Yiddish has no borders. The argot of a displaced people, assembled from bits and pieces of Old German, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, French, and the native tongues of the Slavic lands where the Jewish diaspora wandered in the second Christian millennium, Yiddish at its height was spoken by millions all over the world. Celebrated authors wrote literature in it, political agitators spread their message in it, and films, plays, and nightclub acts entertained in it. Hitler couldn't wipe it out by killing half its European speakers. But the Zionist movement (enamored of Hebrew) and the American dreams of immigrants (who saw Yiddish as low-class) left the language reeling. By 1980, it survived only in the Jewish clubs, homes, and Catskills resorts of the elderly. A serious flu epidemic could have finished it off.
Enter Aaron Lansky, an idealistic student at Montreal's McGill University. In Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures Of A Man Who Rescued A Million Yiddish Books, Lansky describes his early exposure to Yiddish in the back seats of his boyhood shul, and his realization as a politically active collegian that the language could be a subversive force. By the time he discovered that his hometown rabbi was burying baskets of Yiddish books—nobody wanted them, but since Jews consider books to be living souls, they can't just discard them—Lansky was already on a mission to collect as many Yiddish books as he could to supplement the education of language students like himself.
The result was the National Yiddish Book Center, a clearinghouse to redistribute rescued books to libraries, schools, and other cultural institutions worldwide. Lansky spins tale after tale of basements, attics, dumpsters, and back rooms piled with unwanted Yiddish books: For every stack, there's a Jewish grandmother pressing a four-course meal of Jewish delicacies on the collectors. In Lansky's quixotic quest, trucks break down, broken pipes leak on the rarest books, widows have hidden agendas, old men would rather argue than save their culture, and a treasure trove of rare Latin American Yiddish editions waits in Havana, if one could only get there.
Lansky spins his yarns affably and rarely hints at deeper concerns. Recent history has rendered some of his material moot; his adventures in the Soviet Union, for example, seem almost quaintly totalitarian, now that the walls have fallen. But the enduring message of Outwitting History rings on after all the funny stories have faded: Endangered cultures, languages, and memories will not survive unless each generation is determined to rescue them anew.