OUTWITTING HISTORY BOOK CLUB MAY 26 09, 7.30PM
I would like to start this introduction by dedicating it to a very dear, close friend whom some of you knew, Marion Ansellem, who died far, far too young one year ago. You may wonder why I am doing this. She moved in so many different circles that you may think of her as French or Moroccan or just a nice ex-scientist lady at Beth Jacob or that kind person who visited the elderly and sick during her very busy schedule as the indispensable assistant to a high-powered banker.
She was, however, from an entirely different background; daughter of survivors whose family mainly perished, she was brought up in Brooklyn speaking Yiddish
and while you may know of her astonishing memory for every popular song ever written,
nothing made her – and our - tears and laughter flow more than singing Yiddish songs.
When I first got this book through the mail a few years ago I was so excited I immediately tried to give it to her, but she had already received it like me from the Yiddish Book Center and the two of us literally plutzed. I’m sure each one of you who has read it has had the same reaction.
It’s over 300 pages of memoirs about saving old Yiddish books, but while reading it, time literally flies. Before the title page there are 4 pages of ecstatic reviews. I’m sure any of you could sit here and talk about this book, but I’ll be good and summarize it anyway.
The writer is Aaron Lansky, the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. He is now in his mid 50’s but he tells a story that begins in his teens The book is masterfully written, in an easy, educated, informative style, with full use of journalistic techniques such as beginning the Foreword with the memorable words of Max Weinreich who escaped Europe and reached America saying he was teaching Yiddish against all odds, “Because Yiddish has magic, it will outwit history.” In fact Lansky presents his mission as an adventure story and that’s the effect it has – a page turner which moves along rapidly but in which the repetitions give nothing but pleasure -- in fact we can’t get enough of them.
He starts the actual account with the description of a typical day rescuing old Yiddish books. He is awoken at midnight in mid-Winter by a desperate phone call to his apartment in Mass, from his ex-teacher in NY who has spotted a Dumpster piled high with books; he has to get up, leave his girlfriend, rush in a broken-down Ford to the train, get to NY, get to the location, this time only in Manhattan on 8th Avenue, meet up with a couple of equally dedicated friends, make his way to the Dumpster (which he gives a capital D), call the company to beg them not to pick up until the evening, rent a U-Haul if they could rustle up the fortune of $350, load 5000 books, many of them soaked, bribe the local garage to let them charge their car battery, put up with uncomprehending rhetorical comments that sounded Yiddish even if they were in New Yorkese, such as “What is this for you kids, some kind of nostalgia trip?” and get to a friend’s apartment where they had to pass the books up to the loft to spread them around to dry. When Aaron finally gets home he has a fever that keeps him in bed for 3 days.
This story is absolutely typical of the urgency he and the young – and in time not so young – people worked with.
His background was English speaking and the family sounds minimally observant. But in 1973 at Hampshire College he attended a course on the Holocaust, taught by several excellent visiting scholars. Aaron became more interested in the live culture of lost European Jewry. His teacher Leonard Gluck said, “these people must have been doing something more for the past 200 years than writing books and getting killed.” This led Aaron to look not so much at Hebrew or Aramaic, or even European languages, as he was not limiting himself – note ‘limiting’ – to Judaic Studies, but to learn Yiddish, the language that was born in the 12th Century ‘on the banks of the Rhine’ and grew by accretions wherever the speakers moved, mainly to the New World of the time… which was Eastern Europe and lands of the Slavs. This amazingly rich language that many doubted was a language, he learned with a demanding teacher, Jules Weinrech, son of Uriel the writer, who plunged his students into Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Satan in Goray, Der Sotn in Goray. He and his fellow students ploughed through it word by word with an outdated Yiddish dictionary – much had been invented or changed since the dictionary was written – and in two years he felt proficient.
At that point he and the few others were just trying to find books in dwindling library stacks or to order them from old publishers. This became increasingly frustrating as publishers were closing and library stacks dwindling. But Aaron throughout the book shows his enormous respect for his teachers and their wisdom. One day a teacher Jules Piccus said, “If you want Jewish books you’ve got to go to them.” They were as we know from fairly recent history mainly on the Lower East Side, along with the pickle delis and the fading and aging population. It was decrepit but must have been even more so when I reached Manhattan in 1968.
