It’s only January and I'm reading what will probably be my favorite book this year. Outwitting History is the true story of “how a young man rescued a million books and saved a vanishing civilization” as it says on the cover. They were Yiddish books that Aaron Lansky was saving, and with that,Yiddish literature, the Yiddish language, Jewish culture, and modern Jewish history of the last 1000 years. No small feat.
Not only is the story fascinating, but it is engagingly told. Only into the second chapter and I found myself laughing one minute and crying the next. It was 1975. Lansky and his fellow Yiddish students were living and studying in Massachusetts and had a hard time finding Yiddish books to read while they were learning the language. Finally their professor told them that if they wanted to find Yiddish books, they needed to go to
New York, to the Lower East Side. That was where Yiddish-readers used to live and that’s where they would find Yiddish books.
Off they go. They drive to the
Lower East Side, park their borrowed van and pass by Guss’s Pickles on Hester Street where their professor had asked them to get him a gallon of half-sours.
“I had been to
New York just once before, to visit the World’s Fair in 1964, and never to the Lower East Side. Stepping out of the van I was amazed at how Jewish it still seemed. Guss’s was just one of several pickle emporia where workers in dirty aprons and rolled-up sleeves plunged their bare hands into big barrels of brine, coming up with half- and full-sour pickles, bright red peppers, fistfuls of sauerkraut, and heads of pickled cauliflower. Open barrels covered the sidewalk for half a block, and the entire street reeked of garlic, dill, and vinegar.”
I also visited the World’s Fair in 1964. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have ever been to the
Lower East Side. Nevertheless, I could remember the smell of those pickles.
Lansky and his friends went to the Garden Cafeteria in the
Lower East Side looking for Yiddish speakers who could lead them to books they could buy. When they entered, the cashier explained the system: you get a card and whenever you ordered a dish the server would punch a hole. You could spend all afternoon schmoozing, eating, and accumulating holes and you’d pay on your way out. It took some explanation and those who were waiting behind got impatient:
“Hurry up! What’s the matter mit you?”
“Can’t you see you got hungry people here?”
“Nu already, for what are you dillydallying?”
“The Spanish-speaking servers were holding their own in the multilingual shouting match. A bit unnerved, we ordered as best we could, piling our trays high with blintzes and sour cream, kasha varnishkes and mushroom gravy, varenikes with fried onions, matzo brei and several other milkhig (dairy) specials. Then we tried to find a table. It goes without saying that none of the five of us looked like your typical Garden Cafeteria customer: We were fifty years too young, we spoke English, and every one of us sported long hair and jeans. But no one seemed to notice. In fact, as we squeezed ourselves into five empty seats at one of the cafeteria’s long communal tables, the people already sitting there didn’t even look up: They were far too busy arguing, engaged in a passionate discussion of some heated subject beyond our linguistic reach, which is to say that they were all speaking in Yiddish and all speaking at once. Hands were waving, fingers pointing, sentences punctuated with heaping spoonfuls of sour cream. It was only when one particularly vociferous old man banged his cup on his tray in a dramatic bid for attention and sent hot coffee splashing in every direction that someone finally noticed the five young newcomers in their midst. The argument came to a sudden halt.”
Once they were noticed, there began a conversation between the young people and all the cafeteria regulars, with the young people carrying out their part half in English and half in University Yiddish in which they explained they were looking to buy Yiddish books.
“We were scrunched together as the news spread and more and more elderly Jews sat down at the table or leaned over our shoulders, asking us a hundred questions that, in their impatience, they then answered themselves.”
I know these people! Where do I remember them from? When I was little, my parents and their friends spoke Polish, not Yiddish. Polish-speakers have a different accent in English, a different inflection, and a different way of organizing sentences. And yet the people who Lansky describes throughout the book are so familiar. They are part of me.
When I was living in
Berkeley I would go periodically to Los Angeles to visit my mom and often took the opportunity to have something to eat at Cantor’s on , to get my Jewish fix. I remember those waitresses with the bouffant hairdos, all of them of a certain age. Probably about the age I am now. On one visit, when I was buying bread at their bakery, one of these ladies told me I should dye my hair, that I wasn’t that old and there was no reason to have my hair grey. What impertinence! What chutzpah! I miss that lady and all the others. I wish I could drive over to Fairfax and get my Jewish fix. I wonder if you can still see those big Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles being driven by little old men who are so short that their heads don’t appear above the back of the driver’s seat and the cars look like they are moving along of their own accord. Fairfax
In addition to telling many wonderful stories of people he met in his book rescue mission (Woody Guthrie’s widow, i.e., Arlo’s mother included), Lansky also discusses why the quest was important and it wasn't only about food:
“The significance of the books we’ve recovered cannot be overstated. For a thousand years roughly three-quarters of all Jews spoke Yiddish as their first or only language. In the second half of the 19th century, as enlightenment made its way into
Eastern Europe, Yiddish gave rise to the single most concentrated outpouring of literary and artistic creativity in Jewish history. Twenty-five thousand titles appeared, including novels, plays, short stories, poetry, essays, memoirs, and scholarship. There was a renaissance of Jewish music, theater, visual arts, film, and more. All this boundless and often contentious inventiveness shared the same underlying theme: how best to live as Jews in a modern world.
“It is difficult today to grasp how much Yiddish literature and culture once meant to East European Jews and their descendants. Uprooted from ancestral homes, cut off from a way of life that had prevailed for centuries, they turned to Yiddish books for comfort and guidance in a fast-changing world. Rare was the Ashkenazic Jewish home without collections of
I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch, and other popular Yiddish writers. We’ve found Yiddish books in every state, in every Canadian province, in Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Australia, England, France, and, of course, Russia and Eastern Europe. Time and time again elderly Jews handed us their libraries with the words “Ot iz mayn yerushe—Here is my inheritance.” In their eyes, they possessed no greater treasure.”
In my home the books were by Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Jack London. Still, maybe because I live so far from a Jewish community, because there are no Jews nearby to schmooze with, and no blintzes, chopped herring salad, smoked whitefish, or kasha (if you think you can buy buckwheat groats just any old place, you are sadly mistaken), maybe because I live beyond the Pale, I miss all this food, and these people, and this culture. I love this book and I’m grateful to Aaron Lansky for having given me so many enjoyable hours of reading and remembering, and for his having taken the initiative to save my history from the dumpster.