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“In Yiddish,” said Nahman of Bratslav, the turn-of-the-18th-century Hasidic rabbi and teacher, “it is easier to break one’s heart.” Poor Nahman didn’t know the half of it. For in the space of a few generations—indeed, the lifetime of its most famous practitioner, Isaac Bashevis Singer—Yiddish has gone from a language spoken by some 8 million Jews to a spot on the UNESCO list of endangered languages. Yiddish, the beloved mame loshn of the European diaspora, has gone from heartbreaker to heartbreaking. Moribund in America and persona non grata in Israel, it is nowadays the everyday language of no more than the small number of Haredim who populate isolated enclaves in cities such as New York and Amsterdam. If, as the proverb goes, “A Jew likes the taste of a Yiddish word in his mouth,” it’s a flavor that most Jews have learned to live without.
Yiddish was first spoken about a thousand years ago by Jews in what is now Germany. A mishmash of Hebrew, German (lots of German), and the Slavic and Romance languages, Yiddish has, until fairly recently, gotten little respect. Held to be a kind of low tongue even by its own, Hebrew-venerating speakers, it was the language of women and the street—a proletarian language if ever there was one. Yet from its humble origins, this zhargon grew over the centuries to be a vibrant tongue and a formidable tool for poets, fiction writers, and all manner of political and social visionaries.
Then came the 20th century, and with it a series of interrelated events that would sound the death knell for Yiddish as a widely spoken language—the Holocaust in Europe, Jews’ assimilation into English-speaking America, Stalinist repression in the U.S.S.R., and the successful efforts (spearheaded by the messianic Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) to resurrect Hebrew as an everday language in Palestine. Such was the blow struck to Yiddish that, by 1974, the Yiddish-speaking Native American braves in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles represented more than a great gag—they were a bitter kind of joke on Yiddish itself. The language—which Brooks had undoubtedly once heard spoken on a daily basis—was quickly becoming as much of an anachronism as feathered headdresses. If Yiddish wasn’t as dead as Crazy Horse, it seemed just a matter of time.
Fortunately, not everyone has been content to let Yiddish go the way of Sanskrit. Even as most of the few remaining Yiddish newspapers and magazines in America were closing their doors—casualties of an inexorable process that saw elderly Yiddish speakers passing away and few young ones taking their place—a new generation of young Jews developed a sudden hankering to learn more about the life and language of their grandparents.
Among the believers in this burgeoning “Yiddish Revival” was one Aaron Lansky. Born in 1955 in New Bedford, Mass., Lansky joined the ranks of those whose interest in Judaism was as much cultural as religious in college. But if his desire to reconnect with the Yiddish of his predecessors was a reassuringly not uncommon one, his expression of his love for mame loshn was—and remains—extraordinary indeed. As a grad student at Montreal’s McGill University, Lansky set out to save Yiddish literature.
The title of his new autobiography, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, tells the whole story. In this surprisingly entertaining and warm account, Lansky relates, with the talent of a born raconteur, how, when faced with the difficulty of finding Yiddish books to read for his coursework, he was advised by a professor to canvass the Jewish neighborhoods near the university. All around him, it seemed, old Yiddish speakers were dying. Their libraries—the treasures of a literature-loving people—were moldering away unread or, worse, being consigned to dumpsters.
The predicament—Lansky quotes the Yiddish bookseller in Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story, who when asked whether he worries about thieves says, “My only fear is that some Yiddish author might break in and put in some more books”—extended even to Lansky’s rabbi. During a visit, Lansky discovered that the fellow intended to bury some Yiddish books—a sign of respect usually reserved for Hebrew religious texts—that had found their way into his hands. What else was he supposed to do with them? Who was going to read them? Just like elderly Yiddish speakers, Yiddish books were literally going to the grave.
So Lansky set about collecting. Most people would have stopped at gathering whatever volumes they needed to continue their own studies. Or, if they were ambitious, at the city limits of Montreal. Not Lansky. Lansky had chutzpah. With the insouciance of youth, he informed his professors that he was taking a leave of absence to engage in the staggering and seemingly quixotic task of rescuing North America’s Yiddish books, one at a time. At first through word of mouth, and with nothing but a succession of cheap rental trucks and some cheap warehouse space, Lansky established the Yiddish Book Center. Then he and a ragtag crew of zamlers (volunteer collectors) began to visit Jewish enclaves along the Eastern Seaboard, collecting unwanted Yiddish books to put into the hands of new readers.
