away as the main Jewish vernacular. The younger generations don't know it. The books are being thrown out as their owners pass away.

But the good news is that the author and some people inspired by his ideas, plans, and efforts decide that the thousand-year-old civilization should be saved, while there is still time; the books need to be collected and fast! (I'm sorry that this sounds like some scifi description.)

I'm sure, you'll enjoy reading the stories of author giving speeches to persuade, the people collecting books, the internecine squabbles of the Yiddish and the larger Jewish world (or, maybe, not so much that part), and the success that the author and his creation the National Yiddish Book Center have achieved.

Maybe, you'll even be inspired to get involved yourself in Yiddish and its culture or, if you hail from a community that is losing its language, to attempt something like that in your community. But even if not, the book will surely make you smile and want to keep reading it :)
Profile Image for Cyndi.
Author 1 book8 followers
January 24, 2014
Pick up this unassuming book about a nonprofit that rescues Yiddish books and you might think it would make a good article but not much of a book. Oh how wrong you would be. It's amazing. The author is a gifted writer with a wicked sense of humor. I'm not the type who usually busts out laughing while reading, but I did here, a couple dozen times. Had a few tears too. If you love books for their own sake, you'll love this particular one, even if you know nothing about Judaism or Yiddish culture. But if you do, then read it why don't you?
Profile Image for Richard Thompson.
1,833 reviews95 followers
April 20, 2014
This is a fascinating story that deserves to be told. It is a great comfort to know that someone has taken the trouble to preserve the artifacts of the great Yiddish culture that would otherwise have been literally consigned to the garbage heap of history. I found Lansky a little pedestrian as a writer, but still charming and definitely worth reading.
Profile Image for Ben Kintisch.
41 reviews5 followers
July 30, 2007
Wow what an adventure! I happen to zamler (treasure collect) for Old Jewish Recordings, so our adventures are apt to be similar to those endeavored by the kids in this book. Fun for everyone, even/especially if you don't know anything about yiddish.

Sholom Aleichem!
Profile Image for Jenny.
309 reviews5 followers
March 10, 2018
I received this book for free from PJ Library. It's been sitting on my shelf for a while and I finally decided to give it a try. WOW! So glad I did. Loved it. A great read for any Jew, any book lover and especially Jewish book lovers!
Profile Image for Courtney Ferriter.
455 reviews23 followers
December 26, 2020
** 4 stars **

Lansky's book explains how the author came to learn Yiddish and become interested in collecting discarded and unused Yiddish books. Once he has assembled a team, he travels the U.S. in search of books and amasses a staggering collection. There are many colorful stories in this section about the people he meets in his travels, all of whom want to feed him to bursting in the tradition of Jewish mothers. He eventually establishes the National Yiddish Book Center and begins traveling all over the world to spread the word about Yiddish literature and to collect even more books. More adventures ensue. Finally, he is able to digitize the collection, ensuring that these Yiddish volumes will live even beyond the physical copies of the books.

I enjoyed this book overall and found it fast-paced and easy to read. Some of the stories about Lansky and his team collecting the books do run together after a while, but otherwise, it was both informative and entertaining. I would recommend this book if you have an interest in Yiddish, Jewish culture, or literature and its preservation more broadly.
Profile Image for Abi (The Knights Who Say Book).
629 reviews94 followers
October 7, 2020
I liked this a lot. You get a mix of Jewish history and personal, funny, and heartbreaking anecdotes from an older generation of Jews, all mixed into a memoir base like cookie dough chunks in a Ben & Jerry's ice cream (meaning the chunks are actually generous enough to get one in every bite). Plus, there's a lot about what it takes to start and sustain a nonprofit organization, which my mother, who also works for a Jewish nonprofit, has conditioned me to appreciate. It's well written and funny, and because I switched to the audiobook in order to multitask I can also tell you the audio narrator has a wonderful Old Jewish Man voice that really brings to life all the people Aaron Lansky meets throughout the book. Highly recommend in either format.
Profile Image for Gulinka.
39 reviews1 follower
April 16, 2021
Książka nie tylko dla osób zaznajomionych z językiem, literaturą i kulturą jidysz. Autor naprawdę zadbał o to, żeby wszystko wytłumaczyć, a jednocześnie nie zatracić dynamiki. Dużo przygód, dużo humoru, dużo żydowskiego ducha. Ale mogłaby być spokojnie kilkadziesiąt stron krótsza i wtedy byłoby 5*
Profile Image for Camille.
164 reviews
November 5, 2014
Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books describes the life work of its author, Aaron Lansky. Yiddish was the spoken language of the 75% of the world’s Jews for the past 1,000 years. Books were a portable homeland for Jews and defined Jewish national identity. The loss of the books was also the loss of Eastern European Jewish culture and history.

