Book Review: Aaron Lansky “Outwitting History”; Dovid Katz “Words on Fire”


Is Yiddish the new rock’n’roll – at least as far as Jewish culture is concerned? Is Yiddish the new black? If it is, then one of the people responsible is undoubtedly Aaron Lansky, the founder of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachussetts.

In “Outwitting History”, Lansky tells the story of how he rescued over a million and a half Yiddish books which would otherwise have been thrown away and lost for ever, making them available to a new readership. Beginning in the late 70s, his dedicated team of meshugoyim were a sort of fourth emergency service, called out whenever a library dumped its now unused Yiddish collection in a skip or when an elderly Yiddish speaker despaired of finding an inheritor for his or her beloved treasury of books. In the latter cases, Lansky soon realised that to retrieve the volumes efficiently it was best to work in teams of three – two to do the shlepping and one to act as “designated eater”. On each visit, a mountain of food had to be consumed, memories had to be listened to, grumbles and political antagonisms forged in the old country had to be gone over one final time.

The books he’s saved bear witness to the incredible richness of Yiddish culture – literature, political science, social anthropology, philosophy. From copies of the Yiddish classics to rare books published and then culled in the Soviet Union; from translations of European literature to a Yiddish version of Bambi (“Bambella”, perhaps?). He retrieves volumes from all over the world: the Americas, Europe, even a crate-full from Buleweyo, Zimbabwe containing some incredibly rare pre-war books and a memoir called “Udshtorn: Yerushalayim d’Afrike” (“Oudtshoorn: The Jerusalem of Africa”): an account of life on a commune of Yiddish speaking ostrich-farmers.

But Lansky’s book is not just about the volumes he’s saved. Steeped in yidishkayt, full of humour and bitter-sweet pathos, it reads like a Sholem Aleykhem story. By the 1990s, Lansky’s collectors were being called out less frequently by elderly Jews. Instead the calls came from their children and grandchildren, assimilated Jews who spoke no Yiddish. This may be better for the collectors’ waistlines – not a chopped herring or a lokshn kugel in sight – but we get a sense of a generation passing, handing on its yerushe, its inheritance, to a younger generation amidst feelings of pain, regret and hope. Nowhere is this clearer or more affecting than when Lansky smuggles some of the books he’s saved into the hands of desperately eager young students and teachers in the recently de-Sovietised Baltic Republics, where barely a single Yiddish book had survived.

The richness of this yerushe saturates every page of Dovid Katz’s “Words on Fire”. The book is effectively a biography of Yiddish. Katz traces its wordsonfirefamily tree back through Aramaic and Hebrew, looks at its birth a thousand years ago in what he terms the linguistic “big bang”, tells us of its early years (the first Yiddish document dates back to 1272), its rapid expansion and geographical spread, right through to the fantastic secular flowering of recent times. On the way we’re offered a marvellously detailed history of Ashkenazi culture and civilisation seen through the prism of its mother tongue: the migrations of Yiddish are the migrations of its people, and its uses mark out their development – first in prayer-books and literature for women, then in Kabbalistic texts, in Hasidic stories, Enlightenment tracts, literature, theatre and politics.

Katz believes that Yiddish is now at a turning point. The dwindling number of mostly ageing fluent speakers in the secular world is now, he reckons, about the same as the ever increasing number of Hasidic Yiddish speakers – about half a million. The future of Yiddish, he feels, lies with the ultra-orthodox, and the incredible secular fecundity of the last two centuries may soon seem like just a blip in the cultural and linguistic history of religious Ashkenaz.

Blip or not, both these books demonstrate the true depth and richness of a culture and language which one 18th century linguist preferred to call “hebreo-barbarish”. Whatever its future may be, Katz and Lansky have ensured that the cultural achievements of a thousand years of Yiddish are appropriately celebrated and valued.

This review first appeared in The Jewish Chronicle.

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