Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky


“A city with many wise men will have many collectors of books.” 
—S.Y. Agnon

Outwitting History (2004) by Aaron Lansky
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

When Aaron Lansky started this ambitious project in 1980—to rescue Yiddish books from certain death—it was thought that there were no more than 70,000 Yidisher bikher in existence. How wrong this estimate was; by the time this book was written, almost 25 years later, Lansky says that his organization had already collected 1.5-million Yiddish books. And the number keeps growing at the Yiddish Book Center, which is “set on a ten-acre apple orchard at the edge of the Hampshire College campus in Amherst, Massachusetts.”

If you care even a bisl about Yiddish, this is a book that you will enjoy. His encounter with Mr. Temmelman, in a high-rise elderly building in Atlantic City in July 1980, explains much of what was and what is at stake:
It was a long afternoon. Every book he handed me had its story. This wasn't at all what I expected, and too spellbound and polite to interrupt, I fell hours behind schedule. But I did begin to understand what was taking place. Sitting together in that crowded apartment—he an eighty-seven-year-old man in a wool suit, I a bearded twenty-four-year-old in jeans and a T-shirt—we were enacting a ritual of cultural transmission. He was handing me not merely his books, but his world, his yerushe, the inheritance his own children had rejected. I was a stranger, but he had no other choice. Book by book, he was placing all his hopes in me. (45)
As for Yiddish language and culture, despite incurring the loss (chiefly a result of murder, really) of millions of Yiddish speakers by Nazi Germany during the war, it is doing remarkably well, not so much what it could have been, but what it can be. That is, what it can be under the circumstances of history. History can’t be undone, but we can learn from it. We can rebuild what was destroyed; it won’t be the same but it can approach similarity.

There are now hundreds of organizations and websites dedicated to all things Yiddish, including language, culture and music. It might be a resurgence, it might be a renaissance, it might be a cultural awakening on the value and importance of Yiddish. It is with this in mind that Lansky and the Yiddish Book Center aim to be a central repository for all things Yiddish, including what was thought lost.

He’s on the right track, and he has already done what many originally thought impossible. It is about saving literature, about saving Jewish literature, in particular, and about Yiddishkeyt. To Aaron Lansky, I say Yasher Koyekh. You have outwitted history.

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