A month or two ago, I went to the Yiddish Book Center
for an archives conference that happened to be hosted there.
The idea of collecting Yiddish books was first conceived of by Aaron Lansky in the late 1970s, when Yiddish books were being thrown away by the thousands as a generation of Yiddish-speaking immigrants were starting to die and leave their possessions to children who didn't see a point in keeping a lot of books around that they couldn't read. Lansky -- at that time a graduate student in Eastern European Jewish Studies who was having a near-impossible time actually getting his hands on any Yiddish books to read -- put out a call in his hometown that if people were thinking of throwing away their Yiddish books, they should send them to him instead. Pretty soon, the story goes, his parents called to tell him that he had to figure out another solution because they were fairly sure the second floor of their house was about to cave in from the weight of the books that people were passing onto them. The Book Center, as it now exists, seeks out Yiddish books and digitizes them; sorts titles to identify unique ones; provides copies of Yiddish books to other libraries; runs a translation program to print Yiddish titles in English; and runs cultural and educational programs, among a bunch of other stuff.
I can't speak Yiddish -- it's a language lost to me by several generations -- but I've been starting to look into classes; I'd give a lot to be able to read Yiddish books. Until then, the next-best thing is reading about Yiddish books, so I put Aaron Lansky's Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books
on library reserve.
Anway, last weekend aquamirage
and I went to go see the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof
, and it was amazing, and all my Yid-lit feelings came roaring to the surface again. I came home and immediately picked up Outwitting History
, which turns out to be a relatively light and cheerful collection of anecdotes about salvaging a language and culture that has at several points throughout the 20th century been the target of brutal and deliberate extinction. This is entirely in keeping with the general tone of Yiddish literature, which is often funny and depressing and uplifting and pessimistic all at once. (After seeing Fiddler
said, 'I knew the whole plot but I didn't know how funny it was going to be!') So, you know. Come for the cute stories about enthusiastic elderly Jews stuffing the faces of bemused book-collectors with kugel and borscht, but stay for stuff like the first shipment of Yiddish books back to the Soviet Union after the fall of the Iron Curtain.