by Geoff Larcom, Published November 18, 2010
In 1980, while a 24-year-old graduate student, Aaron Lansky decided to save the world's Yiddish books.
Driving dented, old trucks and wearing sweatshirts and faded jeans, Lansky and his colleagues traveled the country rescuing unwanted and abandoned Yiddish books.
"It was a huge and sometimes overwhelming responsibility," Lansky writes now. "How could we take care of so many books, remember so many stories, preserve so much history?"
Yet he succeeded. Lansky and his colleagues collected more than one and a half million volumes - many, he recalls, at the last minute from attics, basements, demolition sites and dumpsters. The effort has been described as "the greatest cultural rescue effort in Jewish history," fueling the renaissance of Jewish literature in America.
Today, the organization Lansky founded, the National Yiddish Book Center, located in Amherst, Mass., has 35,000 members, making it one of the largest Jewish cultural organizations in the United States.
Lansky will bring his remarkable story to Eastern Michigan University on Tuesday, Dec. 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Student Center Auditorium. His talk, entitled "Gevalt!: The Last-Minute Rescue of Modern Jewish Culture," is free and open to the public.
Lansky will discuss the story detailed in his 2004 book, entitled "Outwitting History. The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. "
"It tells the story of how a small group of young people saved Yiddish books from extinction," Lansky writes in the foreword. "It's also the story of Yiddish-speaking immigrants who owned and read those books - how they sat down with us at their kitchen tables, plied us with tea and cakes, and handed us their personal libraries, one volume at a time. The encounters were almost always emotional: People cried and poured out their hearts, often with a candor that surprised us all."
"In a world grown increasingly apathetic, Aaron Lansky's story vividly demonstrates that one person can make a world-changing difference," said Martin Shichtman, director of EMU Jewish Studies. "It is a breathtaking story of perseverance and dedication, a story of determination.
"The Talmud tells us that 'Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.' In his recovery of Yiddish books and documents, Lansky has not only saved an important part of Jewish history and literature, he has saved a vital portion of Western civilization."
The event is sponsored by EMU Jewish Studies, EMU Academic Affairs, the EMU College of Arts and Sciences and Hillel at EMU. The talk is part of a series of a three-lecture series sponsored by EMU Jewish Studies. Talks next semester will feature local novelist Sharon Pomerantz and novelist and humorist Jonathan Tropper.
A book signing will follow Lansky's presentation.