TBR: Outwitting History

I'm just back from a quick vacation (a weekend with my family and then an overnight at Great Wolf Lodge*), and facing about a million unread emails, so here's a short book review post.

This week's book is the autobiographical Outwitting History: The Story of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, by Aaron Lansky.  Like Three Cups of Tea, this is the story of a man who found his life's mission pretty much by accident.  In Lansky's case, his mission was the rescuing of Yiddish books that were going to be thrown out, and the founding of the National Yiddish Book Center.

I picked it up because of TC's recommendation and she's right, it's neither preachy nor pedantic.  Lansky's got a good comic storytelling voice, and turns a potentially dry topic (oh look, we found some more books) into a pretty funny one, full of love for both the books and the people who gave them to him.  (And the discovery that Meir Kahane was Arlo Guthrie's Hebrew teacher nearly gave me a heart attack.)

Yiddish is, of course, an all-but-dead language, and the reason there were so many books for Lansky to rescue is that all the people who actually read Yiddish have been busily dying off and their children had no interest in the books.  Some Orthodox Jews still speak Yiddish, but they have little interest in the mostly secular books that Lansky collected.  Mixed in with his funny stories about rescuing books in the rain, being fed by every donor, and giving a talk at a resort in the Catskills, Lansky tries to make a serious case for why people should still care about Yiddish.

That said, I'm not sure he succeeds.  And I say this as someone who took a course in Yiddish in college, much to my parents' bemusement.  (I took it mostly because my favorite professor was teaching it, and I would have taken almost anything he taught.  But it's also a fascinating mongrel of a language, with a Hebrew alphabet, a mostly Germanic vocabulary, but a primarily Slavic grammar.

So, I enjoyed the book (although it could have been a bit shorter without losing much).  But I think I might send you to read an actually Yiddish story instead.

* Fairfax schools were closed Monday and Tuesday. Tying this to the main topic of the post, I was struck by the number of Orthodox women at the waterpark, getting totally soaked in black dresses and hair coverings.  They seemed to be having a good time — more power to them for figuring out a way to enjoy a park while maintaining their version of acceptable dress.

One Response to “TBR: Outwitting History”

  1. TC Says:

    Interesting to hear your take…I will say that while I found that the book did excite in me an interest in the project, and did indeed make me more aware of the importance of Yiddish books, it is in many ways a no-win situation, since I can’t speak or read Yiddish, so no matter how avid my interest in Yiddish books might grow, it’s essentially one I can never really indulge! (I’m trying to learn Hebrew, and I’m not one who picks up languages easily if at all…so the chances of my picking up enough Yiddish to read it are slim to none.) And I’m betting that’s the case with a huge percentage of the people who read this book and don’t already have a handle on Yiddish. On the other hand, I do think it’s a good way to grow awareness of the issue, which I didn’t even know existed previous…and I figure that’s not a bad thing.

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