October 7, 2004
Preserving Yiddish One Book at a Time
Aaron Lansky is the Yiddish Indiana Jones. The founder and president of the National Jewish Book Center, Lansky has been an intrepid archaeologist and adventurer in his decades-long effort to find and save Yiddish books around the world before they are destroyed or lost forever. With scarce resources but aided by enthusiastic volunteers, he has emptied dumpsters in the rain, salvaged books from forgotten basements, emptied libraries on the brink of being closed and crossed international borders amid danger.
This 49-year-old gentle soul, the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, has also sipped tea and eaten cakes and homemade delicacies across America, listening to stories from aging Jews about to give up their collections of Yiddish books -- people entrusting him with their inheritance.
In his first book, "Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books" (Algonquin Books), Lansky earnestly tells his story, from his initial study of Yiddish as an undergraduate to his building an institution described by Esquire magazine as "the most grass-roots Jewish organization in America," with a state-of-the-art facility on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. In 25 years, they have collected more than 1.5 million Yiddish books and now have 35,000 members.
The book's title is drawn from a response given by the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich. When asked why he persevered in teaching in Yiddish after half of the world's Yiddish-speaking population was killed in the Shoah, he said, "Because Yiddish has magic, it will outwit history."
When Lansky was a student, he and his classmates had trouble finding copies of the Yiddish books they wanted to read. He began searching old bookstores and synagogues, and realized that indeed there were many Yiddish books in private collections, whose readers were dying off and leaving them to children and grandchildren who couldn't read the language. Soon after beginning his graduate studies, Lansky, then 23, decided to take a leave of absence "to save the world's Yiddish books before it was too late."
Although Lansky had the passions of an antiquarian book collector, he hardly looked the role. After the word got out about his efforts, he would show up in jeans, driving an old dented truck, ready to cart away as many books as people would part with. Often the books were given one at a time, with a tale about each. Everywhere he went, he was kissed.
In an interview, Lansky said that people poured out their hearts in what he came to see as a "ritual of cultural transmission." He would prop up his tape recorder on the table between the gefilte fish and chrayn, or horseradish. Even when people asked not to be taped, he sometimes would turn the tape recorder on in his pocket, ever aware of the historical responsibility of remembering their words. From his first days on the road, he had the sense that he was witnessing a moment he would need to write about.
In the name of efficiency, he would travel with two colleagues and one would be the designated eater, left sitting at the table while the others hauled books. Among their early donors were Marjorie Guthrie (the wife of Woody and whose mother was a Yiddish writer), Abbie Hoffman's mother and Allen Ginsberg's stepmother. Sometimes, Lansky would get middle-of-the-night emergency calls regarding institutions about to throw out their books, and he and his team would race down in a truck. Once, while emptying the books out of a Bronx cultural library, they enlisted an assembly line of local kids to help them. He also writes of missions to Cuba and Russia.
Once the center collected a significant number of books, their aim was never to keep them, but rather to distribute them to schools and libraries. And now their efforts extend beyond that, to sharing the knowledge inside of the books to a wide audience. Their recent projects include creating a digital library, a summer internship for college students (they get 100 applicants for every spot, and this year will increase the program from six to 20 students), translating major Yiddish works into English, and cultural programs -- in Amherst and around the country -- featuring Yiddish books as well as the works of Jewish writers working in English. Lansky speaks with enthusiasm about their current efforts to make Yiddish texts available online. With new search tools, "years of research can be done in a matter of minutes," he said.
He points out one of the great ironies of contemporary Jewish life, that Chasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who continue to speak Yiddish and teach it to their children, are completely hostile to modern Yiddish literature, as though it was unkosher. Ever optimistic, Lansky is hopeful that might change.
"How many times in Jewish history have things been condemned?" he asked. "The day will soon come when Yiddish literature is not a threat but one more strata on the accretion of Jewish texts."
These days, Lansky doesn't do a lot of shlepping. He feels the years of lifting books in his knees.
"I'm like an old Jewish guy going down stairs," he joked.
There's a generation of young people he's trained who set out with the center's van to collect books when new troves become available.
Sometimes when he looks out on the sea of books -- the center's repository is visible throughout the building -- he feels like the books represent a lost civilization, a whole aspect of Jewish culture that is missing.
"The books are tangible proof that this culture exists," he said, adding, "Yiddish is the entry point."
He is married and the father of two young daughters who don't speak Yiddish, although he hopes that they will choose to learn the language when they are older in order to have access to the literature.
Lansky grew up in New Bedford, Mass., where his family attended a Conservative synagogue regularly. He always preferred sitting in the back with the older men who spoke with accents -- the bootleggers, peddlers and junkmen who munched on herring and onions -- to the American-born professionals, like his parents, who sat up front.
Doing this work has deepened his sense of being Jewish. For him, the dialectic between the cultural and religious sides of Judaism is a creative force, and he has come to realize that "you can't perpetuate culture without ritual."
When asked if he sees his 25-year effort as holy work, he said that's too big a statement for him to make.
"I do feel I'm blessed in being able to do the right thing at the right time," he said. "Somehow everything has gone right for us. Not that there aren't thousands of challenges every day -- and we've been working 24 hours a day, six days a week. I have a sense of momentum about it that's very gratifying."
Not all people who love books can write them, and Lansky writes well and with understated humor, capturing his love for the language on paper. He peppers his prose with Yiddish sayings, so the book provides some Yiddish lessons, and at times, he ruminates on the history of Yiddish literature. Writing a book, he said, "has given him a whole new respect for every single book on the shelf."
In his choice to do this work rather than pursue his initial scholarly interests, he admits that he hasn't had time to read as many Yiddish books as he would have liked. But lately he has a bit more time and is now reading a new Yiddish novel by Boris Sandler, editor of the Forward. On the notion of a new Yiddish book, he admits, "Yiddish has outwitted me."
Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.