Book collector recounts journey of rescuing literature

Many books about contemporary Jewish life are sad tales of disappointment and failure, whether it’s the dilemma of intermarriage in America, the volatile search for peace in the Middle East, the declining levels of religious observance or just the “make your own Shabbos” mindset of so many American Jews fleeing communal activities.

Finally, there is an exciting, optimistic and endearing tale, certain to bring a smile to the forlorn and tears of joy to those who love a great read.

Aaron Lansky, the founder of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., was 23 when he and a few friends started collecting Yiddish books as a way to learn the language. Yiddish had long ago faded from popularity, and its speakers were few and mostly elderly. Given the lack of new Yiddish books, Lansky had little choice but to look for used ones.

He will discuss that search Sunday, March 20, in San Francisco as part of the annual S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education’s “Feast of Jewish Learning.”

As Lansky tells it, his Yiddish teacher urged him to post notices in the Lower East Side of New York. He thought it would be a good way to get donated books, given the large number of elderly Jewish immigrants who still lived in the area. Lansky’s little signs in the laundry rooms of large apartment houses led to first a few and then a flood of calls.

As he soon learned, people were not willing to just share their books; with every book came tales of other lands and earlier lives. Soon, Lansky found himself delightfully enmeshed in preserving these glimpses of earlier lives as much as trying to preserve the slim volumes that were placed in his care.

“Outwitting History” is filled with anecdotes from the 25 years Lansky devoted to his collecting Yiddish literature. While each of the stories he was told is engaging, his own story about someone who cared enough about a cause to devote his life to it, oblivious to the personal sacrifice of both time and money that such devotion requires, is even more compelling.

In this age when many of us are overwhelmed with the flood of charitable appeals that fill our mailbox each week, this little volume gives new hope to the thought of homegrown charity. Anyone who has a “cause” will enjoy this tale of success. And to those who miss the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the giants of his era, this book will prove that real life can be as entertaining and inspiring as fiction.

“Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books” by Aaron Lansky (328 pages, Algonquin Books, $24.95).

Aaron Lansky will speak at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 20, at the BJE Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Information: (415) 751-6983, ext. 132, or [email protected].