Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books|
by Aaron Lansky
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|A Review of: Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books
by Michael Greenstein
Aaron Lansky quotes part of Isaac Bashevis Singer's acceptance
speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature: "The high honor
bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of
the Yiddish language, a language of exile a language which possesses
no words for weapons, ammunition a language that was despised by
both gentiles and emancipated Jews." Stockholm's high honor
contrasts with the humble stature of Yiddish, a language that
ironically has no word for Alfred Nobel's discovery of dynamite.
Even non-emancipated Jews distinguish between the Hebrew loshn
koydsh (the holy tongue) and Yiddish mame loshn (mother's tongue):
the former was the language of scholarship and prayer; the latter,
of everyday life, the marketplace, and women. The two books under
review exemplify this split.
Aaron Lansky's Outwitting History is a charming account of a young
Jew's rescue of a million Yiddish books from around the world. Its
subtitle, "The Amazing Adventures", points to the picaresque
quality of Lansky's saving of Yiddish texts. A latter-day Don Quixote
of the New World, Lansky traverses the United States in a series
of broken-down pickup trucks laden with volume upon volume of
remnants from the Old World, as he enlists the help of "zamlers"
or volunteer book collectors. In his light-hearted chronicle we
follow the weighty U-hauls and drivers stuffed with all manner of
Yiddish home-cooked delicacies across America.
The book begins with a dumpster in Lower Manhattan, site of Lansky's
first retrieval of books destined to disappear. Eventually Lansky
(re)-covers not only the United States, but also Cuba, Argentina,
Canada, and the U.S.S.R., gathering Yiddish remnants from the four
corners of the earth. These texts finally find a permanent home in
Amherst, Massachusetts, at the National Yiddish Book Center. The
book's title derives from Yiddish scholar Max Weinrich's prediction
that because Yiddish has magic it will outwit history. Through
Lansky's magical persistence, Weinrich's prophecy has come true.