Lansky to the Rescue
By YOSEF I. ABRAMOWITZ
Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of A Man Who Rescued A Million
By Aaron Lanksy
316 pages. Algonquin Books. $24.95.
It's a literary David-and-Goliath story: a young man takes
on a quixotic task (rescuing Yiddish books from oblivion), creates an
organization out of nothing, gets dissed by the Jewish establishment, and finally
succeeds. Whatís not to like? Aaron Lansky, the president of the National Yiddish Book Center, has
finally penned his autobiography. Itís a great story, but only a good book.
Lansky, a man credited with saving 1.5 million Yiddish books, is at his best
regaling the reader with variations on the same theme: he responds first to the
call of history and then to thousands of subsequent calls to save books
destined for the dustbin of history (and other trash receptacles around North
America). Lansky collects the donors' tales around kitchen tables and then is
bequeathed, on behalf of us all, the books that grounded their old-world lives.
Buried among the stories are some invaluable narrative nuggets. Consider, for
instance, the tale of how Woody Guthrieís wife hired an Orthodox tutor for
their kids, Nora and Arlo. The rabbi who recommended the tutor fired him for
being too absolutist in his theology. The tutor, it turns out, was Jewish
extremist Meir Kahane.
I wished that Outwitting History
focused a bit more on Yiddish literature itself, the burst of intellectual
vibrancy of Yiddish in its heyday, which Lansky only begins to capture in a
short chapter on Yiddish history. I also wanted to read more on the social-justice
dimension of Yiddish, what it represented to both the new immigrants of the
Lower East Side and the Jewish idealists in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. I
believe that for all the counter-cultural hipness that Yiddish represents today
in some circles, it would strum a louder cord with even more people if it sang
of Yiddish's associations with social revolution and human aspiration.
One senses, in Lansky's story of providing Yiddish books to new schools in the
Former Soviet Union, that even the author sees the limitations of his
impressive accomplishment. Yes, Yiddish may outwit history and continue to
survive, but it is not likely to define the future of Jewish history. Coincidentally,
the government of Birobidzhan,
a Jewish autonomous region, has recently offered Yiddish in the public schools.
But this is an odd footnote, not a trend. It is an echo of the past, not an
omen for the future.
Lansky, as the generational inheritor of various tattered Yiddish idealisms,
has been the envy of many a Jewish dreamer and leader. (That MacArthur genius
award didnít hurt, either.) Tenacity and countless textual-rescue trips have
created a 32,000-member strong organization and a non-profit business model
that may herald a new era in creating specialized centers of gravity in Jewish
life rather than overarching mega-organizations.
Lansky fans should read the book, for they will recognize their own stories as
part of the larger historic drama that Lansky has claimed as his own. Detractors
should read the book and understand that neither the forces of history that
limit Yiddish, nor the National Yiddish Book Centerís supremacy can be stopped.
The train has left the station. But, as in Lanskyís retelling of the Tevye
story, Tevye never got on the train because of a miscommunication with the non-Jewish
After celebrating Yiddish, the next task will be the celebration of the values
of the people for whom Yiddish was the means to transmit the story and dreams
of the Jewish people. Because of Lansky, Yiddish again is another gateway, a
portal, to the power of enduring Jewish values and intellectual energy. The
book is charming, as is Lansky himself. But history can only be outwitted by
the rejuvenation of the Jewish people itself. And it will take more than
Yiddish to make it happen.