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There remains for this reader a lot to digest and understand from a narrative which dives

in and out of hundreds of basements, recounts the menu of as many meals, delivers poignant

details of lives destroyed amid ethnic cleansings, and still somehow manages a brief visit to the

widow of Woody Guthrie. Aaron Lansky’s continent hopping adventures to save Yiddish

literature, as recounted in Outwitting History, carry at least two centuries worth of historical

baggage and a veritable gale of references to those writers whose works the author both hunted

for and preserved. Although Lansky’s story hinges on his efforts to build the Yiddish Book

Center, the volume serves at varying times as an oral history, a playful introduction to Yiddish

phrases, and a folio of portraits of the characters who helped and hindered Lansky’s progress.

Outwitting History reaches beyond its purpose as a “book about books” to recreate the landscape

of a culture endangered in the 20th century with a legacy now negotiating a steady foothold in the

21st.

Lansky’s story examines many key elements to understanding the history of the book,

most notably the connection of books to society. The Yiddish literature which he and his

colleagues set out to save provides many examples of the often polarized politics of language

and culture (specifically religious culture) in relation to the preservation of literature. Early in the

text, Lansky and his crew find themselves challenged by a Yiddish speaking bookseller dressed

in Sephardic habits. Despite an attic full of books causing a warp in the floor, the bookseller

admonishes Lansky and company to depart without taking any of what the store deemed unholy

literature. As Lansky recalls, the encounter “was our first introduction to one of the great ironies

of contemporary Jewish life,” with those of the Jewish population who still spoke and taught the

language standing in opposition to much of the literature created in it on religious grounds (25).

The identification of Yiddish as the common language of the Jews made authors targets under
the Nazi and Soviet regimes in the 20th century and served as a demarcation point for those who

practiced Judaism as a religion without wishing to engage in being culturally Jewish.

Conversely, the language served and still serves as a focal point for Jewishness, a point of pride

and a means of memory—especially for those elders who Lansky encounters throughout the

book. In examining the duality of language and culture behind Yiddish literature, Lansky offers a

lesson in the context surrounding the existence and survival of every volume he managed to

collect. The history and stories Lansky details illustrate the volatile dialogue between books and

the languages they contain, a push and pull that often dictates the treatment or survival of a book

as an artifact.

The book as a means of cultural preservation runs as a central thread running throughout

Lansky’s narrative. The people who Lansky collected from, many of whom existed as remnants

of a culture which fled to America from the wars and targeting of Jews in eastern and central

Europe, bestowed their books as pieces of themselves. One of Lansky’s donors, Mrs. Baram,

expressed after her donation, “It is not enough to cry for the past… It’s more important that we

build for the future… young people are our hemshekh, our continuity” (92). To Lansky’s credit,

he took these compliments to his work in stride. Where the author could easily say to his readers

that they would never understand the Yiddish culture who he saw glimmers of in the elders he

met, he instead sidesteps any ego to underline the importance of the words of Mrs. Baram and

her contemporaries. Lansky uses vignettes such as the above to illustrate that the literature he and

his colleagues preserved links future generations to the one he encountered and allows the two to

interact. “A new generation is emerging,” Lansky acknowledges in his conclusion, “unbent and

untrammeled, to recover the shreds of a shattered past, to turn the yellow pages, to discover just

how hip Yiddish really is” (312). The author makes a convincing argument that the books are
survivors as much as the people who donated them, a library of living objects with stories and a

cultural heritage of their own.

The social and political factors surrounding what makes certain books rare constitutes

another primary focus of Outwitting History. In one passage Lansky discovers a particularly rare

volume, Dor-Ber Slutski’s Dictionary of Political and Foreign Terminology in Yiddish, a work

which scholars on Yiddish literature deemed lost as a casualty to Soviet censorship in 1929. The

story behind the book’s existence— in spite of the best efforts of the authorities to destroy all

copies as they were being pressed—reads like a literary Rube Goldberg machine. As Lansky

recounts, the father of a donor happened to visit a cousin in Kiev on the day the first copies came

of the press. The cousin gave the father a copy as a gift which “the American [the donor’s father]

placed in his luggage and carried home to New York” just hours before the press was raided and

destroyed (214-215). This story was affective in explaining how an entire set of knowledge, a

decade’s worth of work by Slutski, nearly disappeared but for a happenstance event within the

frame of a few hours. The recounting of this story put rare books in a new perspective for this

reader and begged the question: what have books gone through to become prized by libraries and

collectors? Lansky’s literary style conveys the immediacy of the history behind books as objects

and underlines the value of the volumes which survive within his field of rare books.

Lansky’s Outwitting History serves as an engaging introduction into the importance of

book as a form of cultural heritage. The collection amassed by the Yiddish Book Center holds

facets of the Jewish experience spanning from literature to music, launching points for a revival

of Yiddish language and culture. In one especially moving passage, Lansky details seeing a

sparsely marked Jewish graveyard in Vilna, Lithuania, the headstones being moved to create a

staircase in a Soviet building. This passage underlined how disposable an entire culture was in
the eyes of several world powers and how much of an uphill struggle Lansky faced in creating

his dream of Yiddish repository. A key lesson from Outwitting History is that books are a means

to briefly solidify culture. The existence of books preserves intergenerational lessons, even when

many voices have not been given the opportunity to survive and provide their knowledge in

person.