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Man Who Saved a Million Books Writes One of His Own

Aaron Lansky has spent his 20s, 30s and 40s saving Yiddish books. Now, at 49, he’s written a book of his own.

Chockfull of his adventures saving great works of literature from Dumpsters, clueless grandchildren, collapsing buildings and widespread ignorance, “Outwitting History: How One Man Rescued a Million Books and Saved a Civilization” relates stories familiar to the members of his National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., who receive his casual-but-urgent fund-raising solicitations.

But why should anyone else care about Yiddish literature, especially when Jews face so many other pressing problems?

“Why Yiddish? That’s a question I answer every day,” Lansky said in an interview with the Forward. “That’s how I spend my life.”

The statistics are familiar: The language was spoken by three-quarters of all Jews for the better part of 1,000 years. Lansky’s book uses little more than this, and some heartwarming anecdotes, to try and convince readers of the importance of his cause. There’s the tale of the Jewish establishment bigwig who agreed with Lansky’s impassioned, idealistic, graduate-student pitch — Yiddish books must be rescued! — but, unfortunately, he said, “we have no money to give you.” All the money had been apportioned to already existing Jewish organizations. And there was the older Jewish woman who called for a book pickup. Ever the dutiful crusader, Lansky (and an assistant) showed up at her apartment building, only to find that the whole thing was a ruse; the old lady needed a ride to a Yiddish rubber-chicken banquet in New York.

But in conversation, Lansky lays out a broader theory, one only hinted at in his chatty memoir. “Yiddish is a great repository of Jewish life, of life on the outside,” he told the Forward. Jewish life is a “continuum” ranging from the past to the present, with Yiddish and Yiddish literature the most immediate link to Eastern European Jewry, where most American Jews find their ancestry.

Lansky worries about what he calls the “bifurcation” of the Jewish community. He offers several examples: On one hand, there are the “neo-frum, very extreme Orthodox,” who do not represent the heritage he grew up with; on the other hand, there are those who don’t know enough to begin addressing the “pressing questions facing the Jewish community,” including the fate of Israel and assimilation.

Another separation that worries him is the one between “the religious sphere” and “the sphere of everyday life.” The two were intimately connected in Europe but have been severed by Americanization. “Religious identity was allowed [in America] but not cultural-linguistic identity, and we threw that away,” he said.

It is this task — acquainting American Jews with their nearest cultural inheritance — and not only the rescue of Yiddish books that Lansky sees as the mission of his National Yiddish Book Center.

The center is one of the most unexpected success stories of the past 20 years. It now boasts an annual budget of $3 million, 31,000 members and 18 full-time staff members. Still, Lansky said, its place in the Jewish community remains ambiguous. “We encounter far less outright hostility than we once did,” he said, but it has not been accepted as part of the American Jewish establishment. So the question remains: How does it advance its cultural agenda? How does Amherst convince American Jews that Yiddish literature is the answer, or at least one answer, as Lansky says, “to the question of who we are”?

One way, we suggest, might be to seek connections with the fastest-growing group of American Jews, the only sizable base of Yiddish speakers and readers: the ultra-Orthodox. From his book, however, it appears Lansky’s activities have not been well received by the Haredim, and he dismisses suggestions that they and the Yiddish Book Center might have common cause.

Then again, the center could focus on teaching Yiddish. It does that, at least to its small yearly group of summer interns. But that’s not the answer, either, Lansky argues. “No matter what we do, it is unlikely that any but a small percentage of contemporary Jews will learn Yiddish.” So what’s left?

He has a two-pronged strategy of making the literature available to those who can read it in the original — most of the center’s collection has been digitized, and the contents of the books are to be made available online — and translating it for those who can’t. But the pace of translation, Lansky said, is “glacial,” even with three or four translators working hard at rendering Yiddish classics into equally memorable English.

Perhaps, Lansky mused with equal parts optimism and rue, the true challenge is getting American Jews to read — in whatever language.

“If we lose our bookishness,” he said, “we lose the nuance of Judaism.” The purpose of reading Jewish literature is “to continue the line of creativity”: Literature begets more literature, which in turn begets modern Jews. As Lansky, a soft-spoken, secular reincarnation of the old-time magid (itinerant preacher) warmed to his theme, his words sounded more and more like an Elul sermon, exhorting American Jews to return to the literature that helps shape them.

“The one thing that comes out of uncertain times is great literature,” he said. “The struggle [for Jewish existence] is as urgent and momentous as it was a hundred years ago, and the struggle is not over.”

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