Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books” as Want to Read:
Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  1,822 ratings  ·  309 reviews
“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
Paperback, 328 pages
Published September 2nd 2005 by Algonquin Books (first published October 5th 2004)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Outwitting History, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Outwitting History

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.21  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,822 ratings  ·  309 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books
Kressel Housman
Oct 17, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In the final chapter of this book, Aaron Lansky tells a story about his grandmother, though I’ve heard variations of it about 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 li ...more
Mar 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 can't sing too many praises about this book. It made me laugh & cry simultaneously. It's a beautifully written book. ...more
Jun 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Jul 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 rem ...more
Lisa Feld
Aug 06, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: colorado
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 ga ...more
Nov 19, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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!

May 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Bookmarks Magazine

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 Yiddis

Jan 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: judaica, history, religion
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. ...more
Aug 16, 2012 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in History, Literature, Jewish studies.
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. ...more
Lesley Looper
May 20, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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!
Richard Thompson
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.
Ben Kintisch
Jul 20, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: book lovers
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!
Dec 21, 2017 rated it it was ok
an egoistic circle-jerk. the ybc is a formidable institution, but lansky should be ashamed of this awful and frankly embarrassing depiction of how he created a cult of personality around himself and his accomplishment of *supposedly* rescuing “the world’s yiddish books” all by his lonesome.
Mar 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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! ...more
Courtney Ferriter
Dec 25, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-i-own
** 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 al
Abi (The Knights Who Say Book)
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, ...more
Nov 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
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 impossibl
Jul 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
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 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 Yiddis ...more
Aug 23, 2013 rated it liked it
Recommended to Diane by: Diana
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 ...more
Feb 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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 th ...more
Nov 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 finish ...more
Rachelle Urist
Oct 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
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, conversat
Jan 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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 an
Oct 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 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 ...more
Jun 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 50-books-in-2015
I bought this book while in Germany - partly because I was missing the Jewish culture that should by rights be part of the very fabric of Berlin. More than once I had to stop reading while on trains and buses because I was afraid of tears rolling down my face.

The story of a bunch of scrappy uni students setting out to save one of the greatest literatures on earth is incredibly moving. Just the fact that when they started they believed only 70,000 Yiddish books existed - but managed to save over
Marc Davis
Sep 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: jewish
Stranger than fiction -- the true story of how one obsessed man single-handedly (with the eventual help of lots of friends) saved the long-forgotten world of Yiddish literature. It evokes a time and place (and people) that are now just memories, but remain a powerful presence for millions of Jewish Americans.

In the words of the old Levy's Rye Bread commercials, you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy this unique tale -- but it helps. (And if you don't have a powerful urge to visit the Yiddish Book
Aug 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Did not expect to enjoy this as much as I did. A happenstance mission to save all the Yiddish books, worldwide, becomes a grassroot journey, driven by the author, with many a mishap, history lesson and sit down dinner. The stories told by the numerous book donators were heartwarming, heartbreaking and humorous. I picked up a few Yiddish words that are now part of my vocabulary and learned a lot about the tenacity of preservation. A truly amazing story of how driving dilapidated rental trucks wit ...more
Jun 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
In the late 1970s, Lansky began taking college Yiddish classes and soon found that it was quite difficult to find books in Yiddish, so he began taking them in. As word got out that he was accepting them, more and more people started calling with books for him to take. In the process, he learned a whole lot about Jewish culture, particularly in the aftermath of WWII, and of the often conflicting views of Yiddish as both language and social construct. I am not Jewish and the only Yiddish I know ar ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
an accidental archivist 6 20 Oct 07, 2012 10:27AM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • Poufne
  • Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
  • Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends
  • Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life-in Judaism (after Finally Choosing to Look There)
  • Tajemnica rodzinna z Żydami w tle
  • The Scarlet and the Blithdale Romance
  • The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come
  • The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World
  • Płuczki. Poszukiwacze żydowskiego złota
  • Redhead by the Side of the Road
  • Enemies: A Love Story
  • The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World
  • If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir
  • Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews
  • Pokora
  • What the Devil Knows (Sebastian St. Cyr, #16)
  • The Invention of the Jewish People
  • The Crucible of War: Auchinleck's Command: The Definitive History of the Desert War
See similar books…
See top shelves…
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),

News & Interviews

Oh hey, we're nearly halfway through 2021! We can't really believe it either... Traditionally, this is the time when the Goodreads editorial...
57 likes · 9 comments