Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books
by Aaron Lansky
(Algonquin Books, 2004)

Reviewed by Bob Jacobson

In the mid-1970’s, four college students in Western Massachusetts began studying a nearly dead language.  They scoured college libraries in vain for Yiddish literature.  Their search brought them to New York’s Lower East Side, where they found hundreds of books.  Were there more?  Scholars said that seventy thousand volumes might remain in all of North America.  One of the students, Aaron Lansky, decided to rescue the remnant. 

Fast forward to the 21st century.  Nearly 1.5 million volumes of Yiddish literature have been saved.  Today, the National Yiddish Book Center, with Lansky at the helm, provides books to five hundred libraries in twenty-six countries and spreads Yiddish culture far and wide from its pastoral setting in Amherst, Massachusetts.  Many of its one-time summer interns have become professors of Yiddish literature.

This story of how a tiny band of passionate “post-hippies” with rudimentary Yiddish skills save Yiddish literature is exciting, funny and bittersweet.  The greatest thrills come as Lansky’s crews rescue thousands of books at a time, literally moments away from, sometimes already in, the Dumpster.  Many more books come from elderly folks passing on their beloved personal libraries, along with a sense of the vibrant Yiddish culture rapidly being lost.  Inevitably, often hilariously, these exchanges take place over huge amounts of food and tea.  A system evolves wherein each crew of three includes two workers and one Designated Eater.

Lansky credits a massive grass-roots effort for the success of the National Yiddish Book Center.  A world-wide network of volunteer zamlers (locator/collectors), mainly people in their twenties, seventies and eighties, has found and gathered the books.  Initially spurned by the Jewish establishment, for years the Center’s operations were fueled mainly by small donations.  Yes, big names have also been involved - Irving Howe, Saul Bellow and Alfred Kazin in the beginning, more recently Leonard Nimoy and Steven Spielberg, whose major donation will fund the digitizing of the thirty-five thousand titles collected by the Center. 

Despite his humility, there’s no denying that the author’s vision and follow-through have been the key factor in saving Yiddish literature for future generations. He’s also a realist.   Citing the unlikely prospect of a massive resurgence in Yiddish literacy, Lansky  concludes that a major task before the Yiddish Book Center is translation.