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

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Algonquin Books, 2004 - Antiques & Collectibles - 316 pages
18 Reviews
The great Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich was delivering a lecture in Finland when the Nazis invaded his native Poland. The lecture saved his life. He made his way to New York, where he opened his doors to new students. Many thought his work was hopeless—especialy since half of the world's Yiddish speakers had been killed in the Holocaust. Asked why he persevered, Weinreich answered simply: "Because Yiddish has magic, it will outwit history."

And so it has—though in ways few could have imagined. In 1980, a twenty-three-year-old student named Aaron Lanksy set out to rescue the world's abandoned Yiddish books before it was too late. Precious volumes that had survived Hitler and Stalin were being passed down from older generations of Jewish immigrants to their non-Yiddish-speaking children—only to be thrown away or destroyed. With little more than his own chutzpah, Lansky issued a worldwide appeal for unwanted Yiddish books, and the response was overwhelming.

Outwitting History is an adventure tale filled with unforgettable characters and told with the exuberance of a man whose passion led him from house to house, country to country, collecting treasured books and heartfelt, often hilarious stories of the vibrant intellectual world these older Jews inhabited. Lansky and a team of young volunteers crisscrossed America, shlepping books from attics and basements, demolition sites and Dumpsters, while shmoozing with their owners, who insisted on feeding them a little nosh—gefilte fish, kasha, blintzes, latkes, kugel—before handing over, one book at a time, their beloved literary history.

When Lansky started out, experts believed that fewer than 70,000 Yiddish-language books still existed. Twenty-five years and 1.5 million books later, the organization Lansky founded, the National Yiddish Book Center, is one of the largest and fastest-growing Jewish cultural groups in the world. As he takes us along on his groundbreaking journey, Lansky explores the roots of the Yiddish language and introduces us to the brilliant Yiddish writers—from Mendele to Sholem Aleichem to I.B. Singer—whose lasting cultural relevance is evident on every page. He shares the humor, tenacity, and love for the written word that unites Jewish immigrants with everyone who cares about the future of great literature. And he enables us to see how an almost-lost culture is the bridge between the old world and the future.
 

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - Colby_Glass - LibraryThing

The amazing story of a young man who discovers that as older Jews are dying, their Yiddish books are being discarded. He starts asking for the books and ends up creating a massive library of Yiddish literature, saving it from oblivion. Inspiring and exciting reading. Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - voracious - LibraryThing

Aaron Lansky started out as a graduate student interested in Yiddish literature when he set out with some friends to look for Yiddish books. At the advice of his professor, they began combing areas of ... Read full review

Selected pages

Contents

Out of the Dumpster
3
Bread and Wine
9
Come Back after Yontef
19
What Is Mendele Doing in a Fruit Basket on the Floor?
29
On the Road
41
A Ritual of Cultural Transmission
43
Dont You Know That Yiddish Is Dead?
47
A Day in the Life
57
A Ghost in the Attic
150
If Not Higher
159
Hitlers Fault
170
Ganvenen dem GrenetsCrossing the Border
181
Squandered at the Concord
183
Kaddish
194
A Job for the Young
210
The Four Corners of the Earth
219

A Brief History of Yiddish Literature
69
People Are Dying Today Who Never Died Before
79
Pretty Soon Well Have a Whole Forest in Israel and No More Members Here
86
Love and Peace
93
Ostroff Sea Gate
102
The Great Newark Book Heist
118
Him I Dont Talk To
123
Youre a Liar
125
Theyre Tearing Apart the Library
140
Back in the USSR
241
Bringing It All Back Home
259
Der Oylem RedtThe World Takes Notice
261
A Home of Our Own
277
Immortality
289
The Valise at the Bottom of the Sea
301
Notes
313
Acknowledgments
317
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About the author (2004)

Aaron Lansky is the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center (www.yiddishbookcenter.org) in Amherst, Massachusetts. The recipient of a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, he has helped fuel the renaissance of Jewish literature in this country. He lives with his family in western Massachusetts. nbsp;

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