Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books


“Incredible . . . Inspiring . . . Important.” —Library Journal, starred review

“A marvelous yarn, loaded with near-calamitous adventures and characters as memorable as Singer creations.” —The New York Post
“What began...

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Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books

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“Incredible . . . Inspiring . . . Important.” —Library Journal, starred review

“A marvelous yarn, loaded with near-calamitous adventures and characters as memorable as Singer creations.” —The New York Post
“What began as a quixotic journey was also a picaresque romp, a detective story, a profound history lesson, and a poignant evocation of a bygone world.” —The Boston Globe

“Every now and again a book with near-universal appeal comes along: Outwitting History is just such a book.” —The Sunday Oregonian

As a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, Aaron Lansky set out to save the world’s abandoned Yiddish books before it was too late. Today, more than a million books later, he has accomplished what has been called “the greatest cultural rescue effort in Jewish history.” In Outwitting History, Lansky shares his adventures as well as the poignant and often laugh-out-loud stories he heard as he traveled the country collecting books. Introducing us to a dazzling array of writers, he shows us how an almost-lost culture is the bridge between the old world and the future—and how the written word can unite everyone who believes in the power of great literature.

A Library Journal Best Book
A Massachusetts Book Award Winner in Nonfiction
An ALA Notable Book

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Lansky's thoroughly entertaining book carries a dramatic subtitle, but the words are well deserved. An ordinary college student in 1973, Lansky enrolled in a course on the Holocaust. "As the semester progressed," he writes, "I found myself less interested in…how the Germans went about murdering the Jews of Europe, and more in the people whom they sought to destroy." The Ashkenazi culture that appealed to Lansky was largely recorded in Yiddish. But by the mid-20th century, Yiddish had lost much of its relevance among Jews, and unwanted Yiddish books were slowly succumbing to the Dumpsters.

Seven years later, invigorated by youth and idealism, Lansky embarked on a quest to save Yiddish books and prevent the obliteration of Yiddish culture. On a shoestring, he and his friends rented trucks and traveled from Massachusetts to New York, where they served as the beneficiaries of Yiddish collections from the personal libraries of elderly Jewish couples, and from the warehouses of failing Yiddish publishing houses. In time, Lansky's goal of the preservation of Yiddish literature took him as far away as Canada, Cuba, Argentina, and Lithuania.

Today, Lansky runs the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, a thriving organization that collects, digitizes, translates, and disseminates Yiddish literature. His moving, impressive book is a testament to vision, zeal, and determination, and an inspiration to anyone who has ever faced a seemingly insurmountable task. (Holiday 2004 Selection)

