Outwitting History

Now, there really can’t be that many books about the founding, development and growth of a social mission organisation that can claim to be memoir, cultural and social history, political primer and great literature, but Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History, which I have just read for the second time, is all of these things and more.

It’s the story of Lansky’s founding and development of the Yiddish Book Center, now one of the most visited cultural social mission organisations in the US.

In the late-70s, Lansky was a student of Jewish history and as part of this needed access to literature in Yiddish — the vernacular fusion of Hebrew and Aramaic which until World War  II had been the language of most Jews in Eastern and Central Europe.

Lansky realised that what the Holocaust had not quite accomplished, time, a dying language and a small, ageing population of Yiddish speakers/readers was: Yiddish literature was disappearing. In some cases it was quite literally being abandoned. Across the US, and in other parts of the world too, in the run-down tenement offices and community centres and housing projects of old Jewish organisations, Yiddish libraries were being sent to landfill.

In an extraordinary leap of both imagination and faith Lansky and a handful of ill-assorted student radicals, Jewish historians and hippies set out to rescue the literature of a vanishing civilisation. Their aim — quite simple, really: to reunite a literature in danger of extinction with those who needed it.

Yungerman,” as one irate Jew said to him at a meeting, “people are dying today who have never died before! You need to get busy!”

What this elderly man meant, of course, was that people, in many cases the last in a line of Yiddish speakers/readers, were dying and the last thing their offspring wanted was to be saddled with a library of musty old books in a language they didn’t know.

And set to work Lansky and his friends and network of zamlers — volunteer book collectors — did. And this book is that story.

It weaves in memoir, autobiography, and an extraordinary cast of old Jewish characters from all of New York’s boroughs and finally from across the globe. Characters who couldn’t just give their books, as Lansky explains, but who felt compelled to tell their life stories. They were seeking an act of “cultural transmission” that passed on not just the books they owned, but what they themselves had been.

In a story spanning the best part of thirty years, Lansky describes the trials, tribulations, triumphs and tough decisions involved in running and growing a social mission organisation that would change out of all recognition from that originally set up by his small band of literally half-starved idealists.

It’s both heroic and heart-breaking, made bearable by the fact that it’s funny, superbly written and describes an extraordinary success against overwhelming odds.

Go on, make it your holiday read.

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