Engaging first-person account of how some committed young people rescued from history’s dustbin more than a million books published in Yiddish.
In prose that sometimes lurches and jolts along like the overloaded rental trucks that the author and his merry band used to collect books, Lansky unfolds a tale of rare emotion and devotion. He was only 23, in 1980, when he made the decision to dedicate himself to the cause of saving books in Yiddish. He had begun studying the language while at Hampshire College and was shocked to discover that many libraries were discarding Yiddish works by the thousands because so few circulated. His account of his rescue efforts takes the form of an adventure story, related with a breathless and appealing Andy Hardy earnestness. The author and his companions pluck books from Dumpsters in the rain, from closing libraries, from damp garages and basements, from dour doubters, from aging Jews who surrender them like favorite children—with flowing tears, many tales, and much food. They make harrowing missions to Russia and Cuba. But it all pays off: Lanksy now oversees a huge enterprise comprising a state-of-the-art facility, the National Yiddish Book Center, and a membership of some 35,000 supporters. He is digitizing the volumes, virtually all of which were printed on paper whose acid content assures disintegration. The purpose of the Book Center is not to hoard but to distribute the volumes. It maintains a core collection but considers putting books into the hands of readers among its chief purposes, in addition to making sure key titles are in libraries where scholars can consult them. Lansky also chronicles the history of Yiddish, his fundraising efforts (considerably accelerated by a 1989 MacArthur genius grant), and his countless public appearances (including a funny episode at a Catskills resort).
A rollicking ride in company with a man who has performed an enormously important public service.