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Saving a literary culture from the trash

From the dumpsters to proportionally the most in-print literature on the planet.

Mike Selby

He was becoming very good at jumping into dumpsters.

In the late 1970s, Aaron Lansky was on a mission. The McGill graduate student was riding his bike all over Montreal and parts of Massachusetts, looking for books — ones written in Yiddish. His hunt began in 1976, when Lansky was writing his Master's thesis on the author Mendle Moykher Sforim. Sforim's 1884 novel, 'The Little Man,' was the very first modern novel written entirely in Yiddish.

Yiddish was the language spoken by European Jews from 900 to 1900 AD. Hebrew was the language used for reading and writing. World War II practically erased Yiddish. While Stalin killed off the Yiddish writers, Hitler killed off the writers and their readers. The creation of Israel made Hebrew the official spoken language and any natural speakers of Yiddish didn't teach it to their children or grandchildren.

To better understand Sforim's work, Lansky felt he needed to learn this almost dead language, but at the time, not one post-secondary institution in North America taught it. He finally found a professor at the University of Massachusetts (a professor of Spanish) who not only knew Yiddish, but agreed to teach Lansky. Lansky commuted 500 km once a week for two years for his lessons. His tuition was simply a bottle of good wine.

The only thing less available to Lansky than Yiddish teachers were Yiddish books. There just didn't seem to be any. The only lead he had was news of a rabbi who had recently died, leaving behind 900 Yiddish books. Yet when Lansky inquired about them, he was told they had all been shredded. He contacted Jewish centres and synagogues all over North America, but virtually all said any books written in Yiddish had been shredded, burned, buried, or thrown away.

Thus the dumpster diving.

Surprisingly, Lanksy's scavenging produced extraordinary results. In just over half a year, Lansky had filled his apartment — and his parents' house — with thousands and thousands of Yiddish books. Knowing he couldn't continue this way, he was struck with the idea of housing them in a National Yiddish Book Center.

Lansky donned a suit and visited every major Jewish organization across the States, asking each one for funding. All of them turned him down.

"Stop wasting your time" was the universal response Lansky was given. "Yiddish is a dead language; a sinking ship." He was also told to do something important with his life, like visit Israel.

So in 1979, Lansky (now 24) opened up the National Yiddish Book Exchange by himself. It was located on the top floor of a dilapidated factory in Amherst, which he shared with two artisan potters and a woman who sold goat's milk. Using a barely functional manual typewriter, Lansky hammered out a press release to announce his centre's opening.

The first call he got was from Leon Uris's father William. "I have 300 Yiddish books in immaculate condition. How do I get them to you?" The second call was from Marjorie Guthrie, the widow of folksinger Woody. Marjorie, whose mother was Aliza Greenblatt—a Yiddish poet—wanted to know if Lansky was "interested in a collection of books which came from my family?"

And the books came and came, and soon financial donations as well. In 1989, Yale University purchased 10,000 books from the centre, to be used in their new Yiddish language studies program. Also in that year, Lansky received the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant award, for his efforts in cultural preservation.

All this success meant Lansky could no longer hunt for books himself — but he had plenty of volunteers. One was Jacob Schaefer — a holocaust survivor who drove around in a beat-up Chevy Nova hunting for discarded Yiddish books. He has mailed Lansky just over 40,000 volumes.

In 1997 the centre moved to a brand new building adjacent to Hampton College. The new building was much needed, as Lansky had acquired 1.5 million Yiddish books. The centre currently provides books for 600 research libraries in 26 countries. In 2009 the centre digitized its holdings, ironically making Yiddish "proportionally the most in-print literature on the planet."

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library