Recently I finished Aaron Lansky’s book, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. It’s the story of how he and bunch of other folks, mostly young people but with some very important support from folks of older generations, got interested in learning Yiddish and started saving Yiddish books and eventually created the National Yiddish Book Center over in Amherst. It’s a very easy read. Just a delight. And it’s full of passion and humor and sadness and really clear awareness of both the successes in saving Yiddish books and the impossibility of success in saving Yiddish culture (as it was) — and that nevertheless, this 25-year crazy project has been amazingly worth-while.
I wish I’d done something like that with my life starting when I was in college!
Anyway, I highly reccommend it. You will learn, as I did, that at one point (not so long ago) 80% of the world’s Jews spoke Yiddish. (It’s not just that Yiddish was the mama loshn (mother tongue) of most American Jews; most world Jews trace themselves back to Yiddish speakers. Or would have, had Hitler not intervened.) That Yiddish speakers were often auto-didacts, people who didn’t have much of a formal education but who read and learned on an amazing breadth of subjects. What is it that’s said of Yiddish theater? “You will laugh, you will cry…” It’s full of feeling but not sentimental, you know what I mean? There’s nothing treacly about Yiddish culture, nor about this book. Just read it.
And by the way, there’s a klezmer concert over there on Sunday afternoon.
And here’s the National Yiddish Book Center’s style sheet for transcribing Yiddish into English. It’s fascinating and was clearly used in the book. I can’t explain why it’s important. (Maybe because it’s late at night right now, as I write.) But it’s interesting, for sure.
By the way, I think I was somehow taught to look down on Yiddish culture. Not on the language, per se, but somehow all I knew about the culture was Yiddish humor and a few phrases, and the books I saw these in were usually somebody’s bathroom reading. Plus, Yiddish wasn’t passed down in my family, intentionally: On my father’s side they were Zionists, and Hebrew was the language of choice; and on my mother’s side, her father decided the he was an American and his children would learn English and not Yiddish. So I didn’t even have, in my direct line, the experience of the older generation speaking Yiddish so the younger generation wouldn’t understand. Not even my grandparents, ever, that I can remember. That’s something I knew from books, of course, but it wasn’t my real experience.
So all I had was an association of Yiddish with bathroom humor books. Well, over time I have started to learn a little more. There were a few Yiddish songs. Some phrases. I learned to read Yiddish, that is, to pronounce the words as written in Hebrew letters. But what I thought of when I thought of Yiddish are the few communities where it is still a spoken, living language — meaning, ultra-Orthodox communities where I couldn’t live — or avowedly secular Holocaust survivors.
Little did I know. Long before the war, Yiddish was the language of organizing and struggle, of literature and theater — not just classic stuff, but modern and experimental writing too; of scholarship and of world classics in translation (Shakespeare in Yiddish!), of poetry and prayer, of art and music and cross-cultural awareness. Yiddish reading circles — what today we might call book clubs — met for decades in this country to read and discuss literature of all kinds.
Oh. And then there’s the story about Arlo Guthrie’s grandmother, Woody Guthrie’s mother-in-law. Not just a Jewish woman with whom Woody was close, not just his inspiration for those wonderful Chanukah songs that were recorded a couple years ago by The Klezmatics. I knew all that. It turns out that she was Aliza Greenblatt, a famous Yiddish poet, not simply “a Jewish woman.” There’s a great story about how Lansky and Co. figured all that out, after they received a letter from her daughter Marjorie and slowly put it together that this woman, daughter of the woman who wrote a famous Yiddish poem set to music, Fort a fisher afn yam (A Fisherman sails forth on the sea), was also the wife of the man who wrote This Land is Your Land and the mother of the man who wrote Alice’s Restaurant.
Can you beat that? How about collecting Yiddish books from Leon Uris’s father, Abbie Hoffman’s mother, and Alan Ginsberg’s stepmother? (This is all in chapter 11). Yiddish was the background and in many cases the mama loshn (mother tongue) of an amazing group of important American figures.
So nu, just read the book, already.