Early on, experts told Lansky that there might be some 75,000 Yiddish books extant in America. There must have been times, although he never says so, during the several decades of his “temporary” leave of absence when he wished they had been right. Had he known that he would be saving some 1.5 million (and he’s still at it), he might have thought twice. Undoubtedly no one reckoned on the strange places where Yiddish books would turn up. How could anyone, for instance, have anticipated the 10,000 volumes that would find their way to the Judah Magnes Museum in Berkeley—the donation of a dying commune of left-wing Jewish chicken farmers from Petaluma? Or the 5,000 that would entice Lansky out of bed in the middle of the night to travel hundreds of miles so he could rescue them from a dumpster in a driving New York City rain? The books were everywhere: in the basements of Bronx tenements, in apartments at seaside retirement homes, in the shuttered offices of once-vibrant Yiddish newspapers. Lansky even recounts how he and some confederates conspired with some simpatico folks at the Newark Public Library to “steal” a collection of Yiddish books that were slated for disposal.
But Lansky does more than simply enumerate his adventures; he brings Yiddish to life, exploring its origins and greatest writers and delving into its oft-derided status as what historian Heinrich Graetz, himself a Jew, dismissed as eine halbtierische Sprache—a half-bestial tongue. In so doing, Lansky covers ground that has been well-trodden before—with particular success by Miriam Weinstein in her informal and eminently readable 2001 history, Yiddish: A Nation of Words. But Lansky’s survey of the history of Yiddish, albeit brief, is anything but perfunctory. It’s necessary to an understanding of why he has seen fit to dedicate the better part of his life to rescuing the literature of a dying tongue.
To Lansky’s way of thinking, the “despised” Yiddish language perfectly reflects both the outsider status of Europe’s Jews and their unique set of humanistic values. Citing Singer’s Nobel Prize speech—in which the writer described his beloved Yiddish as “a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics”—Lansky stakes a claim for mame loshn as the language of a persecuted people who “valued peace, decency, and social justice not as abstract values but as the strategy for their own survival.” To Lansky, Yiddish literature is inherently countercultural. It is no coincidence, he says, that the Yiddish revival began during the social upheavals that accompanied the Vietnam War.
But the real strength of Lansky’s book—the reason why it’s good that he, rather than some journalist or historian, wrote it—is its warmth. The pages given over to Lansky’s relationships with the elderly Jews who entrust him with their cherished tomes are tender, often heartbreaking. As Lansky learns early on, one does not simply stroll into a house, grab the books, and walk right out. Each collecting trip involves an intricate “ritual of cultural transmission”—as often as not accompanied by a lovingly prepared meal, long stories about each and every book being passed on, and the start of a lasting friendship. Lansky poignantly describes how many elderly book lovers lacked a “yarshn—someone to whom they could bequeath not only their libraries but the sum total of their lives. God only knows they deserved it. And God only knows I tried. But in the end, what history had stolen from them, no one—not I, not anyone—could restore.”
In short, Outwitting History is less a story of books than of the people who owned them—and those who care for them now. Lansky tells innumerable tales of the hardships of keeping the concern now called the National Yiddish Book Center running, of the constant scramble for funding, and of promotional speaking trips that took him, in one hilarious episode, to a Catskills resort whose owner, a Mel Brooks creation if there ever was one, would simply not be disabused of the notion that Lansky was just another Borscht Belt entertainer. And he recounts the center’s numerous successes—its move to a multi-million-dollar facility on the campus of Hampshire College in Massachusetts; its efforts to extend its book-hunting operations to South America, Eastern Europe, even Cuba; and its English translation and systematic digitization programs.
Lansky’s allegiance isn’t merely to words on paper. It’s to the values that those words, and the people who lived them through centuries of oppression, represent. And his persistence in the face of—at least at first—almost universal indifference has turned out to be more than the mitzvah of one idealistic—one might say meshuge—man. Near the end of Outwitting History, Lansky quotes Singer as saying, “Yiddish has not yet said its last word.” Thanks in part to Lansky, he’s probably right. CP