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The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books

A-OutwittingHistoryLansky’s passionate crusade to save Yiddish literature began in 1980, when he couldn’t find a Yiddish book he needed for a graduate-school class. He realized that as older Jews died, their non-Yiddish-speaking children often threw out their Yiddish publications. So he decided to "outwit history" by saving Yiddish from extinction. Assisted by a small band of volunteers, he began acquiring Yiddish books from synagogues, schools, warehouses, and individual families worldwide, sometimes fishing discarded books from dumpsters. He founded the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, which today houses 1.5 million volumes. Lansky received a coveted MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in recognition of his work.
Algonquin Books. 316 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1565124294

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Every now and again a book with near-universal appeal comes along; [this] is just such a book. … Outwitting History is an unpretentious, entertaining account of [Lansky’s] odd hunting party and the diverse group of people who aided it along the way." Kimberly Marlow Hartnett

Rocky Mount Telegram 4 of 5 Stars
"In this ebullient, heart-warming account, Lansky introduces the reader to the history of the Yiddish language, and to many of the characters he met as he gathered Yiddish tomes from every imaginable source. A truly gifted raconteur, he will have you laughing, but with a lump in your throat at the same time." Mae Woods Bell

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]he real reason to read the book is to remind yourself of the value of a great idea, Jewish or otherwise (even if you are the only person who has it or believes in it) and of the impact of enthusiasm on productivity. … [E]ven if you can’t pronounce the words nosh, schlamazel, schmutz, or schmooze (and you probably can, since contemporary American is full of Yiddish), the stories here fill up your spirit." Mickey Pearlman

Jerusalem Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Lansky’s testimony, at times laugh-out-loud funny, at times poignantly sad, paints a picture of a fading Yiddish culture. … Despite some slow-moving passages, Lansky’s rare foresight in writing his book will allow a generation of Jews to pass down their heritage through their libraries to a new generation of eager readers." Leora Falk

Kansas City Star 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Part memoir, part coming of age, an elegy as well as a love story, Lansky’s narrative becomes at time a tale of adventure as he recounts the difficulties of rescuing a collection of Yiddish books from Cuba, where resistance came not from the Castro government, but from the remnants of once-thriving Jewish community. … Whatever form Jewish history takes, this haunted but stubbornly hopeful book makes clear there will be a place in it for Yiddish." Stanley Trachtenberg

New York Sun 3 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Lansky tells his story and that of the Book Center with remarkable brio and cheer. … Mr. Lansky’s largely American perspective, though, begs the question he knows to underlie his enterprise: For whom, and for what, is he saving these books?" Jeremy Dauber

Newsday 2.5 of 5 Stars
"What a pity that Lansky, who so appreciates this language with its special genius for deflating self-importance, should fail to use it on himself. At one point he compares himself, unironically, to Moses; at another, he mentions ‘one of my few regrets.’ Could such a phrase even be uttered in Yiddish?" Jacqueline Osherow

Critical Summary

Lansky’s quarter-century quest not only helped keep Yiddish literature from slipping into history, but also provided him with plenty of terrific material for his first book. Granted, a story about collecting old volumes in an obscure language initially sounds less than thrilling. But thanks to Lansky’s storytelling skills, this memoir lives up to the "amazing adventures" advertised in its title; it’s quickly clear why he’s been dubbed "the Yiddish Indiana Jones" and "the Otto Schindler of Yiddish literature." Lansky’s recounting of his personal mission may come off as self-aggrandizing to a few readers. But most will likely view the book as a great tale filled with memorable anecdotes and a rich cast of characters who reflect the endangered culture they’re trying to save.