Monday, May 5, 2014

Outwitting History by Aaron Lanksy

Once again I must thank Zohar at Man of la Book  for reviewing a book I read based on his review of it.

Outwitting History is about a young man, Aaron Lansky,  who after graduating college in the early eighties developed an interest in his Jewish heritage and learning Yiddish.  This yearning led to a life long quest to collect as many Yiddish books as possible and save them from destruction and the Yiddish language from obsolescence.

Lanksy narrates in first person his mission as he and friends rush around the New York City area saving Yiddish books from garbage dumpsters, dusty attics, and even fisherman wharfs.  As his objective to save the literature of a dying language becomes known, requests start pouring in from around the country and even the globe to come retrieve Yiddish books from certain oblivion.

Lanksy describes the people who want to give him their books: elderly and from a bygone era.   They welcomed him and his friends into their house and forced traditional Jewish food on them.  He and his friends found early on that there was no such thing as picking up the books and immediately leaving.  There was a ritual of hospitality to be performed.  

As Lansky and company ate, these old people from an old country and dying culture regaled them with their stories.  The stories they told held a common theme:  Holocaust, pogroms, losing everything, displaced, learning to start over again in a new country.

Preserving Yiddish is a life long career for Lansky.  He fears that the language and the culture is disappearing.  His hope is to interest young Jewish people in learning the Yiddish language, and to be able to read the millions of Yiddish books he has helped collect and preserve over the last thirty years.

I would have liked a little more information on the books.  He spends minimal time describing the content of the books, although he lists many of the authors.  I gather that much of it is literature and folk lore.  I would be interested in reading English translations of them.

Of course, the argument brought up in the book is that translations are unreliable and books should only be read in their original language.  Be that as it may, realistically, if the books are going to be more widely read they need to be translated into vernacular languages.

A couple of things interested me that perhaps gave me insight into the Jewish mind.  Or least Aaron Lansky's mind.  He believed the only true culture of the Jews was the Yiddish culture.  Yes, Jews may have their roots in Judeasm and religion, but it's the Yiddish language and old European culture that produced it that defines Jewishness today. He describes  Jews that don't conform to this doctrine as "assimilated".

This brings up a provocative point.  Who has the authority to define others?  Must everyone of a certain ethnic background march in lockstep to a prescribed way of life or be considered outcast?  It seems to me that today there is a pervasive movement in many arenas, not only Jewish, but black and Hispanic communities and also the feminist movement where a certain group of individuals claim authority over the others of that category and take it upon themselves to narrowly define that culture or people group.  Those who don't conform are labeled traitors.

Another thing I found interesting was how the Jews who came to the United States from Europe were such loyal adherents to the Socialist and Communist ideologies.  Apparently after being thrown out or escaping from Soviet countries they wished to mirror the political pardigm of the countries they left.  I guess they don't see that the political structure of their home countries might be the reason they had to leave.

I wish Lansky had spent more time making real life individuals out of the people he writes about rather than lumping them all together as a single type.  I also wish he spent more time describing the individual books he was saving rather than lumping them all together as a type as well.

One final thing I took away from Lansky's book was the value on literature and reading that seems to be an integral of Jewish culture.  This is an attribute which causes me to hold Jews and Yiddish culture in great respect.

I wish Aaron Lansky success in preserving Yiddish literature.  May his efforts bear fruit in the next generation.

Further links:

Yiddish Book Center


  1. Very thoughtful commentary Sharon.

    You raise so many interesting points. I find languages that are on the decline to be fascinating and a little sad.

    As for translations being not really accurate, I guess that deep down I agree with that. When I think about it a translation is like someone repainting a work of art. However, being a reader in a world full of languages that I do not read I must make do.

  2. Hi, Brian. I also wonder about translations. My favorite writers are Russian and I am concerned about the accuracy of the translation. I do my best to get the most accredited translation available but one never really knows if the translator has captured the style and flavor of the writer.

    As for Yiddish, I don't know the future of that language. Lansky wrote this book as an appeal for Jews to learn the language. He doesn't really state if he was successful or not.

    Take care!

  3. "It seems to me that today there is a pervasive movement in many arenas, not only Jewish, but black and Hispanic communities and also the feminist movement where a certain group of individuals claim authority over the others of that category and take it upon themselves to narrowly define that culture or people group. Those who don't conform are labeled traitors."

    This is a fascinating point - especially for me, as I am myself part of a diaspora, and hence expected, both by people of my own background and also by many Western liberals, to abide by certain preconceived norms. I was once asked by a British lady (perfectly politely) whether i was going to see some Bollywood musical that was then playing in Londomn West End. I replied, equally politely I hope, that Bollywood musicals aren't really "my kind of thing". Later in teh evening she asked me, with the same charming politeness, why I had turned my back on my own culture. For she was so absolutely certain that Bollywood *was* part of my own culture.

    I can quite understand, though, why people want to preserve their culture, or elements of their culture, if they perceive it to be under threat.

    As for translations - indeed, it would be best to be able to read the originals. But realistically, if one doesn't read translations, oe misses out on far too much. Like Brian above, my favourite literature is also Russian. No doubt i am missing much by reading Russian works in translation, but I hate to think how much more I'd have missed had I *not* read these - even in translation!

    1. Himradi: I agree wholeheartedly with all the points you make.

      It seems that some people in an attempt to be "universally embracing" of other people's cultures or race, perhaps unintentionally, end up coming across as patronizing. They even think they need to correct our own "mistaken" view of our own identity. (Now, you've really got to love those Bollywood musicals. They're so colorful and have so much dancing. Just joking. Although I must say I really enjoy the few traditional Indian dances I watched via youtube, but that's another subject.)

      I have found similar things happen to me as a woman. Other woman challenging me as to why I let my fiancee "oppress me" by opening the car door for me. Personally, I find it charming and honoring and what business is it of anyone else's anyway?

      I also wish I knew about 25 different languages so I could get a better feel for the actual writing style of authors who write in languages other than English. However, I'm glad to be able to read their writing at all.

      Thanks for contributing to my post. I always enjoy reading your musings on classical literature. Take care!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.