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

by Aaron Lansky
ISBN: 1565124294

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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.

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