Lansky’s story begins when he was a graduate student of Yiddish Literature and found it nearly impossible to locate the Yiddish books he was assigned to read. Lansky began putting up signs, stating that he was a young graduate student in need of Yiddish books. He got many responses and soon found himself inundated with books. Lansky discovered that countless Yiddish books were being discarded by a new generation of people who could not read or speak the language. To save the books, Lansky decided to go around and collect them. Some books were handed to him by the owners. These books came with a price; the donors wanted to talk about each of the books. They were handing over treasures that their children and grandchildren didn’t want. It was an emotional experience for them. Other books were rescued from dumpsters and demolition sites.

Soon, it became clear that it was impossible for a handful of people to collect thousands of books. So, Lansky organized a network of zamlers (volunteer book collectors). Books were collected nationwide and from around the world. Lansky’s mission was a matter of cultural preservation. Jewish culture was largely destroyed by the Holocaust (one out of two Yiddish-speaking Jews was killed in the Holocaust) and assimilation. In 1980, Lansky’s work led to the establishment of the Yiddish Book Center, located in Amherst, MA, on the campus of Hampshire College. It is one of the largest Jewish cultural organizations in the country. Lansky’s book is an inspirational one, and his life is a blessing.
Profile Image for Mike.
3 reviews3 followers
July 6, 2017
A true life adventure story about saving books, Outwitting History details an extraordinary endeavor and accomplishment. Unique and at times absorbing, it reads like a dot.com business startup success story, with success measured in terms of books saved and culture preserved. What began as a simple personal quest by author Aaron Lansky, to learn, read and obtain Yiddish books, morphs and eventually evolves into the founding of the National Yiddish Book Center, repository for 1.5+ million Yiddish books. As Lansky alarmingly discovers that generations of Yiddish speakers, writers and notably readers are dying with future generations in families uninterested in maintaining either the language or books of their ancestors, he perceives an urgent need to collect and preserve generations of Yiddish books before their certain destruction; thus lies the impetus and storyline for the 25 year journey of the Center.
The Center didn’t happen without a lot of hard work, dogged determination and vision, and for many of the chapters of Outwitting History the collection of Yiddish books for the Center reads like the diary entry of anyone who has ever had to hastily move college apartments or pitched in to do so: Receive phone call; urgently assemble team of volunteers and friends; formulate rough plan keeping in mind what can go wrong likely will; find and drive rental truck; deviate from plan as unanticipated event encountered; meet interesting people and be inundated with food; save Yiddish books with great personal histories to donor; feeling of teamwork, camaraderie after accomplishment of something noteworthy. Next chapter: repeat entire process.
By saving books from sure destruction Lansky may have preserved not only the books, but a culture that can be studied and assimilated in some form into the future. His extraordinary accomplishment has certainly contributed to outwitting history.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,216 reviews
October 9, 2013
A good friend sent me this book and when I started reading it, I laughed out loud. Aaron Lanksy starts his book by describing a incident when he had to climb into a dumpster to save books. I never quite did that, but I spent many years schlepping faculty book collections back to the library and trying to find good homes for good books. (What truly amazes me is that after 6 years of retirement, I am once again schlepping books – this time books about the Pacific Northwest – it must be part of my star sign.)

