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Book Review: Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky

Author: Aaron Lansky
Genre: Memoir, Jews, Yiddish
Pub. Date: October 2005
Format: Paperback, 328pp
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Catchy title isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to outsmart fascist dictators or evil emperors? To be a hero for the masses, the over thrower of a despotic regime is many a man’s dream. But to do so with books seems a little farfetched. Yet that is exactly what Aaron Lansky did. Well, at least metaphorically.

Outwitting History is the memoir of Aaron Lansky. He tells the story, from his own point-of-view, of the creation of the National Yiddish Book Center and its mission to save the world’s Yiddish books. The Yiddish Book Center is an organization that collects, digitizes, translates, and disseminates Yiddish literature.

Yiddish is the language of the Jews in exile, primarily those in Easter Europe, those most persecuted and destroyed by the Holocaust and other similar endeavors. It has been said that great suffering creates great writers. This is the case for Yiddish especially. The language is an amalgamation of tongues from Europe, one used by the Jews in exile to speak to one another. It was their common language, unlike Hebrew, which was limited to religious texts.

Lansky tells the story of his need for Yiddish books to read for a class in Yiddish (so uncommon a thing at the time, there were only five people in the class, and it wasn’t even accredited.) Thinking on the problem, Lansky realized that many of the people of his grandparents’ generation who owned many Yiddish books that their successors couldn’t even read. So he came up with the idea of collecting them, cataloging them and storing them. This saved them from the ruthless assimilation culture (a culture that denigrated the past) common for American Jews, who desired to join the melting pot that was the United Sates of the early 1900s.

The story of the growth of the Yiddish Book Center from a personal library to a worldwide non-profit organization is at times sad, and at times very comical, but always interesting.

The book does suffer from (an expected) myopia about the validity of the Jewish culture and Yiddish books in particular. Calling Yiddish the language of Jewish culture, rather than religion, Lansky does his best to divorce the religion of the Jews from being Jewish. And while his point is well-taken, such a divorce is saddening. The chosen people of God have devolved from that high place into one culture among many.

However, Lansky is to be applauded for saving so many books, from a culture that, without his efforts, likely would have disappeared with little to show. The wealth of literature that Yiddish brings to the world is not to be denied, and should be studied as much as we study any other written tongue.

For those who love books, some the anecdotes and stories are horrifying. For those who love the Jewish religion and the Christian faith it spawned will be saddened that the chosen people have fallen so far. And for those who want to learn something about Jewishness both past and present, this is an excellent introduction into the culture.

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