Boston Globe
"What began as a quixotic journey was also a picaresque romp, a detective story, a profound history lesson, and a poignant evocation of a bygone world."
The Boston Globe
New York Post
"A marvelous yarn, loaded with near-calamitous adventures and characters as memorable as Singer creations."
New York Post
From the Publisher
"A marvelous yarn, loaded with near-calamitous adventures and characters as memorable as Singer creations."
New York Post
Publishers Weekly
Lansky was a 23-year-old graduate student in 1980 when he came up with an idea that would take over his life and change the face of Jewish literary culture: He wanted to save Yiddish books. With few resources save his passion and ironlike determination, Lansky and his fellow dreamers traveled from house to house, Dumpster to Dumpster saving Yiddish books wherever they could find them-eventually gathering an improbable 1.5 million volumes, from famous writers like Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer to one-of-a-kind Soviet prints. In his first book, Lansky charmingly describes his adventures as president and founder of the National Yiddish Book Center, which now has new headquarters at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. To Lansky, Yiddish literature represented an important piece of Jewish cultural history, a link to the past and a memory of a generation lost to the Holocaust. Lansky's account of salvaging books is both hilarious and moving, filled with Jewish humor, conversations with elderly Jewish immigrants for whom the books evoke memories of a faraway past, stories of desperate midnight rescues from rain-soaked Dumpsters, and touching accounts of Lansky's trips to what were once thriving Jewish communities in Europe. The book is a testimony to his love of Judaism and literature and his desire to make a difference in the world. Agent, Carol Mann. (Oct. 1) Forecast: A Jewish Book Council-sponsored national tour should help put this at the forefront of books of Jewish interest this fall and lead to handsome sales. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Join this former MacArthur fellow on his incredible journey to revive interest in the Yiddish language and culture. Part memoir and part history, this is the compelling tale of how Lansky retrieved thousands of books from dumpsters and abandoned buildings across America. He also rescued books from the aftermath of the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires and went to Havana to save the few remaining Yiddish books of a vestigial Jewish community there. Throughout, Lansky shares inspiring anecdotes and references to a dazzling array of Yiddish writers. In the words of scholar Max Weinreich, Lansky shows us that Yiddish was the product of "two dialectical forces one rooted in Hebrew and Aramaic texts" and the other rooted in everyday life. In the end, a provocative question lingers: How could the very "people of the book" have discarded Yiddish books and culture? One can only be comforted with the fact that, thanks in large measure to the efforts of Lansky and the National Yiddish Book Center, which he founded, Yiddish literature survives. This important book is highly recommended for the general reading public and all libraries.-Herbert E. Shapiro, Empire State Coll., SUNY at Rochester Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Engaging first-person account of how some committed young people rescued from history's dustbin more than a million books published in Yiddish. In prose that sometimes lurches and jolts along like the overloaded rental trucks that the author and his merry band used to collect books, Lansky unfolds a tale of rare emotion and devotion. He was only 23, in 1980, when he made the decision to dedicate himself to the cause of saving books in Yiddish. He had begun studying the language while at Hampshire College and was shocked to discover that many libraries were discarding Yiddish works by the thousands because so few circulated. His account of his rescue efforts takes the form of an adventure story, related with a breathless and appealing Andy Hardy earnestness. The author and his companions pluck books from Dumpsters in the rain, from closing libraries, from damp garages and basements, from dour doubters, from aging Jews who surrender them like favorite children-with flowing tears, many tales, and much food. They make harrowing missions to Russia and Cuba. But it all pays off: Lanksy now oversees a huge enterprise comprising a state-of-the-art facility, the National Yiddish Book Center, and a membership of some 35,000 supporters. He is digitizing the volumes, virtually all of which were printed on paper whose acid content assures disintegration. The purpose of the Book Center is not to hoard but to distribute the volumes. It maintains a core collection but considers putting books into the hands of readers among its chief purposes, in addition to making sure key titles are in libraries where scholars can consult them. Lansky also chronicles the history of Yiddish, his fundraising efforts(considerably accelerated by a 1989 MacArthur genius grant), and his countless public appearances (including a funny episode at a Catskills resort). A rollicking ride in company with a man who has performed an enormously important public service.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565125131
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 10/2/2005
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 256,930
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Aaron Lansky is the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center (www.yiddishbookcenter.org) in Amherst, Massachusetts. The recipient of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, he has helped fuel the renaissance of Jewish literature in this country. He lives with his family in western Massachusetts.

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Table of Contents

Foreword ix
Part 1 Learning Yiddish 1
1. Out of the Dumpster 3
2. Bread and Wine 9
3. "Come Back after Yontef!" 19
4. "What Is Mendele Doing in a Fruit Basket on the Floor?" 29
Part 2 On the Road 41
5. A Ritual of Cultural Transmission 43
6. "Don't You Know That Yiddish Is Dead?" 47
7. A Day in the Life 57
8. A Brief History of Yiddish Literature 69
9. "People Are Dying Today Who Never Died Before" 79
10. "Pretty Soon We'll Have a Whole Forest in Israel and No More Members Here" 86
11. "Love and Peace" 93
12. "Ostroff! Sea Gate!" 102
13. The Great Newark Book Heist 118
Part 3 "Him I Don't Talk To!" 123
14. "You're a Liar!" 125
15. "They're Tearing Apart the Library" 140
16. A Ghost in the Attic 150
17. "If Not Higher" 159
18. "Hitler's Fault" 170
Part 4 Ganvenen dem Grenets--Crossing the Border 181
19. Squandered at the Concord 183
20. Kaddish 194
21. A Job for the Young 210
22. The Four Corners of the Earth 219
23. Back in the U.S.S.R. 241
Part 5 Bringing It All Back Home 259
24. Der Oylem Redt--The World Takes Notice 261
25. A Home of Our Own 277
26. Immortality 289
27. The Valise at the Bottom of the Sea 301
Notes 313
Acknowledgments 317
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First Chapter

The phone rang at midnight. That wasn't so unusual: Older Jews often waited until the rates went down before phoning me about their Yiddish books. But tonight I had just returned from a long collection trip, it was snowing outside, our house was cold, the phone was in the kitchen, and I had no intention of crawling out from under the covers to answer it.

Brinnnnng! Brinnnnng!

My girlfriend, Laura Nelson, covered my ears. "It can wait," she hushed.