Lanksy, though has a bigger and wonderful goal. In the 1980’s he became aware that Yiddish books were being thrown away as the last Yiddish speaking generation ages and died, and their children didn’t know what to do with these beloved but white elephant book collections. The book is both the story of his attempt to track down and save these books, but also the story of the near death and hopeful re-birth of Yiddish culture. Lanksy is a MacArthur scholar and he obviously was ahead of his time with his creative approach to saving a culture and its artifacts – wonderful digitization projects, distribution projects, and international outreach. The book is written in a very folksy, adventuresome tone which gets a bit old after a while, and I was very ready for his more solemn expositions, especially near the end of the book, when he talks about the relationship of culture and language and the importance of diversity in our lives. Easy and fun and worthwhile reading. And a BIG Thank You to Diana for thinking of me (and knowing me so well)
Profile Image for Ann.
38 reviews
February 24, 2012
I happened to pick this book up at the library at random as I was waiting for my computer to complete its "install 1 of 1" which was taking forever. If I hadn't been sitting near the "books on books" section I never would have known about it. Really enjoyed this tale of a man and his friends who set out on a mission to rescue Yiddish books over the last 30 years or so. Wonderful stories of people who donated or helped collect books, rich with humor but also realism and pragmatism, keeping all these folks as very real people and not as "picturesques." The tone is affectionate from someone who has found real joy in what he does. But it turned much more serious as the Yiddish Book Center went into the Soviet Union to try to replenish Yiddish libraries lost through years of repression. For it is important to note that the main objective of this organization is not to "collect" but to "provide" by supplying books where needed and digitizing for public use as well as supporting in general the continuation of the Yiddish language. My one quibble is that there were more typographical errors in the book than there should have been. But it was interesting and well-written and made me wish (not for the first time) that my own language skills would allow me to break out of the bounds of English.
Profile Image for Sandy.
813 reviews
November 30, 2018
Its rare I give a 5 star on a book I have read; but this one deserves it! Books have always been in my life and they have always been my friends. This story tells the quest of one young man In the late 70's who was Jewish by birth but not actively following his religion. Aaron was in college and decided to study Yiddish. He found a professor who would teach it and a few other students who were interested. But there weren't really any Yiddish books to study, just what the professor had. He finished the course with only one other student. He realized that the Yiddish that was spoken by his grandparents and the older Jews was a dying language. He set out collecting old Yiddish books. The total; he thought; would be about 70,000 books. By word of mouth he started driving all over the country collecting Yiddish books. Twenty five years later he and his followers had amassed over 1.5 million books from around the world! In Moscow during the communist rule all libraries received a list weekly of books that were banned to be burned! Those books were partially made up of Yiddish
works of poetry and novels. All over the world books were being saved by Aaron and his group.
This is a beautiful story of preservation of a forgotten language and the people who donated and their stories.
Profile Image for Rachelle Urist.
282 reviews15 followers
October 9, 2011
When I talked about the book after I read it, people assumed the author was my friend. But I've never met him! It's just that his style of writing and the subject he explores bring me back to my roots, and I felt as though I was listening to an uncle, a cousin, a fond neighbor who knew me and my family from childhood.

I'm deeply impressed by Aaron Lansky's drive, his love of Yiddish and Yiddishkeit, his mission to save Yiddish books and a Jewish legacy. His writing style is forthright, conversational, and often witty. Though he talks throughout the book about the work he stumbled on, work that became his life, he is neither self-promoting nor unduly self-referential. (A brilliant Yiddishist I know disagrees, but that may be because she is unduly modest about her own accomplishments!)

The book made me want to learn Yiddish, to use more Yiddish in talking with my children and grandchildren, and to read more of our beloved Yiddish writers (especially the ones I already love: Peretz, Sholom Aleichem, Sholem Ash). Lansky has done much not just to save books but to save the prestige and dignity of Yiddish literature.
Profile Image for Esther.
47 reviews12 followers
January 8, 2011
Never a book I would have picked up on my own, which is a shame, because it's deeply engaging, fabulously entertaining and, unexpectedly, quite moving. Lansky has a great narrative voice and is a terrifically sympathetic "protagonist" to follow through this story, which is full of compassion, back-breaking schedules and a parade of old Jews who are watching their world vanish before our very eyes.

It's hard to summarize this one without wanting to simply shove the book at anyone who's literate and beg them to read it. On my part, it opened up a lot about Jewishness for me, and I say this as someone who's not and never has been particularly religious. One point the author makes is his hesitation regarding "the Borscht Belt," the Catskills region "that turned Yiddish into a punchline." If nothing else, this book really gave Yiddish and the Yiddish-speaking world a dignity I hadn't begun to grasp, even after hearing stories of such relatives my whole life.

Jews and non-Jews should absolutely read this book. I really did laugh and cry and miss train stops because of it.
Profile Image for Regan.
117 reviews2 followers
November 23, 2014
This book gives an interesting perspective on a people and culture that are quite foreign to me. Initially I was a little thrown off by its total lack of a chronological order but it more than made up for it by introducing interesting people and bringing to light some compelling ideas. The most obvious of these is the conflict between new and old. Of course there are certain aspects of the idea that are specifically Yiddish but all people and cultures must grapple with how much of our past do we bring with us and how much do we leave behind to be replaced by the newness. Another prominent theme is simply the importance and value of books. Without being obnoxious the author shows and obvious passion both for Yiddish history and the books that capture the history. I enjoyed reading of a man who has so obviously found his "calling" in life and considers it in a very thoughtful way.
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