The first booksellers gave them them a taste of the differing reactions. At the first store they were dismissed angrily as ‘shkotzim’ (don’t forget they were raggedy students). The reason the books in such places were preserved, albeit often in high, disordered piles, is because Jews have an inherited awe of the written word. The owner, in this case as well as subsequent ones, despised them but couldn’t throw them away. He finally relented and promised them ‘after yomtov’, but that yomtov never arrived. The second however gave them his father’s collection with blessings, and this was more typical: old people could no longer see to read or possibly had no room to store their books, while the younger generation couldn’t read, understand or relate to them, yet all of them were delighted to pass on their ‘yerusha’ – their inheritance, meaning not just the books but all the culture and memories attached to them. It was as if the ‘yungerln’ were preserving their very lives, giving them some immortality in the face of forgetfulness and the death of a generation.
The book is chock full of history, the history of Jews in the last 130 years, and Yiddish as the main cultural outcome, but also lively descriptions about the group’s hard struggle, with its growing acceptance by individuals, universities and other institutions. It is also brimming with repeated experiences: the yungern would hear about a trove about to be trashed, rush out, meet the owners who before they could even look at the books, sat them down and regaled them at length with their life stories while feeding them so much they finally had to take along a ‘designated eater’ – someone to sit and listen (and eat) while the others sorted and packed. Many of the older people treated them like long-lost children and plied them with stories for hours, not to mention preparing for them fattening food we all still love: gefilte fish, kugel. So as not to offend any of these grandparent-like figures, they even had to pack Alka Selzer in secret. At one point they realized they couldn’t do all the gathering themselves and instituted the ‘zamler’ – throughout America: in small towns and big, someone, often an elderly couple, would persuade their fellow Jews to gather their forgotten books and when they had enough for a package, would send them in to Lansky and his friends – in fact many of these people became close friends themselves. There were some extraordinary contacts, the most notable for me being Aliza Greenblatt, the wife of Woody Guthrie, a free and complicated spirit whose main cause of rejection of the old world was that it was so grubby – so “unaesthetic.” .
Neglect had always come from many sides; the Enlightenment encouraged writers to start publishing – this took several decades to flower – but education for Jews also gradually caused negative attitudes amongst themselves. In Palestine - later Israel - for instance, Yiddish was seen not as dead but as decaying and to be shunned like a debilitating disease. The books however, in nearly all cases couldn’t be dumped; it ran against Jewish nature. Added to this there still exists the anomaly that where Yiddish is spoken as a first language – among the ultra Orthodox communities – the writings are held in contempt and the writers considered apikorsim; books, articles, pamphlets, and even sheet music, were stored as if they might contaminate the spirit and at one point the group had, with the conniving of an astute employee, to steal into a shul basement to rescue a large abandoned pile before the rabbi found out. He did and was furious. He finally told them they had a couple of hours, and then he’d throw them out. Lansky’s disapproval of the Orthodox shows more sorrow than anger, though annoyance and disappointment comes through during the telling of these episodes and I know at least one person in our neighborhood – someone brought up as Modern Orthodox, an English speaking person in their 40’s – who feels as the rabbi does, I’m sad to say.
The second part of the book tells of the Center’s growth, Aaron’s lectures and the reception he gets from audiences; his and his helpers’ visits overseas to rescue whatever was left in places like Cuba, Argentina, or the Soviet Union with Kenneth Turan; the influx of more previously hidden books due to the arrival of free Russians on American soil, the failure of a branch in Israel, his sudden remarkable reception of a coveted and elite McArthur award which gave him money to expand, the move from the old schoolhouse in Amherst to the state of the art Center which took millions to raise, the expansion of Yiddish as a respectable subject and major at many universities, including UCLA this last Sunday, when Ruth Wisse herself spoke at a symposium.
You all have lots to say, I’m sure, so I’ll just remind you now about the magnificent Yiddish Book Center that this once raggedy group has established, in the grounds of Hampshire College. I haven’t been there but it’s sounds like a miracle, a criat ha maysim and I’d like to make a pilgrimage to it! Every month also they send me the Pakn Treger, a wonderful and finely presented magazine not only publicizing the center but teaching history, culture and the Yiddish language.
But who knows if this flowering of interest will ever be accepted by the Yiddish-speaking frum community? And since ‘learning’ – chinuch, Torah, Talmud, what we observant shul-going types consider the raison d’etre of our peoplehood – is based on that - and let’s remind ourselves not even on what we hope are civilized American ethics – who knows how long the interest in the Center and its work will last? I love Yiddish, my ancestors and the feel of the culture but I don’t speak Yiddish to my grandchildren – how long can you keep up an artificial culture without being herded into ghettos?
Anyway….. I loved the book, I’m sure you did too and now I’ll close. The floor is open to you!