Apparently it couldn't. Five, ten, fifteen rings and finally my housemate, Scott Bolotin, went bounding downstairs to answer it himself. Thirty seconds later he was pounding on my bedroom door. "Aaron! Quick! Get up! It's for you! It sounds really important this time!"

I wrapped myself in a blanket and stumbled to the phone.

"Aaron, is that you?" I recognized the voice at once: It was Sheva Zucker, a young woman who had taught me Yiddish at a summer program in New York four years before. "I'm sorry to call so late," she said, "but this is an emergency! There are thousands of Yiddish books in a garbage Dumpster on Sixteenth Street and it looks like it's going to rain. How soon can you be here?"

There was only one train a day from Northampton, Massachusetts, near where I lived, to New York City, but fortuitously it came through at 2 A.M. If I hurried I could make it. I phoned my old college friend Roger Mummert in New York and told him to expect me at 6:45. Laura stuffed a sleeping bag, work gloves, and a loaf of bread into my rucksack. Scott raided our communal food kitty and the tsedoke jar, the shared charity fund we kept hidden in the freezer, and handed me a paper bag filled with $60 in loose bills and change. All I had to do was figure out how to get to the train station, eight miles away.

The roads were too slippery to go by bike. The local cab company was closed. "What about your pickup?" Scott asked. He meant my '63 Ford, a vehicle so unroadworthy, so full of rust and holes, it had stood abandoned under a pine tree in the backyard since failing the state inspection six months before. But there was no other choice. Scott and Laura and I rushed outside and brushed off the snow. I pulled out the choke, turned the key, and, somehow the old engine shuddered to life. With a lot of pushing we managed to rock it out of the ruts where it had frozen in place. I plastered a clump of snow and pine needles to the windshield to cover the expired inspection sticker and made it to the train station with ten minutes to spare.

"Laaaadies and Gentlemennnn, the station stop is Pennsylvania Station, New York City. Please watch your step while leaving the train. Pennnnnnn Station . . ." I was out the door and running through the station before the conductor could finish. On Eighth Avenue I looked up and noticed the inscription chiseled on the post office across the street: "Neither Rain Nor Snow Nor Heat Nor Gloom of Night Stays These Couriers from the Swift Completion of Their Appointed Rounds." The sky was dark and spitting sleet. The clock read 6:37. I hailed a cab and picked up Roger, and together we raced over to Sixth and Sixteenth to find the Dumpster.

It wasn't hard to find. Standing on the street, the size of a tractor-trailer, it was literally overflowing with Yiddish books. The volumes at the top were already wet. A few dozen lay splayed on the street, run over by passing cars. The sleet had turned to rain, which showed no sign of letting up anytime soon.

Roger and I climbed into the Dumpster, where a few minutes later we were joined by Sheva and her friend Eric Byron, the young man who had discovered the scene the night before. By this point they had managed to figure out where the books came from. It seems an old Yiddish organization had once occupied offices in a nearby building. As their membership dwindled they could no longer afford the rent, so they moved out, consigning their large Yiddish library, to a basement storeroom for safekeeping. Now the building was being made over into condos. When workmen found the forgotten books in the cellar, they began hauling them out to the Dumpster. It was only last night, when the pile got high enough for books to spill over the sides, that Eric noticed them and phoned Sheva, who in turn phoned me.

There was no time to lose. Roger went to the nearest pay phone and called the Dumpster company; their number was emblazoned on the side. They agreed not to pick up the bin until evening. He also called every friend the four of us could think of, looking for reinforcements. Meanwhile I was on the adjacent phone, trying to scare up a truck. After several calls I found a U-Haul dealer on Eleventh Avenue willing to rent without a credit card-none of us had one-provided we could come up with a cash deposit of $350.

For a motley crew like ours, $350 was a fortune; fortunately Sheva had money that she was saving to pay her taxes. As soon as the bank branch opened, she made the withdrawal. While Roger and Eric stayed with the books, Sheva and I took a cab over to Eleventh Avenue-with a Yiddish-speaking cab driver, no less!-and rented a twenty-four-foot truck, the biggest they had. By the time we made it back, a half dozen people, all under the age of twenty-five, had responded to Roger's call and were huddled on the corner, ready to help. I backed up to the Dumpster, turned on the emergency flashers, and then organized a "bucket brigade" so we could pass books into the truck. It was raining hard now, and within minutes all of us were soaked. Worse still, our clothes were turning colors: red, yellow, blue, and green, splotched by the book covers' dyes running in the rain.

