Outwitting History, by Aaron Lansky

The world's Yiddish books were facing extinction, until a bold young visionary stepped in
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The Independent Culture

When Aaron Lansky's grandmother emigrated to America, she arrived with "a single cardboard valise packed with all her life's possessions" - including a photograph of the parents she would never see again. Her older brother met her at Ellis Island, took her to the Manhattan ferry and threw the case overboard. "You're in America now," he told her. "It's time to leave the Old Country behind."

When Aaron Lansky's grandmother emigrated to America, she arrived with "a single cardboard valise packed with all her life's possessions" - including a photograph of the parents she would never see again. Her older brother met her at Ellis Island, took her to the Manhattan ferry and threw the case overboard. "You're in America now," he told her. "It's time to leave the Old Country behind."

Jews like the older Lanskys, keen to reinvent themselves as Americans, felt it essential to jettison much of their heritage, and specifically to abandon Yiddish and embrace English. It fell to Aaron, "American through and through", to (metaphorically) "go back to the harbour to reclaim what was lost". In 1980, at the age of 23, he boldly decided "to save the world's Yiddish books". Experts guessed there were about 70,000 volumes still in existence. By the end of this gripping account of a remarkable rescue operation, he and his colleagues at the National Yiddish Book Centre (NYBC) had assembled a collection of one and a half million. While this obviously included multiple copies of star Yiddish authors and translations of world classics, they also found a political dictionary believed to have been lost forever, Russian Revolutionary tracts, even a chronicle of Yiddish-speaking ostrich farmers in Africa.

On one level, Lansky's motives were purely practical. He was keen to study Jewish social history, where many of the primary sources are in Yiddish, and so (like lots of other students) needed to get hold of copies. At the same time, there were many Yiddish-speaking old-timers who had hundreds, sometimes thousands, of books that their children often couldn't read and certainly had no interest in. And libraries in areas where Jews no longer lived were throwing out their Yiddish holdings.

So Lansky's task was to link supply and demand. It sounds simple, but it often meant rushing out at a moment's notice into a rainy New York winter night, for example, to pick up a consignment of discarded books, only to find many "soaked beyond any hope of salvage, floating in a fetid, dye-stained pool at the bottom of a Dumpster". Others were so fragile they crumbled in readers' hands. But those worth saving were stored in a warehouse which had recently been used to teach wallpapering, where "the crowing roosters of a kitchen pattern alternated with the seashells of bathroom, the tumbling astronauts of a kid's bedroom..."

As news of the project got out, dozens of elderly Yiddish speakers, thrilled that some youngsters were interested in their long-forgotten world, would invite Lansky and his friends to give their books a safe home. They would prepare meals so gargantuan that one of the collection team had to be appointed Designated Eater. Many offered to serve as volunteers and one even suggested that the best way of obtaining books was to hang around intensive care units and put pressure on all the expiring Jews.

Most of this older generation was also keen to talk, at great length, about their early immigrant years. Although some were still obsessed with ancient ideological quarrels, many were passionate "homegrown intellectuals" who represented to Lansky "everything that was good about the old Yiddish world: humour, generosity, intelligence, kindness, social consciousness, and an almost preternatural sense of Yiddishkeit [Jewishness]".

All this is touchingly described, but Lansky also had his enemies. When the NYBC tried to obtain support from mainstream Jewish funders, most were distinctly unsympathetic. Why, he was constantly asked, should we worry about a dying language? (When someone put this argument to one of his Canadian supporters, she instantly shot back: "And you're not going to die someday? I don't see how that stops you from worrying about yourself!")

But clearly something deeper was going on. For the affluent Jews who run the major funding bodies, there was something embarrassing, not respectable, about Yiddish: the language of the noisy, abrasive, working-class, often radical ancestors they had left behind. For those such as Lansky, suspicious of bourgeois respectability, the value and appeal of Yiddish culture lay precisely there. He was saving "a millennium of Jewish history" not only as a scholarly resource but because it often embodied "a sensibility, born of marginality, that our fractured world desperately needs. After all, nothing heightens one's commitment to social justice more than injustice, nothing hones one's love of peace more than a few thousand years of violence and oppression."

Outwitting History tells the story of a crazy youthful dream, and Lansky's often amusing encounters and adventures as he set about achieving it. But it also raises many crucial questions about all our different "heritages", and how and why we should "preserve" them.

Aaron Lansky talks today at 2pm at the Royal National Hotel, London WC1, as part of Jewish Book Week. Tel 0870 060 1798 for details

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