In the final chapter of this book, Aaron Lansky tells a story about his grandmother, though Ive heard variations of it about many Jews of that generation. Aaron Lansky did it by rescuing and restoring Yiddish books. Many in the Orthodox world would say that Yiddish literature Lansky sought to save deserved to be forever lost and forgotten. (Translation: Nobody can stick it to the Jewish world like a Jew.) Were seeing it now with the rise of OTD memoirs (memoirs by the formerly Orthodox.) Shulem Deen may be this generations Sholom Aleichem. Aaron Lansky spices up his story with portraits of the quirky but charming old Jews who donated their books. If you love Jewish history and are open to the contributions of all types of Jews, then you will find this book as heart-warming and informative as I did.
But I know almost nothing about Jewish history or Yiddish. But not like The Joy of Yiddish - but with the backstory to go with it. Every library had a special fireplace in the courtyard just for this purpose, and every week my mother had to join her colleagues all across the country in burning another batch of Yiddish books." p245 Can you imagine? I don't know how people suffer things like this - and much worse.
He tells this story again and again, and each time we slice through a new corner of the Yiddish world that was, from North America to Eastern Europe to Latin America. As Lansky travels from scene to scene, from old age home to dumpster to basement, hunting for every Yiddish book in existence, he introduces us to beautiful people and bitter people alike, and to a vast dying linguistic civilization. Yiddish civilization and literature puts me in touch with the last moment before the Holocaust and the rise of Israel when we Jews wrestled deeply and long with our place as a diaspora people. Yiddish will not be a spoken language (outside of the Hassidic world) in America again, but the questions raised by its literature are more relevant than ever to the Jewish project of building and maintaining a thriving diaspora civilization, and a unique cultural position within a multi-cultural mosaic.
Lanksy's efforts not only saved more than 1.5 million Yiddish books, but they helped to revive the language and people's interest in the culture of Eastern European Jews and their American immigrant counterparts.
For Jews of Eastern European heritage, you'll hear your grandparents voices in real life, not borscht belt comedy. The real purpose of the National Yiddish Book Center, of course is not so much to be a library, but to redistribute the books to a new generation of readers.
Lansky's quarter-century quest not only helped keep Yiddish literature from slipping into history, but also provided him with plenty of terrific material for his first book.
But if you do, then read it why don't you?
Lansky makes a compelling case that the loss of Yiddish and more particularly Yiddish literature would rob the world of an understanding of 19th century Jewish history and culture.
Lansky is the author of Outwitting History (2004), an autobiographical account of how he saved the Yiddish books of the world, from the 1970s to the present day.