The man who rescued a million Yiddish books

Some three decades ago, when Aaron Lansky and friends began climbing into Dumpsters to rescue discarded Yiddish books, he had no idea what sort of treasures might turn up or how far the venture would carry him.

Today — one million books later — he is the founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., the legendary bibliographic repository that, thanks to his inspirational efforts, rose like a phoenix from the ashes of a language that many had given up for dead.

It was the great Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich who dared to suggest that “Because Yiddish has magic, it will outwit history.” Appropriately, Lansky drew his title from the remark and became a conduit of its prophecy. The book — Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books — was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 2004.

It must be observed, with no scientific basis whatsoever, that only a Jew could write a passionate adventure story about rescuing books. His descriptions of heroic missions by teams of zimlers (collectors) to save old Yiddish tomes are engrossing, entertaining — and dramatic, because in many cases the books were only a hair’s breadth removed from the dustbin of history.

The National Yiddish Book Center acts as a clearing-house for Yiddish books, collecting unwanted volumes and distributing them to libraries and readers who desire them. It has scanned and reprinted multitudes of rare and not-so-rare titles using a specialized Japanese-made scanner that passes over both sides of a page at once, reducing wear and tear on paper that is often crumbling with age.

Lansky says he was surprised at the high proportion of books, ranging from Bambi to the Bhagavad Gita, that were classics in translation. A young Isaac Bashevis Singer was responsible for Afn mayrev front keyn nayes, a translation of All Quiet on the Western Front. The 13-volume set of the Collected Works of Guy de Maupassant in Yiddish was distributed free as a subscription incentive for a popular Yiddish newspaper.

A popular work was Kenig Lir — Shakespeare’s King Lear — which “dealt with a subject much on the minds of Jewish immigrants: tsores mit kinder — trouble with children,” Lansky observes. It is with a rather chutzpahdik mixture of temerity and wit that an editor decided to emblazon the cover of another Shakespearean translation with the promise “Fartaytsht un fabesert — Translated and Improved.”

Lansky presents a “geshmak” (delectable) pocket history of Yiddish literature as well as a rare overview of what was rolling off Yiddish presses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Did your family ever use a 1930s-era Maxwell House Coffee Haggadah at Passover? Lansky presents a neat bit of sociological history by reporting that Maxwell House distributed the books for free with its coffee, specifically to counter the misimpression that coffee beans are unfit for Passover consumption: the beans are actually berries, and thus fully kosher.

The Center’s rarest and most remarkable find has to be Leksikon fun politishe un fremdverter, the Dictionary of Political and Foreign Terminology in Yiddish, an 1,100-page volume edited by Dor-Ber Slutski and published in Kiev in 1929.

Lansky describes the book as “a scholar’s dream: a lexical snapshot showing exactly how Jews perceived the world around them at a moment of great social and political change.” He was, therefore, perplexed to find no listing of the title in either the YIVO Institute in New York or the Library of Congress in Washington.

After much digging, he found an obscure volume containing a revealing mention of its author: “Slutski spent the entire decade of the 1920s working on a comprehensive dictionary of foreign and political terminology. The book was published in 1929. However, the authorities deemed it politically unacceptable and destroyed the entire print run. No copies survive.” After more detective work, Lansky found that a cousin of Slutski had visited Kiev and been given a copy of the dictionary as it was coming off the printing press, just days or hours before the secret police destroyed all other copies.

Lansky was awarded a lucrative and prestigious MacArthur Fellowship for his against-all-odds achievement, the story of which is elegantly told in Outwitting History. ♦

© 2004 by Bill Gladstone