At about 9:30, in response to an urgent phone call, our board member, Sidney Berg, arrived from Long Island with enough cash to reimburse Sheva. He also brought his handyman, Joe, a seasoned worker who seemed to double our speed single-handedly. We stayed in that Dumpster all day, racing the rain for every book. Many people stopped to watch. Some shrugged; others cried. A reporter for the New York Times, a young black woman in the process of converting to Judaism, told me it was the saddest sight she'd ever seen. Another reporter, for one of the tabloids, was less sympathetic. "I don't get it," he yelled up from under his umbrella. "I mean, these books are in Yiddish. Who's gonna read 'em? What is this for you kids, some kind of nostalgia trip?"

Shivering, half numb with fatigue and cold, I doubt I managed much of a response. And it probably didn't matter-the question was rhetorical, his stereotypes about Yiddish set long since. We continued working until dark. By that time our volunteers had gone home, leaving just Joe, Roger, and me in the Dumpster, with Sidney Berg, under an umbrella, standing vigil on the street. All told, we had saved almost five thousand volumes; the rest, probably another three thousand, were soaked beyond any hope of salvage, floating in a fetid, dye-stained pool at the bottom of the Dumpster. Roger and I said good-bye to Joe and Sidney, climbed into the cab of the U-Haul, turned the key . . . and nothing. The emergency flashers, blinking since morning, had drained the battery, and the truck wouldn't start.

I might have dissolved into tears right then and there had I not spied a gas station across the street. The burly mechanic on duty wasn't much help. "I ain't gonna leave the station to go work in the middle of no street," he said. "I'll tow you over here if you want, but that's gonna cost ya."

"How much?"

"Hundred bucks for the tow and five bucks to charge the battery."

"How about if we bring the battery to you?"

"In that case just five bucks. But how you gonna get that battery over here?"

After what we had been through that day, I was sure we could find a way. I asked the attendant if we could borrow a wrench, but he said it was against the rules. I handed him a soggy five-dollar bill and the rules changed. Roger and I walked back across the street, managed to disconnect the cables and lift the battery out of the truck. It was a heavy-duty truck battery, weighing a good fifty pounds. Since Roger is considerably taller than I, the battery listed precipitously as we walked. By the time we put it down on the oily floor of the garage, I realized the acid had leaked out and burned a hole right through my wet canvas parka.

We waited for the battery to charge, then drove back to Roger's apartment. I took a hot bath, ate supper, drank four cups of hot tea with honey, and fell sound asleep. At two o'clock the next afternoon I was back in Massachusetts, where a large crew of volunteers was waiting for me. Without a functional elevator it took us the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening to pass five thousand books from the back of the truck, up the stairs, and into our second-story loft, where we spread them on pallets to dry.

What had we saved? Almost two-thirds were "new": unread publisher's remainders printed in the 1930s and 1940s, including works on Zionist theory, history, memoirs, and at least five hundred copies of a large-format Yiddish translation of the Torah. The rest came from the organization's library: a solid assortment of Yiddish titles, most published in New York. Almost all of these books ended up in libraries or in the hands of students around the world.

Before I went home that night I returned the U-Haul and retrieved my unregistered pickup from the Northampton train station. Then I collapsed. For the next three days I remained in bed, my temperature spiking to 104. As I lay there, drifting in and out of fevered sleep, my thoughts turned to the tabloid reporter in the rain. Why was I doing this? Was it really just a matter of nostalgia? What did I hope to accomplish? And how had it all begun?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 17, 2007

    A Great Read!

    Aaron Lansky is a very special person who has achieved something special by recovering and rescuing yiddish books from all over the world and relocating them to Amherst, Massachusetts where they are kept and shared with the world. I admire his tenacity and thoroughly enjoyed his relating how he managed to achieve this amazing task. I had the honor of meeting him once many years ago in Northhampton, Massachusetts and was impressed back then and am still impressed with his admirable character. He is a wonderful writer and I highly recommend this book to anyone intersted in the history and culture of the jews.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 28, 2012

    Highly recommended

    Aaron Lansky's rollicking account of his life's work rescuing Yiddish books is a must read. Hilarious, moving, and well written, it illuminates a crisis of which I wasn't aware.Much of the rich heritage of Yiddish literature is in danger of being lost forever. Who knew that tales of dumpster diving, clambering through old abandoned buildings and going to far flung corners of the earth to rescue Yiddish books could be so engaging? Read it, you'll like it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 15, 2012

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    Posted December 14, 2011

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