Monday, August 10, 2015

Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books {Book Review}

While "Amazing Adventures" seems to overstate the case, this was a fascinating work about how one man, with some help, pretty much saved Yiddish books from extinction

I love books, and I'm a voracious reader. Just a look at my blog or goodreads or amazon review pages will tell you that. I love old books. It's really hard for me to pass up a pre-copyright volume at a good price. The thought of people discarding books of their heritage because their children are not able to read the language is heartbreaking.

Yet, that is precisely what was happening to books written in Yiddish. 

Yiddish is the product of the Jewish people having no homeland and incorporating Hebrew with the languages of the lands in which they lived. A hybrid language. Some would say an illegitimate language. While the younger generation just didn't know the language in America (their parents and grandparents saw that lack of knowledge as a way for integration to occur), there was a segment of the older population that abhorred Yiddish because it wasn't scholarly. These people actively refused to save Yiddish books, afraid they might corrupt young people. 

Aaron Lansky, the author of Outwitting History, grew up hearing Yiddish, but never learning it. In college he wanted a degree in Jewish studies and decided Yiddish was an important part of that education. It was during this time he realized that Yiddish books were scarce, and growing more rare by the day.

Some of this was because of the Holocaust. Entire groups of people had to abandon everything to flee or be sent to concentration camps. Their books, and indeed everything left behind that wasn't deemed valuable by their captors, was destroyed. When Aaron decided he needed to save Yiddish books from the destruction that was happening because young people weren't learning Yiddish anymore, scholars estimated that only 70,000 Yiddish books existed worldwide.

He recovered that many books in six months. 

Over twenty years after starting this journey, Aaron and the non-profit he founded have saved over 1.5 million Yiddish books, sheet music, and pamphlets including some volumes which were believed to be entirely eradicated. 

Outwitting History is a fascinating look into what went into recovering a significant part of history that was almost lost forever. Aaron's story is truly one of being in the right place at the right time - and taking the appropriate action.

While a basic knowledge of Hebrew or Yiddish is helpful for reading this book, it is not required. Translations are given whenever Yiddish is used, or context gives an explanation. 

If you like history, books, memoirs, Jewish culture, or David vs Goliath stories, this book is for you.

A highly enjoyable read. Definitely recommend.

PS - a nice little bonus? Finding out that Fiddler on the Roof was based off the Yiddish book "Tevye der milkhiker" (Tevye the Dairyman). Half my brain goes "There's a book?! I need to read that." and the other half goes "Of course there's a book. I need to read that." Told you I liked books. *wink*

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