Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky
Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004
ISBN Price for hardcover $24.95 (at this writing, the highest price on Amazon is $9.89)
Available in Hard Cover and Paperback
Pros: Well-written and includes a bibliography for those who are interested in reading some of the books and articles quoted
Cons: If I have to pick on something, I caught a few grammatical errors
When Aaron Lansky and a few fellow college students decided to learn Yiddish in order to understand modern Jewish History (since the 10th or 11th Century), he could not imagine that he would be dumpster diving or rubbing elbows with Woody Guthrie’s widow. Yet this and many other miraculously interwoven adventures became part of his odyssey into Yiddish literature.
I’ve known about Aaron Lansky’s National Yiddish Book Project – now known as the National Yiddish Book Center – for many years because of my activity with the International Association of Yiddish Clubs. When I started my own Yiddish Club in Nevada, I visited the National Yiddish Book Center’s website () and discovered a wealth of articles, blogs, and video interviews. My favorite section is a series of interviews with the late Leonard Nimoy, who was an actor in Yiddish Theater long before he was
Mr. Spock. The first clip begins with him reciting Hamlet’s Soliloquy in Yiddish – worth enjoying whether or not you understand Yiddish.
What I didn’t know was the whole story (in Yiddish, di ganse geshikhte) of Lansky’s search and rescue of Yiddish books, some dating back to the 1800s. This book takes the reader back to the very beginning when Lansky was a college student in search of Yiddish books to learn and practice reading. As I read the early chapters, I realized that Yiddish is not a dead language – yet. Unfortunately, Jewish immigrants, in an effort to be 100 percent American, i.e. assimilated, have been suffocating Yiddish for many years.
This reminds me of my childhood. I always felt that I was caught between generations. I spoke Yiddish almost as well as English. Most Jews of my generation remember their parents and grandparents using Yiddish to keep them from understanding the discussion. For me, it was a way of keeping the rest of the world from understanding the discussion. When I even came close to misbehaving in public, my mother would give me “the stare” and tell me in Yiddish to stop whatever it was I was doing or about to say.
These memories were the basis of understanding I had going into the reading of Outwitting History. My husband first borrowed the book from the library and told me that I would enjoy it. He began slipping bits and pieces, such as the Woody Guthrie story, because he just had to share. I didn’t quite get the need to share the stories because I was concerned that he would spoil it for me. Yet, that’s not at all what happened. When I started to read and could tell that an anecdote was one that my husband mentioned over dinner, I was even more interested.
Although Outwitting History isn’t a novel and we already know the ending, I still don’t want to take the chance of spoiling the middle. Learning how ultra-orthodox Jewish Scholars look upon Yiddish literature is an eye-opener, even for someone who is familiar with the various factions in the Chasidic community. The general feeling is that books in Yiddish are a distraction from studying Torah and Talmud (it encompasses more than just the Hebrew Bible; it includes the foundation of Jewish Law). Of course, once I read about it, I understood why they have a disdain for Yiddish books, even though I disagree with them.
Yiddish books include poetry, reference books, novels, and history books – everything necessary to learn about a society. This includes a world destroyed by the Holocaust and a world conceived by American life.
When Lansky relates the stories of finding the first batches of Yiddish books, what sticks with the reader is that each donor insisted on treating Lansky and crew as welcome guests. Elderly couples would cook feasts for them and package extra food “for the road.” Many of them were giving up their personal libraries because they were coming to the end of life and wanted to ensure that someone somewhere would read their books.
The one story I want to single out is the encounter with Woody Guthrie’s widow:
One day, Lansky received a letter from Marjorie Guthrie asking if he was interested in her family book collection. In addition to being the widow of Woody Guthrie, Marjorie was the daughter of a Yiddish poet and songwriter, Aliza Greenblatt. “Fort a Fisher,” one of Greenblatt’s songs is a favorite of mine. It tells of a young man watching a fisherman prepare to go out to sea and compares it to his own fishing expedition for someone to be his love. When the fisherman comes back in the evening with empty nets, he feels his own loneliness that much more deeply.
Lansky was familiar with all of Greenblatt’s work and couldn’t imagine that there was such a close connection between her and Woody Guthrie. To quote:
“Amazing. Could it be that the daughter of ‘Fort a fisher’ was also the wife of ‘This Land is Your Land’ – and, come to think of it, the mother of ‘Alice’s Restaurant?’ ”
As Lanky spends more time with Marjorie, she tells him about Arlo and Nora who had a visiting tutor for Jewish studies because Woody (who was not Jewish) and Marjorie wanted their children to have a Jewish education. I won’t ruin the surprise identity of the tutor.
Although this is a very Jewish book, Lansky explains a lot of inside information so that everyone can understand the significance of each adventure. Because of that, I believe that Outwitting History is for anyone who loves books and has an interest in the development and rescuing of a language and culture. This was the best nonfiction read I’ve had in a very long time!