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February 26, 2005

A mitzva or two

Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky

How Yiddish was rescued, already
OUTWITTING HISTORY: How a Young Man Rescued a Million Books and Saved a Vanishing Civilisation
By Aaron Lansky
Souvenir Press, £18.99; 320pp
ISBN 0 285 63724 X
Buy the book

WORDS ON FIRE: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish
By Dovid Katz
Basic Books, £16.99; 448pp
ISBN 0 465 03728 3
Buy the book

Books are meant to be read. That’s what I remind myself whenever I feel stabbed with regret about the library of my late father, Hugo Gryn. A salaried rabbi, he often jested that all he would have to leave us, his children, was his cherished collection of books, some of them in Yiddish. After his death in 1996, I packed them into cardboard boxes and a guardian angel stored them in his textile warehouse. But, last summer, when he announced his retirement, no one in the family had room for several thousand books and journals.

Thankfully, a far-sighted librarian at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies came to the rescue. Gambling that my father’s role in shaping postwar Anglo-Jewry would make his books and papers of interest to scholars in years to come, he agreed to catalogue and conserve the archive in exchange for its indefinite loan.

Alas, other than a basic grasp of Hebrew and some quirky Yiddish exclamations that add pepper to my speech, I did not inherit my father’s mastery of languages. “Ich vill redden Yiddish mit mein tatteh” — I will speak Yiddish with my father — was my first and only formal lesson. My love of Yiddish literature, with its earthy humour and compassion for humanity, was formed on English translations of celebrated Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, Isaac Bashevis Singer and his brother, I. J. Singer Their writings are the legacy of a lost civilisation. In 1991 Unesco declared Yiddish an endangered language, yet it is enjoying a remarkable revival, not just among the burgeoning families of ultra-Orthodox Jews who speak it at home, but among Jews reclaiming their cultural heritage, for whom Yiddish is hip.

Born in Massachusetts in 1955, Aaron Lansky got the Yiddish bug when he was still a long-haired student in faded jeans. By the mid-1970s, when he enrolled on a graduate programme in East European Jewish studies in Montreal, virtually the whole of Yiddish literature was out of print. Scouring libraries and bookshops, Lansky and his fellow students were hard pressed to find copies of books assigned by their teachers. They realised that children of Jewish immigrants who could not understand their parents’ mama loshen — mother tongue — were throwing away thousands of irreplaceable Yiddish books.

In 1980 Lansky founded the National Yiddish Book Centre and appealed for unwanted Yiddish books. Jews all over North America responded; hundreds of books still arrive every week. Outwitting History is the charming and compelling epic about how Lansky and a few volunteers saved Yiddish books from extinction.

Lansky recounts his adventures on the road: speeding off in the middle of the night to schlep truckloads of books from demolition sites and damp basements, recruiting an international network of zamlers (people who gather scattered things). Interspersed throughout are the poignant stories of the books’ ageing owners, the last of more than two million native Yiddish speakers who, dreaming of a better future, migrated from Eastern Europe to America at the turn of the last century.

Words on Fire offers an elegant and more scholarly approach. The book is rich in detail and beautifully illustrated and Dovid Katz explains the genesis and development of Yiddish and its place in Jewish history. Yiddish, which means “Jewish”, first emerged about a thousand years ago among the Jews of the Rhine, a fusion of medieval German with Hebrew and Aramaic, deriving other words from Latin, French and Italian. Like other Jewish vernaculars such as Judaeo-Arabic and Ladino, it was written in the Hebrew alphabet. As Jews emigrated eastward, they carried Yiddish with them, picking up linguistic influences from their neighbours in Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Slovakia. The language and its demise under Hitler and Stalin (who, in 1952, ordered all of his country’s leading Yiddish writers to be shot on a single night) contain the bones of the story of Ashkenazi Jews.

It was used primarily as a spoken language, but in the 19th century, after the Haskalah, the Jewish version of European Enlightenment, there unfolded a huge outpouring of Yiddish literature. Beginning in 1864 with publication of Mendele the Book Peddler’s novel Dos Kleyne Mentshele (The Little Man), by the time of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, nearly 30,000 Yiddish titles had appeared.

Yiddish was important in the growth of the Jewish Workers’ Bund which became, in the 20th century, a mass socialist movement. Founded in secret in a Vilnius attic in 1897, the same year as the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland, both movements sought solutions for the marginalised and persecuted Jews of Eastern Europe. Zionists supported emigration to a Jewish homeland with Hebrew as a common language, while the Bundists, preaching humanism and democracy, saw Yiddish as the national language of East European Jewry.

But for many Jews arriving in America, trapped in the sweatshops and tenement buildings of New York’s Lower East Side, Yiddish was a reminder of the miseries left behind, an obstacle to integration, while for ultra-Orthodox Jews, modern Yiddish literature is treyf, forbidden. It could have vanished into a footnote of history.

Lansky’s organisation, now based in Amherst, Massachusetts, has recovered 1.5 million Yiddish books, many recycled to students, scholars and libraries around the world. His mission to preserve the books for posterity has been fulfilled by a programme of digitisation.

Outwitting History inspires longing for an era that valued books over bookshelf space, summed up best by Isaac Bashevis Singer as he accepted his Nobel prize in 1978: “Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and cabalists, rich in humour and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful humanity.”

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